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Croatia and Hungary believe east is best for 2012

Croatia and Hungary feel the time is right for eastern Europe to stage the European Championship in 2012.

Both countries have already separately tried to host the competition in the past. Hungary failed in a joint bid with Austria to stage Euro 2004 and missed out with a solo bid in 2008 when Croatia’s joint bid with Bosnia also came up short. But the two countries now believe they have what it takes to beat another joint bid from eastern Europe mounted by Poland and Ukraine and a solo campaign from Italy. „We have respectable counterbids but I believe this time the chances for us to win are fairly good,” Croatian FA secretary-general Zorislav Srebric told Reuters.

Croatia and Hungary have no doubts they will reap many benefits if European soccer’s governing body UEFA awards them Euro 2012 when it meets in the Welsh city of Cardiff on April 18. „The championship will further boost economic growth and we will improve our sports infrastructure. It doesn’t take long to realize how important it would be for our image, tourism and soccer future,” Srebric said. Hungary have not qualified for a World Cup or European championship for 21 years and many believe the only way they are likely to feature in the Euros again in the foreseeable future is by co-hosting the tournament with Croatia.

The country which once boasted the genius of Ferenc Puskás, the finest player in the great Hungary side of the early 1950s, has sunk in the world rankings and its domestic game is in disarray. „People think that, if we organize the event, Hungary could get the push to emerge both as a nice place to visit in Europe and also in soccer,” Hungary’s FA president István Kisteleki said. Croatian FA officials believe the convenient location of the two countries in the center of Europe, their tourist attractions and the short distance between the cities chosen to host the matches speak in their favor. Unlike the other bidders for Euro 2012, including a joint bid from Poland and Ukraine, Italy has already organized the competition in 1968 and 1980.

Croatia’s capital Zagreb staged two games during the 1976 final tournament, comprising four teams, when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Since Croatia gained independence from Belgrade in 1991, its team has become a respectable force on the international stage. Croatia has qualified for all but one major competition since 1994, reaching the quarter-finals at Euro96 in England and finishing third at the World Cup in 1998. Hungary cannot boast any recent success but the country has a strong soccer history dating to before World War Two. They also played and lost in the World Cup finals of 1938 and 1954. Their 1954 defeat by West Germany in Switzerland was one of the most famous matches ever played.

Unbeaten in four years, during which time they became the first continental team to beat England at home, Hungary led 2-0 in the 1954 final after eight minutes, yet somehow lost 3-2. They are widely regarded as the greatest side never to be crowned world champions. Hungary’s Euro 2012 bid Web site says hosting the competition would be important for the country’s soccer future. „For a long time now European football has split into two camps: top dogs and also-rans,” it says. „If no helping hand takes care of those lagging behind, the distance between those ahead and those behind is bound to grow - which is certainly not what UEFA wants.” Observers think the weakest points of the joint bid are insufficient infrastructure and the behavior of some Croatian fans at recent internationals.

Croatia has relatively few top-class hotels, despite boasting a strong tourism industry, and most are located in Zagreb. Its stadiums are in poor shape. Croatian fans rioted after games in Malta and Budapest during the last World Cup qualifying campaign and caused offence at a friendly against Italy last August when they displayed Nazi swastika insignia. However, Croatian FA president Vlatko Markovic is convinced these obstacles can be overcome. „The championship is in five years. This is a great opportunity to get a number of high-class hotels and stadiums completely equipped for top events,” he said. „The behavior of fans is a threat but it’s not a uniquely Croatian problem. We are working hard to educate fans to behave properly and I’m confident we have skills to deal with that. Our cooperation with police is also perfect.” (football.guardian.co.uk)