WARSAW, Poland, June 8- Locked behind the Iron Curtain just two decades ago, Poland and Ukraine will roll out the welcome mat for fans from across the globe when the Euro 2012 football championships kick off Friday in Warsaw.
While the decision by European football’s governing body UEFA to hold its first-ever top tournament in the ex-communist bloc is showcasing the hosts, political rancour and concern over fan safety are casting a shadow.
On the eve of the opening match between Poland and Greece, Britain said it will not be sending any ministers to the Euro 2012 group-stage games due to concerns about “selective justice” in Ukraine’s treatment of its former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
Anger is also running high elsewhere in the 27-member European Union over the jailing of the opposition icon for seven years on abuse-of-power charges she vehemently denies.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has vowed to be a no-show for games in Ukraine, as has EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski has called boycott threats “completely inappropriate”.
UEFA chief Michel Platini lashed back, sternly invoking the sporting body’s neutrality and saying: “We don’t play politics.”
Concerns over the potential danger posed to fans by far-right racism and violence in both Ukraine and Poland prompted former England captain Sol Campbell, who is black, to warn fans to “stay home, watch it on TV… don’t even risk it”.
A BBC television documentary aired last month showed football fans in the two countries making Nazi salutes and taunting black players with monkey chants.
Warsaw and Kiev said the claims did not give a true picture of the situation on the ground, with Poland’s organisers even extending a personal invitation to Campbell.
But no trouble has been reported with national sides or fans already in Poland ahead of Friday’s kick-off.
From testicle-biting dogs to keep hooligans at bay to a troupe of merry grannies belting out a cheery, if kitschy, Poland theme song, the country is ready for what Sports Minister Joanna Mucha termed its “greatest ever” challenge — bar the World War II onslaught of the Nazis and Soviets.
“We are extremely well prepared,” added the 36-year-old face of Poland’s Euro 2012 preparations, which were launched in April 2007 after the joint bid for European football’s showpiece international tournament unexpectedly succeeded.
Both countries faced an uphill struggle getting their road, rail and air transport infrastructure ready to cope with the influx of hundreds of thousands of fans — Poland in the relatively better position, having joined the EU in 2004 and not having a Soviet legacy to cope with.
Police crowd-control techniques inherited from the communist era could prove useful in discouraging hooligans, local reports have mused.
Poland’s anti-hooligan squads are armed with truck-mounted water cannon and high-tech sonic cannon capable of inducing involuntary urination, they said.
History literally loomed large over the launch of Europe’s largest fanzone. With a capacity of 100,000, Warsaw’s Euro 2012 fan hub — complete with a stage, large TV screens and medical aid points — opened Thursday evening at the foot of the city’s Palace of Culture.
The gargantuan Stalinist-kitsch “gift” from the Soviets was draped with a huge, cheerful Euro 2012-themed “Warsaw Welcomes You” sign.
Early-bird fans soaking up the party atmosphere were looking forward to the championships making some history of their own.
“I hope that people finally get over the past and start saying, ‘Hey, there’s something really new going on here, not just history,'” exclaimed Jonathan Regaud, a laid-back 24-year-old of Franco-Polish origin, who said he is rooting for France as “Poland doesn’t have a chance.”
“It’s incredible. I think this will be the best period in Poland’s history,” said Miguel Vegas, 44, a Spaniard living in Poland but rooting for his homeland, who happen to be the title holders and world champions.