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Fair Play in Football and Politics: Merkel May Travel to Ukraine for Euro 2012 Final

If Germany wins its Euro 2012 semifinal match against Italy on Thursday, Angela Merkel will be put in a tricky situation. If the German chancellor, a huge soccer fan, attends the final game in co-host country Ukraine, she could risk looking soft following human rights abuses in the country against Yulia Tymoshenko.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrates Germany's win over Greece in the Euro 2012 quarter final in Gdansk, Poland. Zoom
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrates Germany's win over Greece in the Euro 2012 quarter final in Gdansk, Poland.

Angela Merkel rarely lets football get in the way of politics. For last Friday's quarterfinal match against Greece, the German chancellor flew straight from Rome, where she held four-way euro crisis talks with European leaders, to Gdansk in co-host country Poland to cheer on her country's team.

But with the final of the European Football Championships looming this weekend in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Merkel may face a tough decision on Sunday between supporting her beloved national team and holding a firm line against Ukraine, where opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is sitting in prison after her questionable conviction on charges relating to alleged abuse of her position as former prime minister.

In May, Merkel said that people in Ukraine suffer under "dictatorship and repression," during a speech to Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag. She had called for a political boycott of the games while Tymoshenko languished in prison and excused herself from the German team's first-round matches in the country. So far she has only attended the games in Poland in an effort to pressure Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to release Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence following her conviction in a dubious trial of abusing her power in office in negotiating a 2009 gas deal with Russia during her term as prime minister. She claims that her fierce political rival Yanukovych, who beat her for the presidency in February 2010, is exacting revenge on her.

Tymoshenko also claims she was assaulted by prison guards after she refused treatment from Ukrainian doctors for a chronic back ailment. Presently, the former prime minister is being treated by physicians from Berlin's Charité Hospital at a hospital in Kharkiv.

So far other German and European politicians have also boycotted the games in Ukraine, leaving Yanukovych's VIP box bereft of international leaders.

About-Face

Now Merkel may be reconsidering her stance. German news agency DPA is reporting that Merkel told German team manager Oliver Bierhoff that she would attend the final in Kiev, despite her earlier statements that she would only go if Tymoshenko's situation improves. "She congratulated us and naturally hopes that we have further success, because she would come to the final," said Bierhoff after Germany's quarterfinal win against Greece.

Though she will miss Thursday's semifinal game against Italy in Warsaw, Poland, because of euro crisis talks in Brussels, Merkel's football fandom is well known. "It was great that she was there again," team captain Philipp Lahm said about Merkel's 10-minute visit to the team locker room after Friday's quarterfinal game. "She congratulated us and wished us lots of luck for the semifinal," said top player Mesut Özul.

But even as the German team's prospects of making it to the final appear to be improving, Tymoshenko's circumstances are worsening. A Ukrainian court decided Tuesday that it would delay her appeal hearing to July until after the Euro 2012 final. Yanukovych has said he would not intervene in the case until the trials and appeals process has ended. In the meantime, Ukrainian prosecutors continue to lodge fresh charges against Tymoshenko.

Officially the Chancellor's office hasn't released Merkel's football travel plans, saying she would make a decision on whether to go to Kiev for the final on short notice. "For now the focus of journalists as well as the football players should be entirely on the semifinal match," her spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters. "If it goes as we all hope it does, then we can talk about the next step." At major football tournaments, the German national team has never prevailed over Italy, so the tensions will be high in the run-up to Thursday's match.

The Wrong Message?

Critics are saying that Merkel's attendance in Kiev at the Euro 2012 finals would fly in the face of efforts to improve the human rights situation in Ukraine. At earlier matches European Unions politicians unfurled banners that read "Release all political prisoners" and "Fair play in football and politics." Football fans have been wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Free Yulia."

Even if Merkel first visited Tymoshenko in prison, such a trip would send the "wrong message entirely," Viola von Cramon, spokesperson for sporting issues for the Green Party's group in the German parliament told the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. If Merkel were to sit next to Yanukovych in his VIP box, it would send the message that she supports him and his re-election in October, von Cramon argued.

Finally, even if an official from Euro 2012's organizing body, like UEFA chief Michel Platini, were to sit between Merkel and the Ukrainian president, the meeting could still prove awkward for the chancellor.

"I don't want to see any pictures of the chancellor celebrating with Yanukovych," Green Party politician Tom Königs told DPA, also expressing his anger over Tymoshenko's treatment in prison. "If (Merkel) wants to be a part of it, she would make a lot more fans happy if she came to the fan mile in Berlin."

rr - with wire reports

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