Ukrainian capital prepares for grand Euro finale
KIEV (Reuters) - Swarming with foreign soccer fans, Kiev prepared on Sunday to host the European championship final between holders Spain and Italy and bring an end to the biggest sports event in Eastern Europe since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
About 342,000 foreigners arrived in the Ukrainian capital on the eve of the Euro 2012 showpiece. Thousands strolled through the fan zone in the city centre, snapping up souvenirs including football shirts with some shops already out of Italy jerseys.
Spanish fans, though, are set to outnumber the Italians 11,000 to 5,000 at the stadium when the game kicks off at 21.45 local time (1845 GMT), according to tournament organizers.
Spain can become the first team to win three major tournaments in a row, having lifted the European Championship trophy in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010, while four-times world champions Italy are bidding for their second Euro crown.
The public fan zone, which is expected to accommodate up to 140,000 people on Sunday night, held a successful rehearsal on Saturday when about 100,000 fans attended a joint gig by Elton John and Queen. Police reported no disturbances.
Weathermen expected no nasty surprises - such as the thunderstorm which interrupted Ukraine's group game with France in another host city Donetsk - on Sunday evening with a comfortable temperature of 15-17 degrees Celsius forecast.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will also have been cheered by the planned attendance of several foreign leaders, including the prime ministers of Spain and Italy, at the game.
No European leaders attended the previous Euro 2012 games staged in Ukraine with a number of politicians choosing to boycott the matches in protest against the jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko last October.
Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski, whose nation has co-hosted the soccer championship, and Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, were also due to attend the match.
One VIP guest, however, could become a headache for the hosts. The Belarussian ambassador to Ukraine said this week his president Alexander Lukashenko, a pariah among European leaders, would also visit Kiev to see the final.
The European Union has introduced travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and his officials, accusing them of human rights violations after a crackdown on opposition in the former Soviet republic throughout 2011.
Lukashenko's office declined to elaborate on his plans on Sunday. It was not clear if he was still going to attend the game and to meet Yanukovich or any of his other guests.
Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians enjoyed the last day of the three-week soccer festival - and their time in the limelight - having been hospitable hosts despite fears of racism and crime.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Ken Ferris)