Racism and the European Championships

This past week has not been a particularly good one for UEFA, the administrative body that governs football in Europe. With only days to go before the start of the European Championships, being co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine, the feel good atmosphere being promoted in the run up to the tournament was roiled by the broadcast by Panorama, an investigative news program on the BBC, that uncovered rampant racism surrounding football in Eastern Europe. In an interview for the program, titled “Stadiums of Hate,” former England captain Sol Campbell was asked whether he thought non-white fans should attend the tournament. His response will not have sat well with the publicity wonks at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon: “Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk it … because you could end up coming back in a coffin.” If UEFA considers the program one sided they would do well to consider Michel Platini declined an opportunity to be interviewed for the program, something he surely must regret at this stage.

UEFA and the host nations are in damage control mode. Oleg Luzhny and Andre Shevchenko, former Ukrainian internationals who played some of their football in England, were trotted out to assuage supporter’s fears. Schevchenko stated, “We never have heard problems about racism”, while Luzhny opined, “No, no, no, I never heard about this. We have Nigerian players…and I never heard about racism.” As both men are professionally associated with Dynamo Kiev, they need simply look in the stands or read the graffiti around the ground to understand how wrong they are.

Worse yet, from the point of view of tournament organizers, it has come out in the media in recent days that the families of several prominent, non-white English players, including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joleon Lescott, and Theo Walcott, will not be attending due to fears for their safety. As the Guardian reported several days ago, the British Foreign Office has a notation on its website advising “travellers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent and individuals belonging to religious minorities” to take “extra care” when travelling to Eastern Europe. In public, UEFA has taken, and continues to take, the position that it has a “zero tolerance” policy with regard to open displays of racism in European football grounds. In practice, the situation has been much different, and the tournament, which begins on this coming Friday, will be a stern test of the way that the organization responds to the problem in practice.

The question of racism on football has been very much in the public consciousness this season, with a series of high profile incidents roiling the atmosphere in Western European leagues. During a match at Loftus Road In October, Chelsea defender (and erstwhile England captain) John Terry was reported to have racially abused Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. In February, Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez was clearly caught on camera repeatedly directing racial slurs at Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. In that same month, Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli and midfielder Yaya Toure were subjected to racist chants during a Champions League match at Porto in Portugal.

The consequences of these incidents tell on a lot about the ways that racist incidents are handled in the modern game of football. John Terry was the subject of an investigation by the English Football Association and will be the subject of a criminal prosecution later this summer. Luis Suárez was suspended for eight matches and fined £40,000 (about $61,000). Both of these matters were handled by the domestic authorities in England. In the case of Porto, UEFA doled out a fine of £20,000 to the club in punishment even though this was the 2nd instance of such behavior, the first occurred in 2004 when Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and William Gallas received the same treatment. This might seem like a lot, until you consider that the same body punished Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger for a (non-racist) touchline dispute with an official by fining him £40,000 and banning him for three matches. Adding insult to injury, City was fined €30,000 for taking the pitch 1 minute late to start the 2nd half (actual chant at :20 here).

The question of racism in international football has always been rather fraught. This has, in an important sense, to do with the status of the international game itself. The leadership of both UEFA and of FIFA, the sport’s overarching international governing body, is that the international game functions to bring people together to celebrate their common love of football. At the same time, international football plays on the promotion of intense nationalist sentiments of the kind that, since the end of the Second World War, are looked upon by civilized people with justified suspicion. The governing bodies have, in the past few years, taken to making pious pronouncements with regard to the problem of racism in the game. After Mario Balotelli was racially abused by fans of the Italian club Juventus in 2009, FIFA president Michel Plantini announced the federation’s readiness to see matches abandoned rather than tolerating racist abuse: “We will call for play to be stopped when these things [racial abuse] happen and for announcements to be made in the stadium. If it continues, the match will be stopped.” Thus far, this consequence has never ensued.

All of the cases mentioned above are from Western Europe, but the situation in the east is rather different. There, as the Panorama program was only the latest to illustrate, racism is common and condoned. There is little evidence that that distaste for racism that arose in Western Europe after the horrors of Nazism ever took hold in Eastern Europe. Rather, in the period of Soviet domination, racism simmered just under the surface throughout the region, coming into the open at various points when abetted by the racism (particularly the antisemitism) of the Soviet authorities.

