The buildup to Euro 2012 has been mired in stories of racist abuse but now the action starts as Ukraine take on Sweden
It has been a while – 1,881 days, to be exact – since Michel Platini, the Uefa president, announced the co-hosts of Euro 2012 at the City Hall in Cardiff but the wait is nearly over for Ukraine. The former Soviet state has already played host to a couple of matches, in Kharkiv and Lviv, but 11 June, in the capital city of Kiev, was the date ringed on calendars in this country since the start of the year. Ukraine face Sweden at the revamped Olympic Stadium on Monday night and a proud nation expects.
Nothing has been straightforward about the lead up. Damning footage of racist abuse in Ukraine emerged on Panorama, Platini has described hotel owners as "bandits and crooks" for hiking prices to extortionate levels and a number of European leaders, as well as the British government, announced they would be boycotting the group stage matches in protest at the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian opposition leader.
To compound matters, highly controversial comments about black players made by Oleh Blokhin, the Ukraine coach, in 2006, have resurfaced in recent weeks. "The more Ukrainians there are playing in the national league, the more examples there are for the younger generation," Blokhin said at the time. "Let them learn from Blokhin or [Andriy] Shevchenko, not some zumba-bumba who they took off a tree, gave two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league."
Blokhin was annoyed when asked at his press conference on Sunday about the fact that he had been outspoken about foreign players in the past and he refused to let the reporter finish the question. "I don't want to talk about it," he interjected. "There is no racism in Ukraine. Tell me which players have been offended? This is a political theme and I don't think that it can be connected with football. I really think if there are incidents, they won't be in Ukraine. The most important thing is two teams will play football."
Even the team's preparations have been chaotic. Ukraine were defeated in their last two friendlies, lost two goalkeepers to injuries and another through a doping suspension, and suffered a bout of food poisoning last Tuesday that struck down 10 players and prompted Blokhin to suggest "it may have been sabotage". They also have an unbalanced squad who look dangerous going forward but like an accident waiting to happen at the back.
Throw into the mix the pressure that accompanies playing on home soil in the biggest sporting event to be staged here in Ukraine's post-communist history and it easy to see why Blokhin sounds so concerned. "It is like a tornado that could throw us in an unknown direction," he said. "The expectations are a lot higher, both for the fans and for the players. This doesn't help the team or the fans. So, we need to look at things realistically and tell the fans that we are not in the best situation. I know this team will fight, that it will try, but I really cannot predict how it will turn out."
Viktor Leonenko, the former Ukraine international who now works as a television pundit, believes it will be a "miracle" if Blokhin leads his country into the quarter-finals from a group containing England and France as well as the Swedes. Yet, as Blokhin has picked up on, the mood around the country is much more sanguine. The vodka glass is seen as half full rather than half empty here, and with patriotic home support behind the team, the public see no reason why Blokhin should not be able to emulate what he achieved in 2006, when Ukraine reached the World Cup quarter-finals.
That was a momentous moment for Ukraine, although it is easy to overlook the huge contribution the former Soviet republic made to the USSR team before the collapse of communism. Under the guidance of the revered Valeriy Lobanovskiy, USSR reached the final of the 1988 European Championship and eight Dynamo Kyiv players lined up against the outstanding Holland team who triumphed. Three of Ukraine's most famous footballing sons – Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Shevchenko – are Ballon d'Or winners, which illustrates why this is a nation where the sport has such a special place.
Shevchenko remains the No1 attraction here, and it would be a fairytale ending for the former Dynamo Kyiv ball-boy if he inspires Ukraine at the end of a 16-year international career. There is, though, a sense that too much could be expected from a player who has reached that point in his career where his body is no longer as sharp as his mind, and it is possible that the country's greatest hope will be provided by Andriy Yarmolenko, a 22-year-old winger who has had to cope with being labelled "the new Shevchenko" since he was 17.
Either way, there will be no shortage of motivation for Blokhin's players, including huge financial bonuses. The Ukraine squad will share €500,000 (£410,000) for each group stage win, €250,000 for a draw, a further €2m for reaching the quarter-finals, the same again for a place in the semi-finals, another €3m for getting to the final and €4.5m on top if they end up parading the trophy around the Olympic Stadium on 1 July.
"We have better financial incentives in comparison with the premiums of other teams," the Ukraine FA president, Hryhory Surkis, was quoted as saying on the Ukrainian Euro 2012 committee website.
Not that any of these figures should come as a surprise. This is a country that has splurged £9.3bn on preparations for these finals with a view to not only putting on a spectacle but also to laying the foundations for a new tourism industry. For the moment, though, the focus is on football. "We think that we are like a good horse," Blokhin said. "We are waiting for the start. But I don't think it will be an easy game for us."