CAIRO - As eyes are glued to the planet's second most important football tournament, concerns about racism, violence and hooliganism are overshadowing Euro games.
"There is no question we are worried about this tournament more than any other," Piara Powar, director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) told reporters in Warsaw, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland, Euro 2012 was supposed to be the East Bloc's coming-out party, one that burnished its image and welcomed it into the community of nations as a full partner.
Instead it has turned into a costly embarrassment that could further isolate the region.
In the run-up to Euro 2012, attention has been focused away from the playing field because of charges of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and worries about violence in the host countries.
These concerns resulted in international condemnation and embarrassment, much of it aimed at Ukraine.
For example, the French government said its officials will stay away from matches in the former Soviet republic.
The European Commission shared the French opinion, saying all 27 European Union commissioners would also boycott if Ukraine opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remained in prison.
These calls were joined by European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
The British Foreign Office also said last week that its officials would remain home as well, following the lead of Germany and France.
The political criticism might be the least of the problems surrounding the tournament, which kicked off on Friday.
Being the largest sporting event to take place in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Euro 2012 tournament has been the subject of criticism since it was awarded to Ukraine in 2007.
The criticism included voicing concerns about human trafficking, aggressive and corrupt police, human rights problems and the expenditure of more than $13 billion to stage the event.
Racist attitudes expressed by soccer fans in Poland and Ukraine, such as vicious beating of Asian and dark-skinned fans, have also raised many concerns.
Fears grew after Italy's player, Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent, threatened to take matters into his own hands if the hooligans target him.
"I will not accept racism at all," Balotelli, who was once pelted by bananas in a Rome bar, told reporters.
"If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail because I will kill them."
Over the past few years, racism has been cited as an ugly part of European football which often splits onto the pitch.
For example, John Terry, twice captain of the English national team, is scheduled to stand trial in July for racially abusing an opponent.
Fielding racially and ethnically diverse teams, highly regarded teams, such as Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester United, have helped in declining discrimination at the club level.
Yet, competitions between countries have often played into the stereotypes and xenophobia of the most nationalistic fans.
To face the negative phenomenon, UEFA President Michel Platini warned that referees will stop Euro matches if players become the targets of fan abuse.
"There is more and more nationalism in Europe," he said.
"You can feel this at a number of matches. There are some worries. Some big worries."
Euro 2012 is the 14th European Championship for national football teams organized by UEFA.
Featuring 16 nations, the tournament is co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine between 8 June and 1 July 2012