Every four years there is an event in Europe called the Euro Cup. It is basically to Europe what the World Cup is to the world -- a tournament of European national soccer* teams. The soccer olympics of Europe. And since Europe is loaded with lots of good soccer teams, the Euro cup is a pretty big deal, attracting attention of soccer fans all over the world.
The year before we arrived here, Ukraine and Poland made a joint bid to host the Euro Cup in 2012 and -- gasp! -- the bid won. The bid consisted of four host cities in each of the two countries hosting matches in their stadiums. At first Kharkov (Kharkiv as it is otherwise known and written) was not one of the four for Ukraine. I don't know why. This was quickly corrected, though, and Kharkov was substituted in for one of the other host cities that ended up getting ruled out.
So one of the main societal themes in our 3+ years in Ukraine so far has been the anticipation and preparation for the upcoming Euro Cup. At first June 2012 seemed like a long way away, but as it has drawn closer, so too has it become a forefront topic in discussion and culture. For example, David and I go visit with students at a local university and the Euro Cup is almost always one of the hottest topics they want to talk about. Surprisingly, most of the young people we talk to are somewhat pessimistic about it. Why would that be?
On face value it seems completely awesome -- Ukraine gets to co-host one of the world's premier sporting events! And Kharkov is one of the select host cities! Thousands of tourists will come, and bring their business, and see our city, and fall in love! This will put Kharkov on the map!
However, in other ways this could be viewed as a disaster waiting to happen, and is by some. Although Ukraine sometimes talks all dreamily about integrating with Europe, anyone who really knows the two knows that Ukraine is not really Europe except in the geographical sense. In terms of culture, society, infrastructure, physical condition of things, attitudes, customer service even... things are just a lot different here. Have been for a long time, and that can't realistically change even for a top-tier sporting extravaganza.
And hosting this event is forcing some things to come to the surface that no one wants to see there. A political standoff leading to boycotts by Western leaders. Price gouging. Racism. Government spending that can't possibly be recovered (this is the thing that university students most often bring up as reasons for their pessimism).
I have a newsreader on my phone that grabs news stories about Ukraine and lists them to me. Lately it's been overwhelmed with new stories appearing almost daily in the European and American press about how things aren't looking rosy at all. Stories like this one from Time -- Why a European Soccer Tournament Is Turning into a P.R. Disaster for Ukraine -- and this mildly titled one from the WSJ -- Europe's Soccer Championship Highlights Differences. And this one from the BBC which highlights one specific problem that has frustrated many but surprised few of us who have lived here long enough to know -- Uefa slams Ukraine 'bandits' for Euro 2012 hotel prices. Just literally in the last 48 hours things have ballooned further as apparently racist altercations have come into the limelight -- this BBC article covers that and sums up the whole of the situation.
I really hope for the best. I'll be here and watching with great interest. This could yet be a great opportunity for Ukraine to overcome the present skepticism and really impress some people. I have seen and heard of what I think are both the best and the worst of Ukraine since living here. Here is hoping the best prevails next month.
*Blanket apology to all non-Americans reading this. Yes, it is actually football, not soccer. Thank you for your understanding.