April 19th, 2007 10:00 EST
Poland and Ukraine to host 2012 European Soccer Championship
“God is Catholic and he is Polish!” shouts Pawel. Together with dozens of other students crammed into a narrow hall of the Szczecin University, he is glued to a small TV in the corner and shakes his head in disbelief. It is Wednesday April 18, 11:39 and an anchorman has just announced that Poland, together with Ukraine, will organize The UEFA European Soccer Championship in 2012.
If one roused from a coma and took to the streets of any Polish city, one might have thought that 38 million people had disappeared. Even in the ever-busy and loud capital, Warsaw, time stopped for one hour. Every now and again the silence was broken by the merry chirping of birds or the siren of a rushing ambulance, but the overall impression was that something unusual was bound to happen. Those who could, remained in a place with a TV, no matter how small; the others had to be content with portable radios or cell phones.
“It was really scary. We got to the bus and instead of being squeezed inside, we had the whole bus just for ourselves,” says Gregory. “The last time I experienced something like this was two years ago, when the pope died,” he quickly adds.
Poles are ready to die for two things: religion and soccer. In 2005, during Pope John Paul II's final moments, Poles packed into churches and squares to accompany their beloved countryman on his last way. Even atheists thought it tactless not to bow their heads while passing churches or monuments to the pope which are abundant in the country is abundant in the country. Two years later, the streets were again desolate; only the most ignorant switched off their TV sets.
On Wednesday, April 18, at 11:39 A.M. the soccer hysteria reached its apogee. All eyes were set to Cardiff, Great Britain, where 12 soccer delegates had gathered to deliberate over which country would host the next European Soccer Championship. In December 2006, it was decided that Italy, Hungary and Croatia, and Poland and Ukraine would be the three contenders to fight for the organization. Among them, Italy was the clear favorite with Poland and Ukraine being left far behind.
But four months later, just as in a Greek tragedy, the strong had been punished while the week could enjoy their moment of glory. The messenger was Michele Platini, the living legend of French soccer, now the president of the United European Football Association (UEFA). When he appeared at the podium with the large envelope containing the name of the winner, everyone took a deep breath.
“The UEFA European Soccer Championship in 2012 will be organized by . . . ” here the Frenchman took a long pause, “Poland and Ukraine!”
Usually stiff soccer officials from the two winning countries burst into wild joy, jumping like kids and hugging everyone who happened to be on their way. The Italians, headed by the former coach of the national team, Marcello Lippi, remained motionless and silent; then, he threw muted accusations of “soccer mafia.” The Hungarians slunk by unnoticed after losing for the third time in a row. Later it turned out that of the 12 soccer officials, eight voted for Poland and Ukraine while Italy got only four votes; Hungary and Croatia received none.
The big celebration was held thousands of miles away, in Poland and Ukraine. In the Polish capital, Warsaw, as well as in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, crowds of people of all ages thronged the main squares to watch on huge screens how Michele Platini pronounced the dreamed-of words.
“Today, I'm really proud that I'm a Pole. I think that the last time I felt like this was two years ago, during the pope's funeral, where you could see hundreds of Polish flags waving on the St. Peter's Square.” said Gregory who still could not believe it really happened.
Ukraine knew how to party, too. Although the news had caught the country in the middle of political turmoil, the Ukrainians were finally united, for the first time in many years. For several hours the division of people between the blue and orange– the supporters of the prime minister and the president– ceased to exist and 50 million individuals formed one nation.
“I'm happy that someone has finally noticed Ukraine. We are a normal European country, like Holland or Germany, but people still think it is the Soviet Union here. The Championship may be a great chance for us.” said Tonya, a 20-year old student of English language from Kiev. I iss mostly because of people like Tonya-– young, optimistic and free of the Soviet mentality-- that Ukrainians, step by step, emerge from the trenches of dullness and begin to believe in their own strength.
The Soccer Championship is also a great chance for both countries to bury their troublesome past. For centuries Ukraine had been the area of rivalry between Poland and Russia until Czar Katherine the Great of Russia conquered the two states and erased them from world maps for more than 100 years.
Shortly after World War I, Poland and Ukraine contended for the disputed lands, which often led to atrocities on both sides. With the end of World War II the relations between the two neighbors froze since Ukraine was merged into the Soviet Union and Poland turned into a satellite state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine reappeared on the world stage with Poland being its most ardent advocate in Western Europe. The UEFA European Soccer Championship 2012 will be the first held in Central-Eastern European countries. This may indicate that UEFA has decided to open the soccer market to poorer regions.
Italians may have wonderful stadiums, luxury hotels and probably the best soccer league in the world. On the other hand, Poland and Ukraine have only five years to build the entire infrastructure from the very beginning. But it discourages neither Poles nor Ukrainians.
A middle-aged woman, who confessed that she had never seen a soccer match before, said, “I know Italians have it all. But we have optimism, strength and the will to make this championship the best in history.”
With such people like Pawel, George and Tonya, they surely can.Please send comments to: email@example.com