Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It is remarkable how much negative news is coming out of Ukraine ahead of the European Championships. In the lead up to previous tournaments most of the negativity has been pure press propaganda and nonsensical scare stories but, this time round, there are genuine concerns about a number of issues in the lead up to Euro 2012.

You sense that many politicians are already manipulating events in Ukraine for their own political ends. This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of a number of high profile foreign leaders threatening to boycott Ukraine, allegedly because of the reported mistreatment in prison of former Ukrainian leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently on hunger strike. Tymoshenko's imprisonment is considered by many Western leaders to be politically motivated but those same politicians will certainly appreciate that that is simply how Ukrainian politics works.  

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso says he will be boycotting Ukraine, while the presidents of the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Italy have also confirmed that they plan to be 'no shows' at the upcoming Yalta Summit on May 11. You sense that the familiar game of Ukrainian political tennis between the EU and Russia is about to intensify once again.

And then last week there were the bombings in Dnipropetrovsk. Was 'somebody' sending a threat to the current Ukrainian government just six weeks ahead of the start of Euro 2012?

Meanwhile, the scandals continue over the killings of stray dogs, infrastructure project cash disappearing into black holes of corruption and, of course, the continued overpricing of accommodation in Donetsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lvov - sometimes by as much as ten-times the usual prices.

With all of the above playing out MTAG - like many of the fans contemplating whether or not to travel to the tournament - had a bit of a wobble last week about our decision to attend Euro 2012. Eventually though, we got our heads together and transport has finally been booked to the Ukraine. 
The plan is to fly into Poland and to then travel overland to Lvov. They are currently asking 40 quid per night for a dorm bed in the city (approximately the same as we have paid for our one-way flights to Poland) but we don't intend to pay that so we are going to hold off booking any accommodation for now. Anyway, the main thing is that More Than a Game is now committed to Ukraine and has flights booked. An itinerary is taking shape.

As our flights are booked it also looks like the English FA is finally about to appoint a national team manager. If it is Roy Hodgson then I feel nonplussed. Personally, I would be happy for a manager to come in on a 'tournament-only' contract. Give somebody a crack at the tournament without the distraction of what might come afterwards. Anyway, expectations for England are very low so maybe it doesn't matter too much.

The news coming out of Ukraine isn't currently very positive...but a little over five weeks from now we will be setting off for the bright lights of Lvov, Kyiv and Ivano Frankivsk.
Monday, April 30, 2012

Speculation is mounting that the English Football Association are close to naming Roy Hodgson as the new boss of the England national football team. According to the Guardian newspaper, Hodgson will speak to the FA today and is likely to be named the new England head coach after terms have been agreed with his current club, West Bromwich Albion.
Friday, April 27, 2012

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has confirmed that there have been up to eight bomb blasts in the city of Dnipropetrovsk. The explosions targeted public transport close to the city's main railway station and Hloba Park, as well as a city centre cinema. Local media reports that at least 27 people have been injured by the explosive devices, which were reportedly left in rubbish bins.

Although Dnipropetrovsk is not hosting games during Euro 2012, the attacks, just six weeks before the tournament begins, are sure to rattle the nerves of Ukrainians, visiting football fans and the Ukrainian authorities.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Dutch TV ad that jokingly warns Dutch women to lock up their football-fan husbands and boyfriends if they are planning to travel to Ukraine is in danger of causing an international incident between Ukraine and Holland.

In the advert entitled 'Keep him home' (see above), the wife of a Dutch football fan googles 'Ukrainian women' and discovers pages full of images of beautiful Ukrainian women. According to Russia Today the ad has 'outraged' the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.

Is the ad offensive? Is it based on reality? 
You can decide for yourself by watching the video above and then clicking on the link 'Google: Ukrainian Women' 
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

With UEFA reporting that 93% of all tickets for Euro 2012 have been sold, it appears that the ticket sales for the upcoming European championships have been a relative 'success'. However, does 'almost sold out' tell the true story about the demand for Euro 2012? And is there likely to be a black market for tickets in Poland and Ukraine?

