Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Soccer brings world 'home'

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KHARKIV -- There was no prouder moment for me than on June 13 as I sat at the Metalist "Spider" Stadium in my home city of Kharkiv with more than 20,000 Dutch and German soccer fans watching a historic rival match of the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup.

Those fans got a taste of my country, something they wouldn't have ever experienced if it wasn't for soccer.

The contrast between the past and the present was staggering. Politics aside, most Ukrainian politicians, businesses and residents came together to showcase the country to the world. When I left Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe in the 1990s, it was recovering from the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and hyperinflation, and facing an uncertain future.

Like many generations before me, I left Ukraine looking for a better life abroad. Since 2003, I have called Winnipeg my home, a city where one in six is of Ukrainian descent.

No ideology or political leader has changed the country more than UEFA EURO 2012 -- one of the top soccer events in the world.

The Euro Cup is hosted only once every four years. This year's tournament was organized by Poland and Ukraine who both came out on top as successful bidders when the countries were building stronger ties with the West.

Ukraine was selected to host this tournament under the leadership of the former pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko. But it was the current president, Viktor Yanukovich, who had to ensure the country met the deadlines to host this magnificent event.

All the Ukrainian cities hosting the tournament, Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk, built new hotels, airports and stadiums.

The plane I was on landed on the new runway in Kharkiv. I picked up my bag inside the new terminal and was greeted by unexpectedly friendly border guards who used to give tourists a cold shoulder prior to this tournament.

It is estimated the Ukrainian government as well as the private sector invested more than $5 billion to bring the country's infrastructure from the Soviet-era stone age to the modern standard.

So far, I've visited Kharkiv and Donetsk, two major industrial cities in Eastern Ukraine. There are stereotypes among many people that Eastern Ukraine is unfriendly to tourists. On the contrary, I was strolling down Sumskaya Street, the main street in Kharkiv, and asking the Dutch fans what they thought of the city I used to call my home for many years.

The most common response I heard was "We love how friendly people are here!"

The Dutch set up a tent camp on the bank of a popular lakefront and marched to the stadium on foot from the official 40,000-person fan zone at the Freedom Square, one of the largest squares in the world.

Any fan at the fan zone could still see once-unimaginable opposites -- the statue of Vladimir Lenin, who was one of the architects of the Soviet Union, and the names of the private corporate official sponsors of Euro 2012 -- including Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Adidas.

There are thousands of volunteers helping visitors in every host city. Tourists can find local maps and sights and get directions when they talk to volunteers. Most of them speak English and are eager to help out. National Railways invested millions of dollars into new trains to connect the host cities.

Despite the trains being launched right before the tournament started, soccer fans can save hours on travel. For example, a new Czech-made Skoda train connects Kharkiv and Donetsk in just over four hours. A regular train takes seven to 11 hours to cover the same distance.

Despite soccer dominating the news, the hot issue in Ukraine remains the power struggle between the government and the opposition. The main opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko is in jail in Kharkiv -- a 10-minute drive from the soccer stadium. The Western leaders are calling foul over the legitimacy of her trial. After the lights at the stadiums are turned off and the fans go home, there is a chance for Ukraine to capitalize on the success of this sporting event and to bring structural reforms to millions of people in Ukraine.

Millions of people were proud and honoured to have invited hundreds of thousands of soccer fans into their country for the tournament, but they have to choose what they want next for their young and fragile democracy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J1

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