Memo to Platini: No reason to fix what's not broken

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am


The balloon went up over Eastern Europe on the eve of the final in Kiev. Thankfully, it was a giant hot air model in the shape of the ultimate prize, the Henri Delaunay Cup, and signalled the imminent battle between Italy and Spain for European dominance. It loomed large over the VIP and Uefa Club's white hospitality tents and the Olympic Stadium.

Serenading it into the night sky was not who you would expect, hosts Poland and Ukraine's favourite musical son, Chopin. Instead, it was a musical genius from Vicarage Road, Watford, England - Elton John. The hypocritical and selective mandarins at the UK Foreign Office snubbed Ukraine's contributions on the grounds of human rights abuses. So it was left to the allure of Queen - the band (with Adam Lambert doing a deplorable job of replacing Freddie Mercury) - and Elton to instil some British power.

Clever stuff it was, too. The fan zone where they played long into the night was like the Uefa balloon - filled to bursting - and many of the younger generation, sporting Union Jack-emblazoned fashion, showed off their English language skills with word-perfect renditions of classic British hits. There was no point trying to enter the zone after Elton started tickling the ivories. Some 100,000 squeezed into Kiev's main shopping area, Khreshchatyk Street.

'I have not seen this many people since 2004,' said school teacher and musician Hryhoriy, referring to the Orange Revolution. Hryhoriy was with his wife Oskana, and their friend, also called Oskana - teachers and parents all, though more into politics and music than football. We stood watching the screen as Elton sang his hits, and then on came Brian May. When he struck up We Are The Champions, the crowd went bananas.

The nearby Free Yuliya Tented City was mobbed. It was forced feeding of politics at a major sporting event, a yellow card offence. But there was little option but to mingle with the activists as We Will Rock You blared out. 'When the revolution was taking place, the streets were packed like this and the tented city stretched right down the street. Maybe in three or four years, when we have next elections, it will be like this again,' said Hryhoriy, who plays in a thrash metal band, and unlike the majority, was not too taken with Candle In The Wind.

'I am not sure if the football has been good or bad for Ukraine,' he said. All good, I assured. Here we were, debating his country's politics and enjoying all that Ukraine has to offer, the good and the bad, and with a belting game of football to look forward to. Surely, the great game has been a positive force in shunting Ukraine forward into the world's conscience, even if by a few centimetres, and it is thanks to the football coming here that I'll be back, I promised.

After the English rockers ended their sets, a group of Spanish flags decked out in colours of La Roja struck up, singing in Spanish to the tune of Franki Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off You and inserting Andres Iniesta at the salient point. Across the sea of people, chants of 'Italia! Italia!' responded in kind.

English teacher Mike and girlfriend Sara were wrapping up their last weekend in Kiev after a nine-month stint teaching at a local language school. 'The tournament has been amazing for Ukraine. It has brought them out of their shell and put a spring in their step. They can get a bit gloomy and put their heads down, especially in winter time. But the football has transformed the place. I hope it lasts,' said Mike.

Earlier, Uefa president Michel Platini floated the idea of holding a continent-wide tournament, with up to 32 teams, because, he said, a single or double host nations could no longer be expected to pay for new stadiums and airports and roads in these austere times.

The distance from Gdansk in Poland to Donetsk in Ukraine is longer than Berlin to London, he argued. 'We have talked about 12 or 13 host cities all over Europe because it could be 24 or 32 nations,'' Platini said. 'We won't need to build airports and stadiums especially at this moment in time when we have the economic crisis.

'It's just an idea but it is an idea I really feel passionately about. The majority of the executive committee think it's a good idea. We will have a great debate and we'll see what the executive committee decide in January,' he said.

Such an idea, while fanciful and perhaps a football fan's utopian dream, is however like the German style of playing - very good but flawed. The first negative would be the effect on the quality of the football, the second would be the lack of cultural identity of the competition plus the adventure and thrill of travelling to new country. Thirdly, why deny the hosts to put on a show for the watching world?

The only sport which has such an abundance of unifying power is football.

And look what such expansion and inclusion did to the European political dream. Why meddle with a formula that works? Poland and Ukraine pumped massive amounts of money into the tournament but the benefits will be long lasting. Granted, some 2012 projects have yet to be completed, but that did not affect events on the pitch. If Uefa is serious about this myopic grand vision, it might be time to send another balloon up.