For Ukraine, Euro 2012 offered a chance to showcase its development as a modern democratic state, free of any Soviet hangover and ready to take its rightful place in Europe.
The “beautiful game” would be the glue to weld these ideals together.
But, one week into the tournament, these dreams are turning sour as political feuds and old rivalries threaten to take the gloss off sporting accomplishment.
In Warsaw, Polish and Russian fans fought near the stadium on Tuesday before their teams’ 1-1 draw, an echo of centuries of difficult relations, including decades of Soviet domination of Poland. In the stadium, a huge flag was unfurled with the highly inflammatory slogan “This Is Russia”.
In Ukraine, still smarting from accusations that racism is prevalent on its club terraces, tension has grown around the fate of its best-known dissident, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Brushing off a boycott by some Western politicians who have stayed away from Euro 2012 matches in solidarity with Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian leadership suggested she might face a new charge of involvement in a contract killing 16 years ago.
The fighting in Warsaw, in which police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and detained 184 people, was an embarrassment for Poland, which had until then presided over a mostly peaceful tournament.
President Vladimir Putin told Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk by telephone that Warsaw bore “full responsibility” for fans’ safety and Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed the violence on Polish fans. Poland apologised.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his government had hoped sport would divert attention from the political imbroglio over Tymoshenko that has incurred Europe’s displeasure.
But Tymoshenko has, in a way, gatecrashed his party, even though she is a long way from the capital Kiev and under prison guard in hospital.
Her supporters are distributing leaflets and T-shirts to soccer fans across the country to draw attention to her plight.
The West’s view is that her trial and seven-year sentence last year – for abuse of office while prime minister – was politically motivated and smacks of “selective justice”.
But, far from considering her release, Yanukovich has suggested Tymoshenko might also have been involved in the 1996 contract murder of prominent businessman and politician Yevhen Shcherban. She herself says such an accusation is “absurd”.
For the Ukrainian leadership, it is Western governments that are at fault for politicising Euro 2012.
Indeed, shortly before Wednesday’s Germany-Netherlands clash in Kharkiv, where Tymoshenko is being held, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle emotionally told fans:
“I hope that amid all the enthusiasm focused on the leather ball, the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko and of all other Ukrainian opposition activists sitting in jail will not be forgotten.”
Mykola Azarov, Yanukovich’s hawkish prime minister, told Reuters in an interview that Western governments had a right to their views.
But he went on: “I would not advise anyone to speak to Ukraine with the language of threats, boycotts, demarches. This will not bring anything positive to our relations.
“If you have questions about politics, ask them. But why mix politics with sport?”
During the match against the Netherlands, two German memebers of the European parliament unfurled a banner urging the release of political prisoners.
In Kiev, an encampment of Tymoshenko supporters has become a factory for anti-Yanukovich propaganda.
Alongside photographs of Tymoshenko in her glory days as the heroine of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution and later prime minister, soccer tourists are invited to be photographed in a ‘fit-your-face’ montage showing a boxer delivering a knock-out punch to the president.
A board bearing her image behind prison wire throws out the challenge: “She hasn’t broken! Have you?” It reminds passers-by that she has been in jail for 315 days.
“A government like this cannot exist in Ukraine,” said Yaroslav Baek, a 62-year-old professor in Lviv.
“I am sure that as soon as Tymoshenko leaves jail, the current government will be finished.”
Her family say that Tymoshenko herself is following the home team’s fortunes on television from her hospital room and was delighted by Ukraine’s sparkling win over Sweden on Monday.
On Thursday, her husband Olexander Tymoshenko, who was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic, said Yanukovich’s comments linking Yulia Tymoshenko to the Shcherban murder showed “a new step in the evolution of dictatorship”.
He accused Yanukovich of spying “like a maniac and pervert” on his wife in a hospital where she is under prison guard.
But despite the huge support that Tymoshenko enjoys, there are no signs that the protests will turn into mass rallies that would embarrass the leadership during Euro 2012.
Her well-documented association with the lucrative gas industry in the 1990s means her record is not unblemished, and most Ukrainians are aware of this.
For the moment at least, ordinary Ukrainians seem to content to forget politics in favour of the exuberance of the nightly soccer matches and all the fun that goes with Euro 2012. DM
Photo: A Russian soccer fan fights with a Polish supporter (R) in Warsaw, June 12, 2012. Russia on Tuesday will play Poland in their Euro 2012 Group A soccer tournament in Warsaw. REUTERS/Peter Andrews
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