UEFA claims that it has already received more than 12 million applications for the 1.4 million tickets available - the highest demand to date for any European Championships. Many Poles and Ukrainians are not happy. Citizens of the two host nations accounted for 88% of the demand for tickets, so you don't need to be a mathematical genius to calculate that the majority of Poles and Ukrainians who applied for tickets to watch the tournament in their home countries, have been unsuccessful in their applications.

At previous tournaments some of the largest demand has come from the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, England have struggled to shift tickets to their members and for the first time in decades much of England's allocation remains unsold.

The highest demand from abroad has come from Germany, Russia and - most surprisingly of all - from Switzerland. Reports from Germany suggest that around 20,000 Germans are expected to travel to the tournament, with thousands more only put off by horror stories in the German press about price gouging in Ukraine.

And what about Switzerland? Do its fans realise they didn't qualify for Euro 2012? How is it possible that more Swiss football fans want to travel to Euro 2012 than those from traditionally well-supported nations such as Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and England? Answers on a postcard please.

Will there be a black market in Poland and Ukraine? MTAG expects there to be plenty of empty seats for a number of the group matches, especially in Ukraine. It will be the usual case of fans buying tickets months in advance and subsequently being unable to travel. Also expect hundreds, if not thousands, of corporate ticket holders to be 'no shows', especially in eastern Ukraine. Those that travel without tickets, and are patient, shouldn't have much problem picking up face value tickets from fellow fans.

The only exceptions to this, as we see it, will likely be one or two of the high profile matches and games involving Germany, Poland, Ukraine and perhaps Ireland. We predict it could likely be difficult to get in to Germany v Holland, Poland v Russia and Ireland v Italy.

Once we reach the quarters it is our experience of previous tournaments that it becomes much easier to pick up tickets for matches as many football fans book up their foreign holidays for the games their team is certain to play in the first round and often leave just as the quarter finals begin.

MTAG expects a considerable number of ticketless fans to travel to Poland but doubts this will be the case with Ukraine, except for the matches played in Lviv, in western Ukraine. After all, how many fans are going to go to all the expense of buying pricey flights and hotels in Ukraine and turn up without tickets? We doubt it will be many.

It is only the price discrepancy between 'category 3' tickets and 'cat 1 & 2s' that will lead to a general black market in tickets. With cat 3 tickets available for as little as 30 euro, you can expect some people who hold tickets to be happy to make a little cash for themselves. We don't suppose a visiting fan from Germany or Holland will be too unhappy about paying 100 euro for a 30 euro ticket if it costs a similar price for a category 2 match ticket for the same match.

In conclusion, we expect Euro 2012 to be declared 'SOLD OUT' shortly before the tournament begins, but predict there will be plenty of empty seats at the majority of the matches played in Poland and Ukraine.

Six England fans sleeping inside a 'tent' in sub-zero temperatures on the night of England v Germany in South Africa in 2010. Sometimes you have to make do if you want to keep to budgets at football tournaments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

It is getting to the point where those of us who are planning to attend Euro 2012 really need to start coming up with some concrete plans. The question is: Is it really worth the effort and expense of going?

Having been lucky enough to attend five FIFA World Cups and five UEFA European Championships, you get used to the pre-tournament media scare stories: 

Japan 2002 they told you that only a millionaire could afford to travel to the World Cup. It turned out though that you could find accommodation for as little as 15 pounds per night and a tournament train pass was as cheap as chips. I feel sorry for anybody who had planned to go to Japan but was subsequently put off by the media - it was a truly unforgettable experience.

Similar things could be said about the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Apparently - if you believed the press - hundreds of football fans were likely to be murdered in one of the world's most dangerous countries (total death toll: zero). And if you didn't get your comeuppance from the locals then South Africa's snakes (they were hibernating), virulent diseases, dangerous roads (often better than German autobahns), or an act of terrorism would spell the end for any football fan 'foolish' enough to travel. As it turned out, South Africa proved to be safer (and often felt safer) than a fortnight's holiday in Manchester.

