| KIEV, June 8
KIEV, June 8 Co-hosts Poland and Ukraine
struggled to dispel racism concerns on Friday right up to the
kickoff of the Euro 2012 soccer finals, the biggest sporting
event in eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.
Poland were hoping for a winning start against 2004
champions Greece (1800 GMT) in the opening match in front of
their home fans in Warsaw before Russia take on the Czech
Republic (2045) in the other Group A game in Wroclaw.
World champions Spain will begin their title defence against
Italy on Sunday after Germany, also one of the favourites, face
a tough first match against Portugal on Saturday.
Poland and Ukraine hope the month-long tournament will show
the world how far they have come since the Berlin Wall fell in
1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later. Ukraine
wants the finals to help it integrate with the West.
But both countries are embroiled in a row over racism and
Ukraine faces a boycott over its treatment of opposition leader
Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed in a case which the West says
is politically motivated.
A spokeswoman for the Dutch team said players had heard
racist chants from the crowd this week during a training session
in a stadium used by Polish club side Wisla Krakow.
"Some players did hear some monkey noises. That is why they
moved to the other side of the pitch," the spokeswoman said,
although coach Bert van Marwijk, Dutch officials and many
journalists at the training session heard no racist abuse.
Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel told Dutch reporters on
Thursday: "Open your ears. If you did hear it, and don't want to
hear it, that is even worse."
Dutch football authorities did not lodge a formal complaint
but UEFA, soccer's European governing body, released a statement
saying it had a "zero-tolerance policy" on racism and referees
had been told to stop matches if there was any racist behaviour.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk dined on Thursday at the
home of the country's first black parliamentarian, John Godson,
to try to ease worries about racism.
Ukraine has also tried to dismiss such concerns, which were
fuelled by a BBC documentary that showed racist violence in a
Ukrainian soccer stadium.
"There is no racism in Ukraine," the government press office
quoted Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as saying. "Ukraine is an
extremely tolerant and democratic country."
Ukraine also faces an unofficial boycott over the treatment
of Tymoshenko, a former prime minister sentenced to seven years
in prison last October for abuse of office.
She is serving her sentence in the city of Kharkiv, where
she said in April she was physically manhandled by prison guards
and is now being treated for chronic back problems in the same
city. Prison authorities deny she was assaulted.
Britain said on Thursday government ministers would not
attend group matches in Ukraine because of human rights
concerns, and Germany and France are among other countries to
have announced similar moves over their teams' appearances.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he
had no plans to attend, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh
Voloshyn said Ukraine would not be influenced by the boycott.
The controversy has done little to dampen enthusiasm among
Polish and Ukrainian fans and there was a festive atmosphere in
both countries. Matches in Ukraine start on Saturday, when
Denmark play Netherlands and Germany face Portugal in Group B.
Poland were hoping for inspiration against Greece from a
trio of players with German champions Borussia Dortmund, led by
striker Robert Lewandowski.
"We can say without doubt that this is the game of our
lives," captain Jakub Blaszczykowski said.
Russia are the favourites in Group A, although Greece will
be hoping to pull off another upset following their surprise
triumph in the 2004 finals.
The Czech team was boosted by news that striker Milan Baros
had passed a fitness test on a thigh strain. Captain Tomas
Rosicky was also fit after a calf problem.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Ken Ferris)