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Racist football fans come under the spotlight

June 8, 2012

Supporters of Karpaty Lviv hold a Nazi flag at a match versus Dynamo Kyiv in 2007.

The Euro football championship gets underway this week in Poland and Ukraine. The tourney had already attained an unwanted political character months earlier due to accusations that the Ukrainian government was suppressing political dissent and using selective justice to silence the opposition, for instance in the arrest of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. Now, a BBC program entitled “Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate” has raised the issue of racism among football hooligans in both host countries.

The film, about 30 minutes in length, contains a number of disturbing scenes: Polish fans giving Nazi salutes and shouting anti-Semitic slurs, Ukrainian fans beating Asian spectators at a match in the eastern city of Kharkov, fans imitating monkey noises to taunt African players, and more. Sol Campbell, former captain of the England team, went so far as to warn fans not to travel to the tournament and that they “could end up coming back in a coffin.”

And just before the tourney was to officially get underway, the Dutch team reported hearing racist taunts during a practice in Krakow, Poland, which is not one of the host cities but is hosting training facilities. Mario Balotelli, a Ghanaian born player for Italy, has said that he will simply walk off the field during a match if he hears racist taunts from the stands. The BBC program put a couple of issues in the spotlight, including the prevalence of racist and violent behavior among football hooligans, as well as the more specific issue of widespread racist attitudes in the two host countries.

Polish and Ukrainian authorities have responded by calling the program sensationalist and one-sided. Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK Volodymyr Khandogiy conceded that regrettable incidents have occurred in his country, but that is was unfair to generalize about the whole country based on the behavior of a small group of people. If he had stopped there, he might have had a reasonable point, but it strained credulity when he added: “Racism and racial ideology is against the law and if those young fans were shouting anything close to Nazi slogans they would have been prosecuted.” Martin Bosacki, a spokesman for the Polish foreign ministry, conceded that there were problems with racism and anti-Semitism in Poland, but that the documentary blew the issue out of proportion.

The issue of racism in association football is not a new one. However, the BBC feature and the holding of the continent’s most important tourney in Eastern Europe seem to have raised it to a heightened degree of public consciousness. Although there are legitimate fears that the tournament could be marred by ugly incidents, hopefully the current unprecedented amount of public awareness of the issue is not squandered, and there are concrete efforts to tackle the problem not only Ukraine and Poland, but throughout Europe.

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