Dear fellow travellers
Just over five years ago, on a sunny day in mid-April 2007, Victor Yushchenko paid a courtesy visit to the European Commission. On the same day Victor Yanukovich addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Ukraine was in political turmoil and the key protagonists were busy courting the wider European policy community and international public opinion - each hoping to secure some support for their side in the embittered constitutional crisis that then divided their country.
The following day in Kiev, there were protests in front of the Constitutional Court, but across Europe it was another Ukrainian-related news thread that captured the headlines. For on 18 April 2007 UEFA announced that Ukraine had been selected to co-host the EURO 2012 Football Championship.
Keeping faith with Ukraine
The UEFA announcement was a remarkable one. It seemed at the time a bold and possibly risky expression of faith in Ukraine's abilities to resolve its problems and find a harmonious route beyond the political impasse that then paralysed the country. It was most certainly a moment of sporting idealism, one that recalled the life and work of Jules Rimet, the pioneering President of FIFA who invented the World Cup.
Rimet really was the ultimate idealist. He genuinely believed that the World Cup would foster a new fraternity among nations and an appreciation of the values of comradeship and fair play. The ideal and reality did not always match. For example, Rimet's decision to stage the 1934 World Cup championship in Fascist Italy alerted the soccer world to the dangers of muddying sport and politics.
Over the coming weeks, Poland and Ukraine stand centre stage. Visitors to Poland will doubtless be bowled over by Polish hospitality. But what of the other host nation?
Ukraine is an unknown quantity for many western Europeans. Our understanding of the country is mediated by too many negative headlines in the press (particularly in Britain and Germany). Yet modern Ukraine is so very much more than those dismissive headlines might imply. Of course there are difficult political issues, but visitors to EURO 2012 will surely get beyond those to discover the warmth and humanity of ordinary Ukrainians - folk who, in the main, are as tired of Ukraine's internal squabbles as are many observers beyond the country's borders.
More than free kicks
It is ordinary Ukrainians who deserve their moment in the limelight. They deserve their chance to play a role in Europe.
Calls for boycotts of the upcoming tournament are in our view misplaced. We hope that many visitors will look beyond the football to discover a country of delicate beauty, a place like no other in Europe. Perhaps they will learn of Oksana Zabuzhko and her remarkable poetry. Perhaps they'll discover Ukrainian counter-culture at Lisya Bukta and other remote coves on the Crimean coast. We hope they will count Ukraine's many blessings and its tribulations. They will surely remember the name of one woman who will be far from the football pitch: Julia Tymoshenko. EURO 2012 is a chance for visitors from afar to learn more about Ukraine. It is more than merely an opportunity for those in the privileged West to aim a few free kicks at the entire Ukrainian people.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)