But what about the Euro 2012 scare stories? Does MTAG give any of them credence? 
MTAG previously visited Ukraine in 1999 and 2002 and would rate those trips as being right up there with some of our best travel experiences. Not only was Ukraine untouched and completely bereft of Western tourists but during your time in the country you sometimes felt like you had stepped in to a time machine and travelled back 50 years in time. Ukraine was incredibly exciting and incredibly 'real'. One thing I do recall though was the ridiculously high prices of substandard hotels. It wasn't uncommon for a decaying Soviet hotel passing itself off as five-star to charge guests 200 or 300 dollars per night. Fortunately, when I visited in 1999, my accommodation was paid for by the British tourism agency that I worked for at that time.

Fast forward to 2012 and it doesn't come as any surprise to MTAG to discover that hotels in central Kyiv and Donetsk are asking absurd prices for a night under their roofs; Ukraine's hotels have always been ridiculously expensive. The problem is though that anybody attending Ukraine Euro 2012 seems to have next to no choice when it comes to budget options. Because while there were those who travelled to Japan and South Africa and spent 200 euro per night on a hotel room, the normal fans got by on a nightly budget closer to 20 euro. It appears that that kind of budget in Ukraine simply isn't, in general, a possibility, and this is where the problems begin...

It is less than seven weeks until the tournament kicks off. MTAG has a ticket for France v England on June 11 in Donetsk. Forget trying to find a hotel in the city for the night of the match; not unless you are willing to cash out well over one hundred euros. But what about camping? How much would you expect to pay for a place in a tent? 10 euro? 20 euro if they are really taking the pi$$? Try 84 euro! Yes, a bed in a tent in one particular camp site on the night of England v France will set you back almost 100 euro. MTAG simply cannot afford those kinds of prices and certainly wouldn't pay that kind of money simply on principle. Frankly, it will be cheaper to sit in a bar all night and get the first train out the following morning.

South Africans on the way to England v Germany in Bloemfontein. You can't always be choosy about the mode of transport you use when you attend a world cup or a European championships.

And how about transport? Well, good luck to foreign fans who don't read any Cyrillic and who don't speak a word of Russian or Ukrainian. Yes, there will be volunteers and signs in English, but once you wander off the beaten track life isn't going to be easy. Let's not also forget that the distance between say Kyiv and Donetsk is approximately 600 kilometres. To put this in context, this is roughly the same distance as it is between London and Aberdeen, in north Scotland. Imagine therefore trying to get from London to northern Scotland on a fleet of 40-year-old buses and on roads that sometimes have more pot holes than asphalt. None of this is going to be easy, that is for certain...

...but will it be worth the effort? Probably, yes, but only time will tell. It looks like it is going to be a case of making it all up as you go along (as was usually the case in South Africa). MTAG will find places to stay and will somehow find a way of getting from point A to point B. 

And, as was the case when we previously visited Ukraine in 1999 and 2002, More Than a Game is expecting the whole experience to be exciting and very, very 'real'. It is time though to start working out how to get to Ukraine within budget. A flight from the UK to Poland and then a bus to Kyiv? A train from Latvia through Belarus? 
Monday, April 23, 2012

It is the opinion of More Than a Game that football can unite and be a vehicle for positive change  all over the world. This has been our first-hand experience in countless countries around the globe and was the driving force behind the creation of this website.

We are also big believers in synchronicity - those single events or 'coincidences' that occur together in a meaningful way and, if acted upon, lead to positive change. The reason MTAG mentions Synchronicity is because through it we have become aware of the excellent work of an NGO called 'The Collective'. 

The Collective is a not-for-profit organisation placing and supporting talented and enthusiastic volunteers in challenging projects around Sierra Leone. MTAG has become a big fan of the good work carried out by this organisation and would like to champion its projects now and in the future. 

We have invited Joe Coggins, who volunteered in Sierra Leone, to guest blog for MTAG and to tell us about his experiences:

Guest blog by Joe Coggins telling of his experiences in Sierra Leone:

“You are going where? To work for who?”

Sierra Leone.

Craig Bellamy.  Yes, that Craig Bellamy.

Placed by social enterprise The Collective Sierra Leone – which matches volunteers with charities in the West African nation – I packed my bags and left England in early January. The challenge was to work as a consultant for the Liverpool and Wales star’s pioneering football foundation.

