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Hosts struggle to keep party going

June 21, 2012


A Polish teenager painted with the colors of Spanish flag, waits on the line to entrances to see Spain's training session. -Photo by AP

They are dancing for all they are worth, banging out Ricky Martin's Viva la vida loca in front of an arena roughly equal in size to four football pitches.

But only a few dozen people are watching.

Four days after Poland's first-round exit, Euro 2012 is sliding off the front pages and organisers are desperately seeking ways of keeping party zones which have seen three million visitors in less than three weeks humming.

Officials say 30,000 visited Warsaw's fan zone before and during the final game of the group stages in co-host Ukraine on Tuesday, down from 170,000 for Poland's loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday.

But workers in Gdansk and Warsaw say that numbers even during games have been minuscule for several days.

“The truth is that when Poland lost, everyone left in about 15 minutes flat, leaving their drinks behind them,” says one of the girls on a Coca-Cola stall at the fan zone.

“It was almost like one of those western scenes with tumbleweed in the desert.”

It is a problem UEFA faced in Austria and Switzerland and looked like a risk from the moment it awarded the tournament for the second time running to a pair of nations from outside of Europe's footballing elite.

The stadiums have been largely filled in Poland by a population excited at the arrival of Europe finest players they have seen little of thanks to the weakness of the domestic game.

No Polish team has played in the Champions League group stages for 15 years, yet soccer remains the closest thing the country has to a national sport.

“We are being praised for the excellent organisation of Euro and its atmosphere,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said this week.

“It is just too bad we dropped out especially in view of the huge fan support we gave our side. The players did their best but they were not good enough.”

Ukraine, desperately short of funds and still discussing another bailout with the IMF, struggled more than EU member Poland to build the infrastructure required by UEFA and the tournament there has been marred by politics.

Empty seats which officials claim were deliberately left vacant because of poor visibility have marked a number of the games and Western leaders have boycotted the tournament in protest at the jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

That political divide has not spilled over into mass protests that would embarrass the government, but its efforts to keep the ordinary population enthusiastic were not helped by a controversially disallowed goal in Tuesday's defeat by England.

“Bravo UEFA, it was nice hosting the Euro with you,” popular daily newspaper Segodnya wrote on Wednesday.

Kiev's fan zone was all but deserted on Thursday afternoon, although scorching heat may have played a role. Cars have largely ceased to carry the national flags used to express support for the team.

At least organisers say quarter-final tickets, newly put on sale by federations whose teams have been eliminated, had started to be snapped up at a rate of 1,000 per hour.

“Many Ukrainians have obviously lost interest (but) for me it is still interesting who moves on into the finals. I support Spain now,” said Olexander, 18, one of just a handful of people who still had the Ukrainian flag painted on his cheeks.

In Baltic coast city Gdansk, where Germany's game against Greece has turned minds to the economic crisis affecting many of the nations and fans involved, Monday's game between Croatia and cash-strapped Spain showed gaping holes in the stands.

“It is sad,” said 28-year old Michal Nowosad, a local running one of the city's fan embassies.

“There are less people wearing Poland jerseys now and for the last couple of days the fan zone has been pretty empty, perhaps with only 2,000 people or so. Unfortunately I think a lot of Poles will lose interest in the tournament now.”

In a bid to keep the numbers up, local authorities shipped in ex-Oasis singer Noel Gallagher for a concert on Wednesday, but had to give tickets away free after only a few were sold at 85 zloty ($25).

The Solidarity building on the edge of the Gdansk shipyards where Lech Walesa put the first nail in the coffin of eastern European communism has a sign on it saying “We will win anyway”.

That echoes the words of UEFA boss Michel Platini who said that Poland and Ukraine had “already won” by the great strides the tournament has enabled them to make in football, hotel and transport infrastructure.

But not everyone is convinced, particularly those at the secondary venues for whom the tournament ended after the group stage.

“This tournament has been a disaster for a lot of businesses,” Wroclaw taxi driver Wojciech Kaminski said on the drive back from Saturday's shattering defeat by the Czech Republic.

“What was the point of spending all this money for just three games? We were promised the earth, but since the Russians left (after the first game in Wroclaw), it's been thin thin thin.”