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WARSAW – Euro 2012 got under way in Poland and Ukraine on Friday, as European football's showpiece international competition came behind the former Iron Curtain for the first time.
The month-long festival of football started with a 20-minute opening ceremony before a capacity 50,000 crowd at Warsaw's National Stadium, combining music and dance celebrating the two eastern European countries' rich heritage.
Co-hosts Poland take on Greece, the surprise winners of the 2004 competition, in the first of 31 games at eight venues in the two countries, with the final in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on July 1.
The second Group A match is between Russia and the Czech Republic in Wroclaw, western Poland at 1845 GMT.
Holders and world champions Spain are favourites to retain the title they won four years ago in Austria and Switzerland but they will face a strong challenge from the team they defeated Germany.
Organisers will be breathing a sigh of relief that the football has finally started, after a turbulent five years since the two countries were surprisingly handed the tournament over Italy and a joint bid from Croatia and Hungary.
Since then, concerns have mounted about delays in vital infrastructure projects and high accommodation costs but most recently fears over racist violence.
On Friday, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf published an interview with Oranje skipper Mark Van Bommel, in which the AC Milan midfielder claimed a handful of fans watching them train in the southern city of Krakow made monkey chants.
The incident, confirmed by Uefa after an initial denial, threatened to overshadow events on the pitch.
But there was little indication of concern in the newly-built stadium, as teams of dancers twirled in formation, as virtuoso pianist Adam Gyorgy played music from Poland's most favourite son, Frederic Chopin.
Chopin's music morphed seamlessly into a specially-composed arrangement by Italian producer-DJ Karmatronic, as the performers massed in formation around inflatable miniatures of the eight stadium venues.
Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski then led the national side out for their biggest match on home soil and Giorgos Karagounis' Greece looked to spoil the party. – Sapa-AFP