Portugal forward Nani Cunha, center, jogs with trainer Antonio Gaspar… (Francisco Leong / AFP / Getty…)
All was not well in Poland and Ukraine, co-hosts of Euro 2012, when the planet's second-most-important soccer tournament kicked off Friday. And that could prove to be both good and bad thing as the sport moves toward World Cups scheduled in Brazil, Russia and Qatar over the next 10 years.
It's a bad thing because, in the run-up to Euro 2012, attention has been focused away from the playing field because of charges of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and worries about violence in the host countries.
But that's also a good thing because that focus has resulted in international condemnation and embarrassment, much of it aimed at Ukraine.
The French government said its officials will stay away from matches in the former Soviet republic, where France opens group play Monday, and the European Commission said all 27 European Union commissioners would also boycott if Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remained in prison on allegedly trumped-up charges. They have been joined by European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. And the British Foreign Office announced Thursday its officials would remain home as well, following the lead of Germany and France.
Yet that may be the least of the problems surrounding the tournament, the largest sporting event to take place in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Almost since the Euro 2012 tournament was awarded to Ukraine in 2007, there have been widely voiced concerns about sex trafficking, aggressive and corrupt police, human rights problems and the expenditure of more than $13 billion to stage the event.
And that was before a recently aired British documentary that featured soccer fans from Poland and Ukraine displaying racist and anti-Semitic attitudes that included the vicious beating of Asian and dark-skinned fans.
"There is no question we are worried about this tournament more than any other," Piara Powar, director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) told reporters Wednesday in Warsaw.
Patience has run out among the players, too, with Italy's Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent, promising to take matters into his own hands if the hooligans target him.
"I will not accept racism at all," Balotelli, who was once pelted by bananas in a Rome bar, told reporters. "If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail because I will kill them."
Racism has long been an ugly part of European soccer — often spilling onto the pitch. In July John Terry, twice captain of the English national team, is scheduled to stand trial for racially abusing an opponent. And he'll be playing in Euro 2012 on an English team that is one-third black.
But though discrimination has declined some at the club level — partly because highly regarded teams such as Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester United are fielding racially and ethnically diverse teams — competitions between countries often play into the stereotypes and xenophobia of the most nationalistic fans.
At a news conference Wednesday, UEFA President Michel Platini said referees will stop Euro matches if players become the targets of fan abuse. "There is more and more nationalism in Europe," he said. "You can feel this at a number of matches. There are some worries. Some big worries."
Platini is also partly responsible for creating this problem, though, because he presided over the UEFA meeting in which the tournament was awarded to Poland and Ukraine.
So what does all this have to do with World Cups scheduled in Brazil, Russia and Qatar? Well the hope is that those three countries watch and learn from the painful lessons of Ukraine.
This was supposed to be the East Bloc's coming-out party, one that burnished its image and welcomed it into the community of nations as a full partner. Instead it's turned into a costly embarrassment that could further isolate the region.
Soon that bright spotlight will turn to Brazil, where the World Cup will kick off in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. And there are concerns the country won't be ready for its close-up. Stadium construction and infrastructure improvements have been hampered by work stoppages and strikes while costs have soared well over budget, leading some to fear the worst.
Meanwhile, Russia, which will host the 2018 World Cup, could face some of the same problems as Ukraine in terms of racism and political repression. Qatar, awarded the 2022 World Cup, and the only Middle Eastern nation to stage the tournament, is governed under Islamic law and has a human rights record that has been widely criticized.
FIFA and UEFA, the world's two most powerful governing bodies for soccer, argue that by taking major tournaments to new places they are opening those countries up to the outside world — a not-altogether altruistic gesture given the money both groups earn from the events.
On the eve of Euro 2012, however, neither Poland nor Ukraine appeared ready for openness. Here's hoping that Brazil, Russia and Qatar don't make the same mistake.