Last Friday, it seemed as if everyone in Warsaw was going to the match — the opener of the 2012 European soccer championships, which is co-hosted this year by Poland and Ukraine. Poland was playing Greece in the first game, and more than 50,000 people were heading for the stadium. Several tens of thousands of others were gathering in the “fan zone” in the center of town. Most were dressed in the colors of the Polish flag: red shirts, white trousers, red bikini tops, white ribbons, red socks, white shoes.
The tiny minority sporting blue and white for Greece certainly stood out. But when they met, the Greek fans chanted “Hellas! Hellas!” and Polish fans responded “Polska! Polska!” and both laughed and moved on. This lack of ill will might reflect the lack of historical enmity between Poland and Greece, since Polish and Russian fans did take a few slugs at one another after their match on Tuesday. It might also reflect the fact that neither Poland nor Greece has much chance of winning the tournament anyway. I told the manicurist that many feared Poland would fail to advance past the first round. She shrugged and said, “I’m just happy we have the tournament, and I really want to enjoy it.”
I thought about those words later that evening, when I headed for the stadium, dressed in red and white, and listened to the crowd’s roars of ecstasy and agony (Poland tied Greece, 1-1 and also tied Russia 1-1, to general relief). Everyone really did have a good time chanting “Polska, Polska,” inside the stadium and out. But was it was worth it?
Based on just the math, it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t. Nobody knows yet what the final cost of the month-long Euro tournament will be to Polish and Ukrainian taxpayers, but the stadiums alone were an enormous investment. Eight arenas had to be built or refurbished, at a cost of approximately $2.8 billion, while ticket sales during the tournament are expected to yield only about $190 million. Even counting what’s likely to be spent on food, drink and hotels, there’s a large budget gap, and it isn’t going to be made up later. Warsaw’s new National Stadium cost taxpayers, according to which estimate you believe, about $550 million. It will be used four times during this tournament, and then what? Will it stand empty, like the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics? Or will it host tiny crowds, like the money-losing arenas built for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan?
It would hardly be surprising if this year’s soccer hosts lose money, since most international sporting events do. Consider next month’s Olympics: In 2002, the British government estimated the cost of hosting the Olympic Games at $2.8 billion. Ten years later, the price has passed $15 billion and is still rising. When everything is added up — lost business, as many as13,500 British soldiers patrolling the streets of London (more than are in Afghanistan) — the expenses may come to $38 billion.
That’s a hefty sum for any government to spend on bread and circuses — unless the nation is getting something else out of it. And after watching the opening ceremony in Warsaw last week, I wonder. The happiness of the Polish manicurist, for example, so pleased that “we have the tournament” and that Warsaw, like other European capitals, now has a “real” soccer stadium: What price do you put on that? The cheerful Ukrainian fans, their faces painted blue and yellow, so pleased to host a bunch of foreigners who otherwise wouldn’t know they exist: How much is that worth?
In modern Europe, big sporting events are pretty much the only time you’re allowed to scream your country’s name without embarrassment. At an otherwise gloomy historical moment, they’re also about the only time you’re allowed to ignore bad economic news. The Spanish prime minister abruptly ended his news conference Sunday on the bailout of his nation’s banks, on the grounds that he had to fly to Gdansk to watch his nation’s team — and everybody forgave him. Every budget-cutting bone in my body feels that major sporting investments are a waste of money. But if there were a way to put a monetary value on the national mood, perhaps the sums would come out differently.
Anne Applebaum is director of political studies at the London-based Legatum Institute and writes a monthly column for The Post. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.