x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

All dressed up, nowhere to go

It was an evening of mind-numbing oratory and breathtaking choreography.

Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the Donbass Arena in Donetsk last Saturday. The newly-built stadium is supposed to host matches at Euro 2012, but Uefa have yet to make a final decision and it is reported that the city may miss out due to lack of infrastructure.
Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the Donbass Arena in Donetsk last Saturday. The newly-built stadium is supposed to host matches at Euro 2012, but Uefa have yet to make a final decision and it is reported that the city may miss out due to lack of infrastructure.

It was an evening of mind-numbing oratory and breathtaking choreography. Viktor Yanukovich, the locals' preferred candidate for the presidency, was cheered almost as much as Beyonce, and even the actual president, Viktor Yushchenko, once the initial jeers had died away, made sufficient appeal to Donetsk pride to be applauded from the podium. Whatever the day-to-day reality of life in eastern Ukraine, as recession bites, the mines and steelworks close, and unemployment rises, it was possible last Saturday, after the grand opening of the 50,000-capacity Donbass Arena, to believe in a bright future with the new stadium at the heart of it.

This is the US$400million (Dh1,468m) realisation of the dream Rinat Akhmetov, local oligarch and owner of Shakhtar Donetsk, had in 1999 when he went to see Ukraine play France in Paris. He fell in love with the Stade de France, a decided to gift a similar facility to his home town. Just across from the road from the Donbass Arena is the Olympyskiyi Stadium, where Shakhtar have played until now and where Serhiy Bubka first demonstrated his prowess in the pole vault. These days it is dwarfed by its bigger neighbour, which looms oddly over it like a weird blue spaceship, but it too was once a formidable venue, and it seems fitting that its last major game was the final of the European Under 19 championship, in which Ukraine beat England.

Potential, the message seemed to be, is beginning to be untapped. The senior national team hosts Andorra on Saturday before a vital trip to Belarus on Wednesday, knowing that if they can match Croatia's results from here on in, they have the head-to-head advantage in the battle for a play-off spot; a second successive qualification for the World Cup remains within their grasp. As the Shakhtar squad that won last season's Uefa Cup - the first tangible evidence of Ukraine's rise - was presented to the crowd on Saturday, though, there was one very noticeable absentee from the side that beat Werder Bremen to clinch the trophy.

Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the 22-year-old centre-back and national captain, was in Barcelona to finalise a £22m (Dh130m) move to the European champions. Yet even that can be seen as a positive: as Andriy Shevchenko returns home, joining Dynamo Kiev from Chelsea, so another possible great heads off to the big leagues of the west. But behind all the glitz and the self-congratulation, there remains one nagging question: that of the 2012 European Championship - which the Ukraine are co-hosting with Poland - and whether the Donbass Arena will, after all, host a semi-final.

The stadium may well be, as Yushchenko said, "the best in Europe" but the problems of infrastructure remain. The airport in Donetsk consists of just one departure gate, while a survey last October reported only 583 hotel rooms in the city. Uefa will make a final decision on venues for the tournament in November, with the suggestion being they are considering a compromise agreement under which only two Ukrainian cities - probably Kiev and Lviv - would be used, with Krakow perhaps being added to the list of Polish venues, which at present comprises Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk and Wroclaw.

"The stadium is terrific," said Martin Kallen, the Swiss director of Uefa's 2012 committee. "But there is a lot of work to be done to make Uefa confident. We have guarantees from the government about funding for the airport, but we need to see work begin and for the hotels there is a lot to do. It's not looking as good as we had hoped." The Polish media has been scornful of Ukraine from the start, but the comment in one paper this week that Donetsk airport resembles in run-down bus station in a provincial Polish town is not too far wide of the mark.

The fact that the international media visiting the opening had to fly to Kiev after the event because of the shortage of hotel rooms certainly does not inspire great faith, and that lack of infrastructure could also count against Donetsk's bid to host either the Champions League or Europa League final in 2012. The great worry at the moment is that the Donbass Arena could be a great venue left adrift by the lack of a support structure to sustain it.

jwilson@thenational.ae