Affirmative action, soccer style

In 1787, when Empress Catherine II visited Crimea, a minister named Potemkin supposedly had hollow facades of villages constructed along the banks of the Dnieper River. Potemkin had led the Crimean military campaign and wanted to impress the Empress with the value of her new conquests.

Flash forward more than 230 years and, for Catherine II, substitute Michel Platini, ex-French soccer star and now president of the Union of European Football Associations. Platini is visiting Kiev, on the banks of that same Dnieper River, to ensure that Ukraine, which along with Poland will host the European Championship tournament in 2012, is making good progress in this regard.

Platini arrives at the Kiev airport and sees signs touting that facility’s modernization plans, an effort that purportedly will enable the airport to handle the hordes of fans who will be flying in and out for the tournament. But according to the magazine World Soccer, when Platini leaves Kiev, the signs, and other indicia of impending modernization, come down. Ukraine is in terrible financial condition, and no major changes to the airport are contemplated.

While in Ukraine, Platini visits no stadium sites. Instead, he visits Ukrainian officials who assure him that stadium construction and renovation is proceeding on track. Platini also eats well. World Soccer reports that the Ukrainian govermnet paid a special chef tens of thousands of Euros to prepare French meals for the Emperor of European Football during his stay.

Platini says he will not visit stadium sites because the purpose of his trip is consultation, not physical inspection of construction. The man in charge of Ukraine’s preparations for Euro 2012 will later say that Platini did not visit construction sites because no construction is occurring. He will be relieved of his duties.

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The decision to have Poland and Ukraine host Euro 2012 is part of a trend towards awarding big tournaments to parts of the world that previously have been shut out of these events. This is how the U.S. ended up hosting the 1994 World Cup and how Japan and South Korea got the 2002 World Cup. Both tournaments are, I think, considered successes on balance.

The trend also explains why South African will host the World Cup in 2010. Like Ukraine, South Africa reportedly is struggling to prepare itself for this undertaking. And like Ukraine, there reportedly have been some Potemkin style shenanigans associated with South Africa’s efforts. For example, I read (but cannot confirm) that when South African made its bid for the tournament, the government included in its glossy bid materials pictures of third tier English stadiums which were held out as venues in South Africa.

The new approach, in which ability to host a tournament and/or national interest in the sport of soccer take a backseat to political and “fairness” concerns, can be considered affirmative action, soccer style. Like the real article, it may produce outcomes that some folks find edifying, but often at the cost of a diminution of quality and a corruption of process.

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