Started over three years ago, the Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF) is unique. It runs a national boys football league for under-14s, and the first female league in Sierra Leone, for girls under-18. 2,000 players. Over 50 teams.  

Those excelling graduate to the Bellamy academy, a complex dedicated to footballing excellence, boasting one of only two grass pitches in the country (the other is the national stadium). Top performers here graduate to professional teams and scholarships at western universities.

However, despite its football credentials, the priority of the CBF is not the game. It is education and community development, in what remains, despite its natural beauty, one of the least developed countries in the world.

The structure of the CBF league is crucial. Two simple rules apply: (i) Players can only take part in matches if they attend school (ii) Each team has to complete a minimum of two community projects every month. This is reflected in the league’s points system, with equally weighting for match results, school attendance, projects and fair play.

The impact is there for all to see. School attendance for CBF players is over 90% compared to a national average of around 30%. Over 600 community improvement projects have been completed since 2009.

In addition to supporting young people, the Foundation also employs more than 100 Sierra Leone nationals. Each team is run by a local manager and coach. The Foundation’s partnership with The Collective Sierra Leone sees these staff given weekly workshops, to build their professional skills.

The CBF is highly respected in Sierra Leone. Walk down a street with a manager, coach or group of players and you are accompanied by chants of “Bellamy, Bellamy”. And it is not just among the football fanatics that it finds its popularity. Government, local business, media and NGOs have all supported the Foundation’s work. Parents, many of them at first skeptical about their children being taken away from household duties, also sing its praises. “You are the only people who tell me if my child is going to school” was recurring feedback at a recent parents evening in the city of Makeni.

And Bellamy himself? Given his persona it is unsurprising to find out that he is no silent partner. He has a hands-on approach, which has been fundamental to the Foundation’s success. As well as personal investment of over seven figures and counting, weekly contact with staff and regular visits means every aspect of the Foundation is shaped by his exacting standards. 

Sierra Leone remains politically complex, underdeveloped, with poverty and corruption rife. What is most striking is the lack of opportunities for young people. Subsistence is the watchword. 

However, it is a beautiful country. The people are enthusiastic and welcoming. Football is a religion. 

And through football and education the horizons of a small, but ever growing group of young people are starting to broaden. For this the Craig Bellamy Foundation must be commended. And it must remain committed to its cause if its good work to date is to have a lasting impact. 

You can read more about The Collective and find out how you can volunteer by following this link.

Read more about the projects we like.
Monday, April 23, 2012

Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson has hit out at Team GB's selection process for the 2012 Olympic Games after being told that Wayne Rooney is among the 80 players short-listed to play in the British squad. As Rooney is likely to play in England's Euro 2012 squad in Ukraine and Poland it would not be possible for Rooney to play at the Olympics anyway as any English player included in the Euro 2012 squad cannot feature in the Team GB squad.

Ferguson said:  "It's ridiculous, it is utter chaos. There are so many complications... We have agreed that any player who boards the plane to the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine will not be considered for selection to Team GB,"

Despite being in the running for the England national football team manager's job, Stuart Pearce will manage Team GB in London in July, adding yet further uncertainty to an already confused situation.

There is a great deal of speculation that David Beckham will be one of the three over-aged players selected for Team GB and could well captain the side in their attempt to win a gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
Friday, April 20, 2012

Memories of the 1992 European Championships, held in Sweden. Proof that you never really know who might win the European Football Championships:
Thursday, April 19, 2012

Poland's Labour Minister told Bloomberg yesterday that Euro 2012 has helped create jobs in Poland and has been partly responsible for the Polish economy showing positive growth this year.

Poland's economy is expected to grow faster than nearly all of its European counterparts this year with Euro 2012 infrastructure and tourism jobs also helping to reduce Poland's unemployment rate to around 13 percent at a time when austerity measures in other European countries have lead to increases in their unemployment figures.

“Euro 2012 has already given an impulse and will help the labor market during the tournament. I also count on the effect lasting to some extent, keeping some tourism-related jobs.” Labor Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz told Bloomberg.