With Euro 2012 beginning, the off-pitch political posturing now sees UK government ministers boycotting England’s group games in protest at “selective justice” and “the rule of law” in Ukraine, the increasingly controversial co-host of the tournament. The comments relate principally to the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed for seven years for supposed abuse of office, a conviction the EU have condemned. Tymoshenko spent 20 days on hunger strike, and was tortured and beaten, according to her family. The 51 year old, who lost the disputed 2010 election, is one of several opposition politicians to have been arrested in a move that is widely considered to be politically motivated.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is certain to have much more leg-room in his VIP box for the football than first thought. German Chancellor Angel Merkel made her intentions clear last month, stating that unless human rights improved in the country, she and her cabinet would stay away. The French followed suit, as did the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. In fact, the British boycott is significantly less bold than that of many neighbours, and late in coming. The official statement also cites the “minister’s busy schedules” as a reason for non-attendance, hardly the rhetoric of political hard-ball. In addition, only the group games are mentioned. This may be in rueful recognition of previous doleful displays in major competitions however. The possible lack of an English presence after the pool matches may be more about performance than politics.
A Foreign Office spokesman has been quoted as saying that potential ministerial attendance at the quarter final stage and beyond is being kept “under review”. No doubt. If Roy Hodgson’s men manage the unimaginable, and force their way into the final, it would present the Prime Minster with an awkward diplomatic dilemma. No politician would wish to pass up the potential of surfing some sport-induced patriotism, with all the photo opportunities that provides. Yet abandoning the principals which prevented your previous attendance means moral masochism, and an open goal for the opposition.
Added to this political hot potato are the not-unfounded fears from travelling fans and footballers alike about racist abuse at the Euros, coupled with concerns over potential strong-arm tactics from the patrols of riot police being prepped for the occasion. Former Labour Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe feels the British government boycott could further fuel anti-English feeling amongst supporters at the tournament, whilst fans fear a backlash from Ukrainian and Polish police.
All in all, the Prime Minister might be forgiven for privately hoping the three Lions limp home with wounded pride and empty paws. Against the backdrop of a back-firing budget, the post-match post-mortems might provide a welcome distraction. Even the Coalition can’t be called to account for a lack of midfield imagination and failure to capitalise on set-piece situations.