LONDON, UK — Soccer is often referred to as the beautiful game. But the furor over racism at the Euro 2012, which kicks off on Friday in Poland and Ukraine, is as ugly as it gets.
Images of skin-headed extremists are being used by the media to warn of terrible abuse awaiting non-white fans for the championship, one of soccer’s biggest events.
One English former star said black or Asian supporters should stay home or risk “coming back in a coffin.”
Such claims have generated predictable outrage from the host nations, particularly the Ukraine, whose government had hopes for positive press from the tournament has already been hurt by criticism over its imprisonment and alleged abuse of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
But is there really a risk? Or has the ability of these former Eastern Bloc nations to stage a successful tournament been unfairly besmirched due to a handful of far-right trouble makers, the likes of which are the scourge of stadiums across Europe?
The truth, say experts, is somewhere in between.
UPDATE: The Guardian is reporting that black players on the Dutch team were subject to "monkey chants" by several hundred spectators, during an open practice session.
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Soccer, or football as it is called in Europe, has been plagued by violence since teams first kicked inflated animal bladders at each other in medieval England. Racism, xenophobia and overzealous esprit de corps have all been blamed.
Most European countries have endured their fair share of football-related aggression over the years. Britain in the 1970s and '80s was notorious for exporting “hooligans” — brutal gangs, or “firms,” would regularly run rampage in the foreign cities where their teams played.
Those days appear to be long gone. The stands in which fans of Britain’s top teams gather every week are now family-friendly zones, where the main hazard is the colorful language used by supporters. Likewise, most European matches these days pass without incident.
So when the BBC recently aired a documentary titled “Stadiums of Hate” — in which Ukrainian and Polish fans were depicted giving Nazi salutes, assaulting Asian supporters and attacking and making monkey noises at players of African origin — it seemed like a throwback to a darker age.
The “coffin” remark, made by former England football captain Sol Campbell during an interview for the documentary, generated grim headlines in newspapers that duly dispatched their own reporters to uncover tales of abuse and fear in and around the Euro 2012 venues.
Other players have also spoken out. Mario Balotelli, an Italian soccer star of Ghanaian descent, said he would walk off the pitch if heckled by racists. He added that he would “kill” anyone who threw a banana at him — another taunt sometimes used by rightwing extremists.
With even the UK’s Foreign Office warning travelers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent to take care, questions have inevitably been asked whether Europe’s most prestigious soccer event should have been awarded to Ukraine and Poland in the first place.
The leaders of both countries, which have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades to impress European potential investors, are adamant the criticism is unjustified.
Malgorzata Wozniak, a Polish interior ministry spokeswoman, expressed dismay at Campbell’s comments and said fans were not in danger. Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych downplayed risks and said the problem in his country was likely “smaller” than in others.
Professor Anastassia Tsoukala, a football violence expert at the Université Paris-Sud 11, says Yanukovych is at least partly right. She says any notion that western European stadiums are free from trouble is mistaken, with many incidents going unreported by international media.
She points to the World Cup finals held in Germany in 2006. These were widely acclaimed as a peaceful celebration of soccer.
“We all congratulated ourselves and were very happy,” she told GlobalPost. “But when you read the final statement, they said they had handled more than 9,000 arrests. I thought at the time, ‘9,000 arrests for an incident-free tournament, there must be something wrong here?’”
Tsoukala says it is unclear whether racism played any role in these incidents. And because racially-motivated violence is often handled by police in bars or other venues away from stadiums, it is also not possible to tell whether European football’s problems are getting better or worse, she adds.
However, according to Tsoukala, with only the governments of UK and Germany taking determined action to tackle racism in football, it certainly prevails. She says in recent years the problem has mirrored a pan-European rise in support for far-right politicians, particularly in the east.
“We have all these eastern European and former communist countries that 20 years ago were invisible or mute. Now they can express themselves and they do so with racist behavior. Polish football fans are notorious and Ukraine is not far behind.”
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Ged Grebby, founder of Show Racism the Red Card, a football-related charity that counts Sol Campbell among its patrons, said that while the BBC documentary highlighted issues of concern, its “tabloid” depiction of Ukraine and Poland shouldn’t discourage fans.
“If you watch that program, you’d think that both countries were on the verge of fascism, rather than it being a minority,” he told GlobalPost. “I would agree with 99 percent of Sol’s comments, but I think the coffin thing was taken out of context.
Grebby also highlighted ongoing problems with racism in the rest of Europe and soccer generally, citing another well-documented “monkey chant” incident in Barcelona in 2006 and a more recent storm that broke out after Sepp Blatter, chairman of world football’s governing body FIFA, said racism in football could be resolved in a handshake.
“We helped set up Football Against Racism in Europe in 1997,” Grebby added. “At that stage the situation was much worse than it is now. It is not for me to say how bad it is in Europe, but certainly there’s a long way to go.
“What was most worrying to come out of the documentary was Ukrainian officials not seeing the racism. You’ve got to admit it’s an issue before you can tackle it.”
While it remains to be seen whether such problems will emerge at the tournament, these issues have already cast a long shadow. According to one report, many tickets allocated to England fans are unsold. Officials insist, however, this is only partly due to violence fears.
In the meantime, most sporting organizations are urging supporters to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
“Many fans will already have their tickets and accommodation booked,” says Grebby. “They should go ahead and go, but make sure they keep in touch with the England fans’ groups.”