Czech soccer fan Ondrej Cihar and his three friends will pack tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear into their Volkswagen Passat for a bumpy ride.
The 279-kilometer (173-mile) weekend trip to Wroclaw in southern Poland to watch their national team will take Cihar and his companions along communist-era roads not designed for the traffic expected during the European soccer championship, which starts today in Poland and Ukraine.
“We’re aware that roads aren’t in the shape we’re used to,” said Cihar, a marketing manager in Prague. “There are obstacles, but we aren’t afraid that we won’t get there.”
As Euro 2012 provides sporting respite from the debt crisis raging across the continent, the host countries are hoping the $35 billion they have plowed into roads, airports, hotels and rail lines over five years will be enough to cope with the influx of about 2 million soccer fans.
The build-out took place amid criticism governments have done too little, too late to improve shoddy infrastructure that will have to shuttle tourists around eight cities flung across an area a third the width of the U.S. and straddling either side of the European Union’s eastern frontier.
“It’s infrastructure in general: buses, venues, hotels,” said Rene Proske, managing director of Germany-based Proske Sports, which is responsible for organizing Coca-Cola Co.’s hospitality and who is concerned about his clients travelling in Ukraine. “We have to be creative. Many clients have chosen to have fly-in, fly-out programs,” he said.
Poles and Ukrainians defend their record, saying the scope of modernization was a massive feat, considering the condition of most stadiums, airports and highways before reconstruction began. The final 20-kilometer stretch missing to complete the 580-kilometer highway linking Warsaw and Berlin to the west was opened this week, 23 years after communism ended.
“In five years we promised to make up for the entire lack of infrastructure investment” after the fall of the communist system in 1989, Adrian Furgalski, an analyst at Warsaw-based ZDG TOR, a transportation consultancy, said in an e-mail. “Compared with Poland, investments by previous hosts of European football cups were just cosmetics.”
Of the two countries, Poland is a member of the 27-nation EU, giving it access to more investment money than Ukraine, and it is a member of the Schengen treaty, which allows passport-free travel from Germany and most other EU countries into Poland. Still, some measures will be reintroduced to increase safety, Poland’s border-control service said on its website.
Poland, which is the only EU nation to have survived the global economic crisis without a recession, spent about 90 billion zloty ($25 billion) improving infrastructure for the event, according to PL2012, the state-run company in charge of preparations for the event.
For that money, the nation has added about 1,200 kilometers of high-speed motorways to the existing 900 kilometers of motorways since 2007, according to Antoni Mrugasiewicz, a spokesman for the state road-building agency.
Neighboring Ukraine, which is not an EU or Schengen member, spent about $10 billion to improve its Soviet-built transportation system, including $2 billion to fix 1,625 kilometers of the country’s total 170,000-kilometer road network that is often crumbling or crushed by modern traffic patterns.
“Relying on Ukrainian roads? Oh no!” said Luis Costa, a London-based emerging-markets strategist at Citigroup. He will fly into Kiev and stay there instead of traveling to other cities, such as Kharkiv and Donetsk in the eastern part of the country for additional matches.
About three-quarters of fans are expected to fly into the two countries, prompting reconstruction of airports in the capitals Warsaw and Kiev, and upgrades in smaller airfields around the two countries.
To accommodate the increased traffic, air carriers Polskie Linie Lotnicze LOT SA and Ukrainian International Airlines boosted the number of flights. LOT added 58 scheduled flights, including routes to Wroclaw and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Low-cost airline Wizz Air Ltd. added 16 international flights, including routes to Poland and Germany, which borders the country to the west. Ukraine International Airlines added 24 flights from Kiev to Donetsk and Kharkiv in the east and Lviv to the west. Three runways were built and separate arrival and departure terminals were added to Kiev’s Boryspil airport.
From there, it will mainly be ground transportation, with supporters of the German, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese teams forced to travel 1,017 kilometers back and forth between Lviv and Kharkiv for group games.
Those who will watch the quarterfinals on June 21 in Warsaw and follow their team to the semi-finals in Donetsk six days later will have to cover 1,493 kilometers by road.
Travel between cities in Poland may take from about 1 hour by air, or as long as seven hours by train or car from Wroclaw in southern Poland to Gdansk near the Baltic Sea in the north. This week’s train ride by the Czech national team from Prague to Wroclaw, a four-hour trip by car, took seven hours.
Ukraine announced the opening of new high-speed intercity Hyundai-made trains between its four host cities last month, although sale of tickets between Kiev and Donetsk, where five games will be played, started just a week before the tournament.
Journey by train or car from Poland to Ukraine would take much longer. According to Polish railways’ website, there’s no direct train to Lviv in Ukraine from Warsaw. A 380-kilometer train ride from Warsaw takes at least 13 hours.
David Meister, a 39-year old U.S. citizen who works in advertising in Warsaw, said his trip to Lviv by car last year was one of the “worst experiences” in his life.
“Once we crossed the border into Ukraine it was an absolute nightmare” Meister said. “Sometimes it wasn’t even a road, just holes and mud.”
Cihar from Prague and his friends are going to watch the Czech Republic take on Greece on June 12. They want to soak up the atmosphere of the soccer tournament to meet people from different countries. He is also going to make sure nothing prevents them, he said by telephone.
The group is coming to Wroclaw a day before to avoid “traffic jams, all possible obstacles that might be on the border,” Cihar said.