EURO 2012: Poland has already won
Let me start by confessing that soccer means to me as little as the mating habits of termites. In other words, I honestly could not care less about a bunch of grown men chasing a round object. That said, I must admit that I do agree with those who consider today's official beginning of the UEFA EURO 2012 tournament in Warsaw as a historic moment for the country, one that symbolizes the end of Poland's transformation from a drab post-Communist pit of despair into a fairly normal European nation. A nation that unlike its Western European counterparts, who are stuck in the limbo of post-industrial melancholy, has plenty to look forward to.
The symbolic significance of today's event should not be underestimated. Twenty three years after the fall of communism, eight years after joining the European Union, Poland is hosting a huge international sporting event. One would think that Europe's seventh largest country with a population of 38m would have already enjoyed more than once a chance to do this, but the truth is, it's the first time for Poland and Central Europe as a whole. While the European leaders, who only a few years ago used to lecture Central and Eastern Europe about fiscal consolidation and responsible budgeting are increasingly at pains to hoist their countries out of the deepening hole of the Eurozone crisis, Poland is embarking on a three-week fiesta.
Since 2007, when UEFA chose Poland and Ukraine as organizers of the EURO 2012 cup, the two countries have gone their separate ways. Ukraine, which was named the EURO 2012 host largely in appreciation of its pro-democratic Orange Revolution, has since gone down the authoritarian route, with opposition leader being held in jail on some rather fishy charges. Poland, on the other hand, has emerged as the beacon of growth and stability in the crisis-stricken European Union, enjoying a decade of uninterrupted growth, stable government, and relatively solid public finances. Reading what the Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, and other key global papers have been writing about Warsaw in the past weeks one can easily forget that not so long ago Poland was the sick man of Europe with massive unemployment, messy politics, rampant corruption, poor administration, and underdeveloped infrastructure. Unbelievably, over the past decade we have managed to successfully tackle all of these problems.
Last night, when the Polish capital was finally connected to Europe with a brand new highway, cutting the travel time to Berlin down to merely 4½ hours, the Poles breathed a collective sigh of relief. We did it. Four brand new stadiums in Warsaw, Wroclaw, Poznan, and Gdansk are waiting for Europe's best soccer teams and thousands of fans. Train stations in the largest cities, which used to resemble something of a survival horror or David Lynch's nightmare, have been transformed into passenger-friendly, spick-and-span modern venues. Airports boast brand new terminals with plenty of spare capacity. Key motorways have been opened, making driving safe and efficient. All in all, some PLN 70-100bn has been pumped into infrastructure that will support the country's development for years to come. Although a lot of projects are still underway, paradoxically, their late completion is something of a blessing, giving the builders something to do once the tournament is over.
It will still be a while before we get to fully grasp the significance of this massive effort for the Polish economy, but it is obvious that the benefits will be huge. The amazing growth of Lower Silesia is a good example of what a highway does to a region and we are bound to see new investment hotspots pop up across the country, distributing the fruits of economic growth more evenly, and making even more Poles proud of their country. Sure it would be nice to see the Polish team do well in the tournament their country is co-hosting but even if they disappoint, Poland as a nation has already won.