The case of Poland provides an apposite example. After invading in 1939, the Nazis undertook a policy of racial cleansing of an area that they planned to repopulate with “Aryan” German settlers. In the resulting slaughter, nearly 6 million Polish civilians were murdered; a figure that comprises roughly equal numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. The postwar Polish narrative, in which the Poles were cast a mere victims of Nazi aggression, was not revised until the publication in 2001 of Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, illustrating a case in which Poles slaughtered their Jewish neighbors without any significant prompting from the Nazis. The book was highly controversial, but its primary contentions were, to a great extent, confirmed by a government sponsored panel.

Unsurprisingly, Gross’s book prompted very bitter feelings among some Poles, accustomed as they were to viewing themselves in the role of victims. When, in 2006, Gross published a second book about antisemitism in postwar Poland, he was threatened with prosecution by the Polish government on the grounds that he had “slandered the Polish nation.” This response is typical of that of Eastern European officials when confronted with accusations of racism. They are simply dismissed as untrue, irrespective of what evidence is evinced, and often the person leveling the accusations is branded as someone with an axe to grind.

A version of this is clearly in evidence in the Panorama program. After being told by the program’s producer that he had seen (and filmed) a couple of thousand soccer fans openly performing the Hitler salute, a local police official in the Ukraine claims that the fans were simply “raising their right hands” in an attempt to get the attention of the opposing fans. In fact, the Panorama producer seemed to have no problem whatever finding people willing to avow their intense hatred of Jews and of non-white foreigners. The anti-Jewish animus is particularly striking, given that, as a result of the depredations of the Second World War, the Jewish populations of Poland and the Ukraine are miniscule. It is worth noting in this context that accusations of “blood libel,” the spurious assertion that Jews used the blood of Christian babies in their rituals, persisted in Poland into the 1950s.

The occurrence of racism at football ground and in football culture generally will be readily apparent to anyone with an internet connection. And, as this website illustrates, the problem is widespread, and by no means limited to Eastern Europe. (Warning: this website has an autoplay soundtrack that is both hideously racist and musically deeply mediocre, so turn your sound off before looking at it).

This illustrates an important point: racism is by no means limited to Eastern Europe. As the rise of groups like the English Defense League and the growing political prominence of political parties like the Front Nationale in France indicates, the power of racist discourse and ideologies is a problem afflicting Europe generally (and North America as well). What is crucial here is the way that the authorities respond to it. The bodies that govern English football, and those that govern Great Britain more generally, have at least recognize that there is a problem, if their solutions have not always been even and effective. One could, for instance, cite the recent case in which a white woman was sentenced to 21 weeks in jail for racially abusing South Asian passengers on the London subway. Such a prosecution is extremely difficult to imagine in the context of modern Eastern Europe.

Stories of racist abuse of non-whites in Eastern Europe are so widespread as to hardly require citation, especially so since the perpetrators like to publicize their actions by posting videos on YouTube. That we have resisted the temptation to link such videos to this article stems from the desire not to participate in the distribution of violence porn, but it does not take much searching to find them. With the evidence of that frequent occurrence of racist violence in Eastern Europe so ready to hand, the question must be asked as to why it was that UEFA allowed the tournaments to be staged there.

The answer seems to be that, pace their public statements to the contrary, the organization is, as it so often has been, prepared to countenance racism in football with a nudge and a wink, or to assert that it is the responsibility of the national federations, or that it is a problem of society in general. In recent days, Michel Platini has both reiterated UEFA’s willingness to see matches suspended due if there are racist outbursts, but also warned that any player who leaves the pitch because of racist abuse will be booked. The prospect of trouble inside the stadiums is only one dimension of the problem. The staging of tournaments in countries where attacks on non-whites are frequent (much more so than in Western Europe) rewards the national federations and the national governments for their failure to take any but cosmetic steps to address the problem.

One suspects that the governing bodies are well aware of the situation, but unwilling to cost the clubs the large quantities of money that they stand to lose by rigorously policing their ultras. And then there are the local and national governments, whose response to the problem has been, and continues to be, a mix of indignant denial and ineffectual actions. Thus it is that the racism of the ultras will now be validated by the staging of a major European tournament in a zone where they will be allowed to police the racial composition of the fans.

(Images used under fair use guidelines)

Magadh
Captain of Games

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