Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Austrians and Swiss limber up gently for Euro 2008

VIENNA, June 3 (Reuters) - Girding their lederhosen and firing up cheese fondues, Austria and Switzerland are gearing up to stage Euro 2008, the year's biggest soccer event - quietly.

With just a few days to go, enthusiasm for the tournament is barely evident among inhabitants of the two Alpine nations, more known for their skiing prowess than their soccer skills.

'Soccer, yeah, soccer, oh well,' said 23-year-old Viennese student Alexander Meyerhofer.

'It can be interesting, though not really when Austria plays, but I guess it'll be a good party after all,' he said, strolling along one of Vienna's leafy boulevards lined with imperial palaces as horse-drawn carriages go past.

Every ticket has been sold, and the co-hosts are bracing for the onslaught of some five million visitors who will swarm into stadiums or gather in picturesque town squares, gobbling up bratwurst with a swig of beer as they watch the sixteen teams battling it out on giant screens.

Eight venues across the two Alpine nations will host 31 matches during Euro 2008, starting in Basel on June 7 and ending with the final in the Austrian capital Vienna on June 29.

National flags are conspicuous by their absence and the cities have eschewed the kind of blanket advertising that Germany laid on when it hosted the World Cup in 2006.

This apparent modesty may have something to do with the expectations surrounding the nations' chances of success.

Austria, which had never qualified for the European Championship before, are ranked 101st in the world, behind the likes of Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Thailand.

Switzerland, ranked 48th, suffered a 4-0 drubbing against Germany in March, and failed to reach the second round of the European Championship finals in two previous attempts.

As hosts, both nations automatically qualified this time.

Still, retailers and the tourism industry in Austria and Switzerland are banking on Euro 2008 paying a lasting dividend.

Champions of tourism in particular are hoping visiting fans will fall in love with the birthplace of Mozart and Arnold Schwarzenegger or develop a strong attachment to the mountainous stronghold of banking secrecy and fine chocolate.

Meanwhile retailers in host cities are selling everything from porcelain cows to handbags, thermal flasks or even funeral urns in the shape of footballs or teams' colours.

Overall, economists expect the event to add around 0.2 percentage points of growth this year to gross domestic product (GDP) in the two countries, which share both the Alps and red and white playing strips.

Hosting the tournament has also increased security challenges in the two nations that are home to a combined population of nearly 16 million people.

In Switzerland up to 15,000 soldiers will be used to shore up security behind the scenes -- its biggest ever peacetime military deployment -- while fighter jets over both countries have flown patrols to prepare for possible terrorist attacks.

Austria has re-introduced spot checks at its borders in an attempt to keep out hooligans and local police will be working alongside around 1,100 of their colleagues from abroad.

No comments: