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Hungary to spend $1 bln to steal Euro Soccer Championship

Hungary plans to spend as much as Ft 250 billion ($1.2 billion) upgrading stadiums and transport links to steal Europe's top soccer tournament from rival bidders mired in match-fixing scandals. The investment plus a pledge by UEFA, European soccer's governing body, to help poorer countries develop the game may be enough to land Hungary and Croatia the 2012 competition, said Tamás Gyárfás, head of the Hungarian organizers of the joint bid. The pair are competing against Italy, the world champion, and a joint bid by Poland and Ukraine. While Hungary's national team was a world-beater in the early 1950s, the country was the only one out of the five bidders not to qualify for the World Cup this year and hasn't competed in a major tournament in 20 years. None of its stadiums meet UEFA standards. „Now we'll see how much the nice words are worth,” Gyárfás said in an interview in Budapest. „We deserve some trust, to get us over the hump and help regain our former glory.” In the first round of voting in November, Italy scored 11, Hungary and Croatia got nine, and Poland and Ukraine seven, according to UEFA's Web site. Turkey and Greece were eliminated. The final vote is Dec. 8 after delegates from UEFA visit potential host countries this month. The east European countries are trying to emulate Portugal, which beat favorite Spain to stage the inter-country tournament two years ago and spent more than $1 billion on new arenas. Michal Listkiewicz, president of the Polish Football Association, said in April its joint bid with Ukraine „surprised” rivals by making the shortlist. Poland is spending more than $500 million on new stadiums to upset the odds.

Since then, Poland has followed Italy in becoming embroiled in off-the-pitch turmoil that the government is concerned might jeopardize the bid for Euro 2012. Poland may suspend the board of the national soccer association amid an investigation into allegations of match-fixing, Sports Minister Tomasz Lipiec said this week. Italy meanwhile is looking to recover from a match-fixing scandal that resulted in four clubs being penalized, including champion Juventus being relegated to the second-tier Serie B. „We are weighing our chances regardless of the Polish and the Italians,” Gyárfás said. „We hope that UEFA will put its confidence in the Croatian-Hungarian bid.” Hungary's competition organizers will show UEFA delegates plans of stadiums to be built in Budapest, Debrecen, Győr and Székesfehervár, all within a 200-kilometer (124 miles) radius and served by airports. Construction is only underway in Győr, while Székesfehervár has completed one section of the revamped venue. The danger is that a country is left with white elephants after the event. Farense, in southern Portugal, folded a year after hosting games in Euro 2004 because it couldn't afford to keep its new stadium going with a lack of support.

Aside from a lack of world-class facilities, Hungary also has to contend with the lack of quality on the field and dwindling interest in the sport. With two World Cup silver medals and one bronze from the European championships, the country's team now ranks 59th in the world, one spot above Mali. Hungary missed the last five World Cups and the last nine European competitions. Its clubs haven't qualified for the Champions League, Europe's top competition, in a decade and failed to go beyond the preliminary stages of any tournament this year. Ferencváros, Hungary's most successful team, was expelled from the top flight because of unpaid debt. Winning the right to host Euro 2012 „would give momentum to our football,” Gyárfás said. „This is the highest priority, to climb back to the top level. If we know we'll have this in six years, that would be a unique stimulant.”

Clubs are finding it difficult to finance themselves as Hungarians stay away from the dilapidated Communist-era stadiums. Budapest's showpiece, Ferenc Puskás Stadium, was built to house the team of the 1950s that hammered England 6-3 at Wembley in London. It doesn't meet UEFA standards and would undergo Ft 68 billion of work should Hungary win Euro 2012. The league attracted an average crowd of 2,885 per game last season, compared with 21,698 at a Serie A game in Italy. Average attendance was 5,522 in Poland, 7,838 in Ukraine and 3,084 in Croatia. Hungary is on par with fourth-tier soccer in England. Gyárfás, the producer of a breakfast political talk-show, said Hungary can avoid that and is gaining support for its bid. Polls show 84% of the population backs hosting Euro 2012 compared with 40% a year ago, Gyárfás said. „When they say they want the tournament, they are saying they want football,” Gyárfás says. „They want Hungarian football. It's in the blood of Hungarians, the love of the ball, the passion for football. We just need that little extra.” (Bloomberg)