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Euro 2012 on track, insist Poland and Ukraine

7 February 2010 19:00

WARSAW (AFP) - Joint Euro 2012 hosts Poland and Ukraine on Sunday brushed aside concerns about their readiness for Europe's top football tournament, as the qualifying draw marked their first real-time test.

"It's three years since UEFA awarded the hosting of the 2012 European football championships to Poland and Ukraine," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

"These three years have been a period of hard work in both countries," Tusk told an audience of top officials from the continent's football governing body and its 53 national associations assembled for the draw.

"Euro 2012 infrastructure is being constructed, including stadia, airports, motorways and hotels," the ardent football fan and Sunday league player insisted.

In April 2007, UEFA raised eyebrows by choosing Poland and Ukraine over favorites Italy and joint bidders Hungary and Croatia to host the quadrennial, 16-team championships.

It will be the first time either has run a major tournament and marks UEFA's first big foray behind the former Iron Curtain.

"It's a real first for football," Platini told reporters on the eve of the draw at Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science.

The 42-storey venue was a fitting symbol of bridging old Cold War divisions.

It sparks a love-hate reaction among locals because while it was a communist-era "gift" from Poland's Soviet overlord it became one of the main landmarks in the capital. It is now surrounded by cutting-edged skyscrapers built since the regime's fall in 1989 allowed the free market to flourish.

The hosts put on a gala display, showcasing the charms of their eight venue cities, from the beaches of Gdansk on Poland's Baltic coast to the riverside of Donetsk in southeast Ukraine.

Iconic players from both nations were on hand, including Ukraine's Oleg Blokhin, who was named European Footballer of the Year in 1975 when his homeland was still firmly part of the Soviet Union.

"For sure, we've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Blokhin said.

Platini said he was "absolutely certain that Poland and Ukraine will be a really great European championships".

"There are still two years to get things into shape," he underlined.

Despite the upbeat message, jitters remain.

Ukraine is a persistent concern, amid bitter political infighting and a spectacular economic slump.

"Between the financial crisis and the political problems in Ukraine, it's not been particularly simple," Platini acknowledged.

UEFA has in general been happier about the readiness of Poland.

A European Union member since 2004, it is the only nation in the 27-nation bloc to have bucked the global economic crisis. It has also enjoyed political stability since the liberal Tusk ousted a fractious conservative-led coalition in an October 2007 snap election.

But the duo remain under pressure to meet the major challenges they face in shaking up their infrastructure, notably Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and whose dreams of EU membership and access to the funding it brings are a long way off.

Currently, the 1,900-kilometre (1,180-mile) trip from Gdansk to Donetsk requires serious stamina.

A lucky driver can do it in 23 hours - not counting the wait at the border - mostly on single-lane roads.

It's worse by train: the trip takes 43 hours, at best.

"The project is the biggest since Ukraine became independent," Ivan Vasyunyk, the country's deputy premier, said in Warsaw.

"Ukraine is perfectly able to perfectly stage the tournament and will have all the infrastructure in place," he insisted.

"The government of Ukraine does realise what enormous work is required to stage the tournament," he added.

Poland's Sports Minister Adam Giersz said it was time for the debate to move on.

"We're no longer discussing if a stadium will be ready by 2012 or not," he said.

There have been concerns over the arena in the southwestern Polish city of Wroclaw, where the authorities in December voided the contract with a Polish-Greek consortium, citing construction delays, and chose a replacement German firm last month.

"We've had some issues but we've resolved them," Wroclaw's mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz said on Sunday. "I want to assure you that the stadium will be ready on time."

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