Uefa deserves respect for daring to be bold
The trip meter in my Land Rover was reset 17 days ago in Hampshire, England, and ticked on to 3,000 miles - 4,860km - as I pulled into Kharkiv, located between the Ukrainian capital Kiev and Donetsk. I had driven up from the eastern-most stadium on this unforgettable adventure, dodging the potholes, the suspect traffic cops and doddering farm traffic along poorly maintained roads that carve through breathtaking landscapes of forests, modest steppes and swathes of arable land, wide rivers and large, sunny, cloudless summer Cossack skies.
Ukrainians have been tooting their horns and waving their yellow and blue flags as they overtake, some shouting 'England!' in reference to my British licence plate and sticker. There is always a great fear that when the hosts are shown the door, the tournament will be shunned by locals and events on the pitch become more sideshow annoyance than a welcome spotlight and tourism boost. But not here, it seems.
I stopped overnight in Kharkiv, an attractive riverside cityfull of universities and libraries and which has spruced up its mix of Soviet-style and 17th century architecture for the tournament. The cobbled streets and plazas are adorned with national flags and even the massive Soviet-era statues seem to have been polished. The only sign that the football fever is abating is the slight lowering of the frightening hotel rates so I treated myself to some luxury, abandoning the back of my vehicle - which, though cosy, secure and comfortable, does not possess a hot-water monsoon shower, mini-bar nor HBO.
The Euro 2012 motto is 'Creating History Together' and it is splashed everywhere. On first reading, it makes for a rather chintzy slogan dreamt up in a Swiss boardroom by suited marketing men who have never wandered out of their corporate boxes and allowed the passion of us ordinary fans to seep into their gilded pores. But there is growing respect for Uefa's daring move in taking football this far east - and for doing so amid all the controversy, of which little of significance has bubbled to the surface. At all the venues there are multiracial crowds. Sure, the price hikes, especially here in Ukraine, are beyond reproach and the roads are shocking, but if it was all super highways and fast trains, would I have passed through all these small, off-the-map towns and hamlets and stopped to chat, to be helped and shown the way - and to watch ordinary Poles and Ukrainians go about their daily lives, before watching world-class football in the evenings?
Not everyone is happy though. A middle-aged woman came up to me in the media car park outside the futuristic Donbass Stadium in Donetsk and pushed a note of neat Cyrillic writing into my hand, uttered some words, clasped her hands together in prayer and disappeared back into a windowless shack I thought was abandoned and housed the stray dogs that roamed nearby.
A volunteer helped translate it and the note read that many people were on the breadline in Ukraine, that corruption is rife and that this football tournament was morally wrong. It went on about land grabs and the self-serving rich being in cahoots with local officials.
Most Ukrainians earn little - the average wage is just over US$300 a month - and few can afford a ticket to watch a game. The ramshackle farm houses by the side of the roads are indeed a world away from the over-priced hotels, limousine coaches, private jets and general pampering on show in the big-business modern game. Such corporate excesses can erect barriers as well as break them down.
Uefa would argue it is the sponsors who fund the game and allow such tournaments to travel to such daring locations. I certainly would not have driven to Ukraine and been made aware of this woman's woes if it wasn't for the money of the big sponsors.
But then there is Tse Chung-yan from Ma On Shan, a 23-year-old graduate in public affairs from Hong Kong's City University. Chung-yan is working as a volunteer in Donetsk and having the time of her life. 'I had an interview with Uefa on Skype and they offered me a place here. I am staying with a Ukrainian volunteer and her family, and I am learning much about this great country,' she said. Asked if she was supporting Ukraine, she looked around nervously and then in a hushed voice said: 'No, England. But don't tell the local volunteers!'
If Roy Hodgson's men make it to the final, then yes, I will stick 'Creating History Together' on my bumper. Meantime, as I head back towards the western sunset and Kiev, I'll tip my sun visor and flash my headlights in salute at Uefa's bold milestone.