Donetsk, June 15
France on Friday dashed Ukraine’s hopes of a surprise second straight win in Group D and possible qualification for Euro 2012’s knock-out phase, as they beat the tournament co-hosts 2-0 in rain-soaked Donetsk.
Oleg Blokhin’s side, surprise winners against Sweden in their opening match, started briskly against the French, who were looking for a vital three points after a hard-fought 1-1 draw with England in their first match.
Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers ordered both teams off after just five minutes, as violent thunder and electric storms lashed Shakhtar Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, flooding parts of the playing surface.
After nearly an hour and some emergency groundwork, the two sides returned and were level at the break but Jeremy Menez, selected ahead of Florent Malouda, put the French 1-0 up on 53 minutes, silencing the home fans.
Menez’s left-foot drive was only his second international goal for France and was followed three minutes later by Yohan Cabaye’s first for the national team.
Cabaye latched on to a Karim Benzema through-ball, firing past goalkeeper Andrei Pyatov with the Ukraine defence caught square.
France now lead Group D with four points, with Ukraine on three, England on one and Sweden yet to get off the mark.
Sweden take on England in Kiev in Friday’s other match, with Roy Hodgson’s team determined to end their decades-long jinx of never having beaten the Scandinavians in a competitive fixture and Sweden looking for better after losing 2-1 to Ukraine.
Friday’s headlines initially focussed on holders Spain’s 4-0 demolition the previous evening of the Republic of Ireland in Group A, as well as discussion about which two of Spain, Croatia and Italy will go through in Monday’s final games.
Croatia, though, were facing a more immediate concern after a UEFA-backed racism monitoring group claimed that hundreds of fans taunted Italy’s Mario Bariotelli with racial slurs throughout Thursday’s 1-1 draw in Poznan, Poland.
"Our observers reported between 300-500 Croatian fans were involved in racist chanting in the match against Italy," the executive director of Football Against Racism (FARE), Piara Powar, told AFP.
"That is a big number. It was fairly intermittent but progressive throughout the game. It intensified when Balotelli was substituted. Our Italian observer is a fairly seasoned football fan and said he was shocked by what he had seen and heard."
An AFP photographer positioned in front of the majority of Croatia fans during Thursday’s match earlier said that he heard monkey noises being directed at the Manchester City striker, who is of Ghanaian origin.
At one point, he also saw a steward picking up a banana that had been thrown onto the pitch. Balotelli, 21, has previously said that he would walk off the pitch if he were racially abused by fans.
FARE said UEFA will open an investigation into the claims but there was no immediate confirmation from European football’s governing body while the Italian football federation said none of the players, including Balotelli, had complained.
UEFA did however confirm a 25,000-euro ($31,400, 20,000-pound) fine for separate crowd trouble during Croatia’s opening match against the Republic of Ireland.
Fans lit flares and let off smoke bombs to celebrate goals in the 3-1 win in Poznan last Sunday. A spectator also got on the pitch and missiles were thrown.
Racism and crowd trouble have been key issues during the tournament, which is being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, amid fears of racist violence by far-right gangs that are reported to be rife at football grounds in both countries.