Racism fears cloud start of Euro 2012

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 (2:00 p.m. EDT) in the opening match in front of their home fans in Warsaw before Russia take on the Czech Republic (4:45 p.m. EDT) in the other Group A game in Wroclaw.

World champions Spain will begin their title defense against Italy on Sunday after Germany, also one of the favorites, 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 behavior.

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 favorites 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)