a version of this article was first published by KyivPost.com Jun 30, 2010
With football’s World Cup in South Africa moving toward its climax, eyes will soon turn to the Euro 2012 tournament in Ukraine and Poland.
Visiting South Africa this month, I could see just how much work Ukraine has still to do. Miles of highways are still to be built, four airports still to be expanded and converted into international hubs, and the police are still to be trained to react to questions in English from an international crowd.
Like Ukraine, the Republic of South Africa is counting the years from the 1990s, when it peacefully moved from decades-long apartheid to the country now called the Rainbow Nation. Both South Africa and Ukraine remain transitional economies. The story of South African and its reconciliation reminds us in some ways of Ukrainian discussions about bringing two parts of the country together.
Similar to our country, South Africans see the major soccer championship as a way of improving its economy. “We just hope it will help the economy of South Africa … because there’s a lot of unemployment,” said Jama, an ex-prisoner with iconic former president and political prisoner Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, who currently works as a tour guide there.
While we in Ukraine also expect many benefits from Euro 2012, there are other things that we should keep in mind. Let’s have a closer look at three things South Africa can teach us.
First, sports tournaments are about people, not buildings. Once major work is finished on Ukraine’s roads and airports, it might just sink in that its people we’re expecting to visit the country, not buildings. Hospitality – a friendly smile on every street corner – is a key issue here. (See Lufthansa Regional still gets Ukraine wrong, Post-Soviet nations gradually embrace high-speed overland transportation and Switch on Ukraine! To then do what?)
At the very least, we can work on foreigner-friendly information systems, things like street signs and tourist bureaus. And, of course, we need English-speaking people on our streets, which we still lack.
The more multilingual the country is, the more welcome foreigners feel. We don’t just need tourism for one month in 2012. Just like South Africa, we need it now, and will need it after the football championship has passed.
This goes for students as well as tourists. One case in point is Manasseh Smith, a 21-year-old Brazilian. He came to Cape Town in April to study mining engineering on an exchange program and said he wants to get to know a new country, as well as practice and improve his English.
How many Brazilian students are we attracting?
The second strong feature in South Africa is the major involvement of civil society in various information campaigns as well as solving social problems like keeping kids off streets by getting them to play soccer, such as the Dreamfields Project.
UNICEF, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of South Africa, and an array of civil organizations have campaigned strongly during the World Cup to speak about social problems, such as child abuse, and spreading the contact information of the centers that can deal with potential or existing cases of abuse. A number of international organizations have been informing the public about major killer diseases in Africa. The international nongovernmental organizationDoctors Without Borders started a blog called “Extra Time!” that features various accounts by soccer-related people about HIV and tuberculosis. These two diseases are quite common in Ukraine as well.
Finally, we need more uniting forces within our society. As Jama the guide suggests, “A person like Mr. Mandela, a person who can unite a nation. If you can have somebody like that in Ukraine just for the sake of sport and the sake of unity among the people, then I think that will help.”
While we are waiting for the Ukrainian Mandela, let’s have some soccer camps for kids from both east and west Ukraine.
Undoubtedly, Euro 2012 is a project that interests everyone. But Ukraine needs more involvement in preparations from all parts of society, including the church, local NGOs, individual bloggers and volunteers – as well as regional and local sports organizations.
You can write to Andy Kozlov (the author of this piece) on firstname.lastname@example.org