Poland and Ukraine have put their 2012 European Championship preparations back on track after months of speculation that UEFA could strip them of the football tournament -- although recent visits to host cities reveal the giant task that lies ahead.

The jubilation that erupted in Poland and Ukraine after UEFA's April 2007 decision to award them the event evaporated last year as construction delays with stadiums, roads, airports and hotels in both countries fueled reports that UEFA could hand the tournament to a backup host -- possibly Italy, Germany or Scotland.

But those concerns have eased following a successful meeting with UEFA president Michel Platini in December, after which the former France star said he has "full confidence in Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine."

While progress has been made, recent visits by Associated Press reporters to five of the eight planned host cities indicate both eastern European states still have much to do.

With 3 years to go, Ukraine has the tougher task, a job made all the more difficult by rampant corruption, poor management and endless political turmoil.

Evhen Chervonenko, the former head of the country's 2012 organizing committee, said the tournament "is one of our great chances to turn Ukraine into a European country, but with each day we lose these chances and risk losing this opportunity forever."

Preparations in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, nestled in rolling hills about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the Polish border, lag farthest behind and show just how far Ukraine has to go to reach western European levels.

A crumbling, one-lane road riddled with potholes runs from the border to Lviv, winding though towns and villages along the way. Chickens peck at the muddy shoulder of the road in some spots, while in others dogs wander across the pavement.

The city's airport dates from the late 1950s. The main waiting lounge is no larger than a tennis court and doesn't have a bathroom.

Work has begun, however, on a new 33,000-seat stadium near the city's southern bypass that provides easy access to the main road east to Kiev.

Preparations are more advanced in Ukraine's three other host cities -- Kiev, Donestk and Dnipropetrovsk -- although the trio are all grappling with at least one of the problems that plagues Lviv.

In the capital Kiev, after a nearly yearlong delay, work has finally begun on a $260 million (euro200 million) overhaul of the Olympic Stadium, which is slated to finish in 2010 and be launched in 2011.

"Ukraine has come out of the crisis zone in preparing the Kiev stadium," said Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Vasyunyk, who is in charge of the Euro 2012 preparations.

The venue is to host the tournament's final, and UEFA has warned without a renovated stadium Ukraine will not co-host Euro 2012.

Donetsk already boasts a sparkling new stadium built by the owner of a local club, while Dnipropetrovsk should finish its stadium in the coming months.

But badly needed upgrades to Ukraine's infrastructure, including airports, roads and hotels, pose the greatest challenge.

The country has to add or modernize runways and build new terminals in all of the host cities. Construction work is already under way at Kiev's two airports and in Donetsk, but the Lviv landing strip and terminal is still on the drawing board.

The country has also vowed to upgrade thousands of kilometers (miles) of dilapidated roads that outside of the main cities are often little more than single-lane ribbons, cracked and crumbling.

Ukraine's underdeveloped hotel system is still dominated by shabby and expensive Soviet-era hotels, few of which currently accept credit cards.

Vasyunyk said the country has to build and renovate a total of 300 hotels, about 100 of which are still being designed. But the former head of Ukraine's organizing committee, Yevhen Chervonenko, said that construction of 80 percent of the hotels that need to be built has been frozen due to the financial crisis.

Ukrainian officials estimate the entire project will cost around $30 billion -- 1/3 coming from state coffers and the rest from private investors.

But the world financial turmoil has devastated Ukraine's economy, raising concerns the country may not be able to raise the necessary funds. Ukraine's currency, the hryvna, has lost about 40 percent of its value since September, the banking sector lies in tatters and the economy is plunging into deep recession.

The situation is further complicated by a bitter power struggle between Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko and her former political ally, President Viktor Yushchenko. The two leaders are likely opponents in presidential elections expected in late 2009 or early 2010, and both are eager to take credit for Euro 2012 and control the vast funds set aside for the project.

Despite the enormous challenges, Vasyunyk vowed Ukraine will be on time: "We'll make sure that all objects are ready."

By Ryan Lucas, Associated Press Writer

USA Today


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