POZNAN (Reuters) - Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine faced a boycott over its record on democracy and human rights on Monday while Poland braced itself for a planned march by about 5,000 Russian fans through Warsaw.
On the pitch, Spain and Portugal came up with excuses after failing to win their opening matches, the holders blaming a dry pitch and their Iberian neighbors an uncooperative ball.
Sweden, which has been sharply critical of the prosecution and jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said it was not sending any government ministers to their Group D match against the home side at Kiev’s Olympic stadium (1845 GMT).
England and France, Sweden’s European Union allies, were due to play in Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk (1600) without any of their government officials present in a snub to President Viktor Yanukovich.
All three countries will be represented by ambassadors.
The opening match for Ukraine will bring some cheer to the soccer-mad former Soviet republic whose image has been hurt by bad publicity over the Tymoshenko case and racism allegations.
Sports Minister Borys Kolesnikov on Monday exhorted Ukrainians to hang national flags from their windows and trail streamers from their cars to boost the national side, ranked a modest 52nd in the world.
Tuesday’s Group A match coming up in Warsaw between co-hosts Poland and Russia was raising concerns across the border.
About 5,000 Russian fans wanted to march to the stadium on Tuesday and their representatives told Warsaw officials they wanted only to celebrate “the festival of football”, the director of Warsaw’s security and crisis unit said.
“I’ve asked them for peaceful behavior, not to provoke anyone in the streets,” Ewa Gawor told a news conference. “We want this festival to be peaceful. We have had such assurances, nevertheless we will be watchful.”
European soccer’s governing body UEFA has told Warsaw to expect about 20,000 Russian fans in the city, spread across the stadium and the fan zone.
The Russian FA has since appealed to its fans to behave.
The two neighbors have always had complicated relations strained by historical animosity and the Soviet domination after World War II.
A plane crash that killed Poland’s president and 95 others in Russia two years ago first brought the nations together, only to push them apart due to disputes over who was responsible.
Beyond isolated incidents involving rival supporters, the tournament has so far been mostly calm off the pitch.
Poland’s interior minister said that out of 905,000 fans attending games at stadiums or in the fan zones, only 72 were arrested, including 41 local fans and 10 Russians.
Polish organizers were forced to defend the state of the pitch in Gdansk where reigning European champions Spain were held 1-1 by a surprisingly lively Italy on Sunday.
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque and midfielder Andres Iniesta said the pitch was too dry, a complaint rejected as “nonsense” by Grzegorz Lato, head of the Polish FA.
He said the pitch could only have been watered with the agreement of both teams but Italy rejected the suggestion.
“They know that the pitch being slower - because on a watered pitch the ball slides a lot and will move a lot faster - is the better tactical option for Italy,” Lato said.
Portugal, with only one goal in four games this year, had an even odder excuse for their 1-0 defeat by Germany on Sunday.
“We have created a lot of chances but the ball doesn’t want to go in,” said midfielder Miguel Veloso. “It’s the reality.”
Reporting By Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris