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Football: Poland and Ukraine overcoming Euro 2012 jitters 
WARSAW, Sept 1, 2010 (AFP) – The girders sway from cranes on the riverside in the heart of Poland’s capital Warsaw, as the vast metal and concrete skeleton of a stadium takes shape, slowly but surely.

Across Europe, 51 footballing nations are preparing to lock horns when the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign begins in earnest this week.

The remaining two, Poland and Ukraine, guaranteed a berth, are meanwhile overcoming recurrent concerns about their ability to be ready to host the quadrennial showcase.

“I think things are progressing in the right direction,” Martin Kallen, Euro watchdog at Europe’s football governing body UEFA, told AFP.

In April 2007, UEFA wrongfooted pundits by picking Poland and Ukraine over favourites Italy and joint bidders Hungary and Croatia to host the 16-team European Championship.

It will be the first time either has run a major tournament and marks UEFA’s first serious foray behind the former Iron Curtain.

That means a far greater challenge on the infrastructure front than previous, western European editions of the tournament, last held in 2008 in Alpine-efficient Austria and Switzerland.

From the outset, UEFA has piled pressure on Poland and, to a far greater extent, Ukraine, to ensure they stick to the timetable for upgrading or constructing from scratch the required stadiums; plus the hotels, airport terminals and roads to cope with an expected 1.2 million fans.

“The decision was made in 2007 to go for Ukraine and Poland, and since then, UEFA has been pushing very hard,” said Kallen. “But this will be a fantastic tournament.”

Ukraine has been a persistent concern, amid a spectacular economic slump and bitter political infighting, although the latter has now eased.

“I think UEFA has shown in the past that we understood the crisis in Ukraine. So they got several chances to get back onto the project. But in the end, they need to deliver in 2012,” said Kallen.

As recently as April, UEFA head Michel Platini issued an ultimatum, giving Ukrainian organisers two months to prove their mettle, amid stadium delays in the capital Kiev, venue for the final on July 1, 2012.

“If there’s no stadium in Kiev, there’ll be no Euro in Ukraine,” Platini warned.

The tune is very different now.

“We are very confident that everything will be ready by the set deadlines,” Platini said last week. “We can consider the ultimatum dropped.”

UEFA’s stern language appears to have focused minds and Kallen said it is important to keep things in perspective.

“I think Euro 2004 in Portugal is more comparable (with Euro 2012) than Euro 2008 in Switzerland and Austria, because in Portugal there was a lot of infrastructure to be built too,” he noted.

“In Portugal, in principle we were doing everything at the last minute. Everything went really well in the end, but we were always under time pressure,” he explained.

Opening a new airport terminal in host city Kharkiv last weekend, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was upbeat.

“We’ve caught up with the timetable for Euro 2012. There’s still a lot of work to do, so we can’t relax. We’re going to step up the rhythm,” he said.

UEFA has been happier about the state of play in Poland.

A European Union member since 2004, it was alone in the 27-nation bloc in posting economic growth last year amid the global slump.

It has also enjoyed political stability since liberal Donald Tusk – an ardent football fan and Sunday league player – became premier after beating a fractious conservative-led coalition in an October 2007 snap election.

“Preparations are on track,” Mikolaj Piotrowski, PR chief of Polish coordinating body PL.2012, told AFP.

“In Poland, nobody’s asking whether we can manage to organise the tournament,” he added.

A survey several months ago found 75 percent of Poles were convinced the country would be ready in time.

The championship is set to kick off at Warsaw’s new national stadium on June 8, 2012.

At face value, that leaves the hosts with just under two years, but the UEFA timetable requires most facilities to be ready by 2011, to iron out creases.

Built on the site of a defunct communist-era stadium near the banks of the River Vistula in central Warsaw, the new 55,000-seater arena is due to be finished by June 2011.

Poland are due to play their first game there – a friendly against Germany – in September 2011.