The ten years since the footballing extravaganza of Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland should have been the time to look back fondly on a memorable tournament.
Instead, it has turned into solemn praise for the stadiums in eastern Ukraine that have been damaged by war and abandoned.
The tournament, whose 31 matches were watched by an average of 150 million people worldwide, was one of the biggest advertisements for Ukraine after it regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since then, Ukraine first saw Russia annex Crimea and support two so-called breakaway people’s republics in the eastern Donbas region in 2014.
Russia then invaded Ukraine on February 24 this year, embarking on a campaign of death and devastation in an attempt to gain control of the country.
Now that Russian troops are focused on the east of the country, with some of the fiercest battles of the war in Severodonetsk and Lisichansk, it was the country’s president who recalled Ukraine’s shining moment a decade ago.
“Exactly 10 years ago, this day marked the start of Euro 2012, which brought together all Ukrainians, Poles and the vast majority of Europeans,” Volodymyr Zelensky recalled in an Instagram story on Wednesday night.
In Ukraine, matches were held in four cities: Lviv, Jarkov and Donetskwhile the final was held in the capital, Kiev.
Now only the stadiums in kyiv and Lviv remain untouched by the war.
Recalling the heavily damaged Donetsk stadium – the former home ground of Shakhtar, one of the country’s most successful clubs – Zelensky criticized the news from Donbas, where Russian-appointed authorities reportedly want to create an independent football league. with teams from the so-called DNR and LNR, Crimea and even part of Georgia.
In addition, Shakhtar’s orange-black team colors are now associated with the Russian ribbon of Saint George, often used in combination with the letter Z as a symbol of the Kremlin invasion.
The devastation of the Donbas Arena contrasts with the images of just ten years ago, when the Lenin Comsomol Park stadium faced teams such as France and England or hosted the semifinal between Portugal and Spain, which the latter won on penalties and went on to beat Italy 4-0 in the final in kyiv.
“It’s only been 10 years and it’s like being in another world,” Zelensky said.
“10 years ago our Donetsk was a strong, proud and developed city. And then Russia came. Now it is a ghost town that has lost most people, thousands of lives and absolutely all prospects.”
The “incredible summer” that speaks of past times
The fact that Zelensky spoke passionately about a past sporting event remains the most inconsequential thing in Ukraine, even in the midst of war, but it is also emblematic of a past that no longer exists, the journalist and author of 1312 told Euronews: Among the ultras, James Montague.
“Zelensky talked about going to Donetsk to matches long before he was a politician, with friends, and talking about this amazing summer.”
“In some ways that reflects that although there were some complaints about corruption when the tournament was there, it was an incredible festival. People came out to watch the football. It was a beautiful moment for the country,” Montague said.
Seeing some of the tournament’s stadiums – many of them built for the occasion – damaged or turned into ruins is especially painful.
In Kharkov, the Sonyachny Stadium, built as a training ground for Euro 2012 as part of the Metalist Oblast Sports Complex, which hosted three tournament matches, has been burned and destroyed.
The 52,518-capacity Donbas Arena, which was a totemic stadium for the nation during the European Championship as the Ukrainian team played its group stage matches there, has been a target of bombing since 2014.
“Every few months you would see artillery shells fall on your field or outside, or get hit by an artillery shell. So it’s very emblematic of the past that it’s gone,” Montague said.
Meanwhile, the fans have become increasingly political, says Montague, who has written about Ukrainian ultras in places like Mariupol and along the Donbas front line.
“Now, I follow a lot of the people I met while writing 1312 on Telegram and Instagram and they all have NLAW and are on the front lines with their own militias or joining regular troops.”
Football resumes in an attempt to return to normal
In many ways, remembering the 2012 tournament is also a longing for the times before the ongoing conflict changed the course of the earth, something that happens with all societies at war.
And like other societies that have experienced war, it could take a long time for Ukraine to recover, with the outcome still hard to predict.
“Even looking at Bosnia or Serbia, we are only beginning to see the medium-term results of what war can do to a society. These things can last for centuries.”
“When it comes to football, a good example – the one I know well from reporting in the Middle East – is Iraq. It was a country that was in civil war, torn apart,” he said.
“There was the invasion of the Americans, there were also sectarian problems. You haven’t been able to play international football in Iraq yet.”
However, the announcement by Zelensky and the national football association that the national league will resume in August could be the biggest sign of a desire to return to normalcy through the country’s most popular sport.
“One of the biggest flares you can throw up in the sky and say ‘we’re getting back to normal’ is restarting the football league.”
“People are incredibly passionate – just look at the recent World Cup qualification attempt, and before that also the World Cup in Russia, which was again seen as an opportunity to lift two fingers to the Russians, effectively,” Montague said. .