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Football's ugly side

The Euros are intended to showcase all that is great about the game of soccer.  One of the Polish government’s mottos ahead of Euro 2012 is “Feel At Home!”  However, a provocative BBC documentary alleging that widespread racism, anti-Semitism and violence plague football in Poland and Ukraine has triggered last-minute safety fears that visiting fans will feel anything but.

The half-hour documentary, "Stadiums of Hate," aired on BBC’s "Panorama," an iconic British investigative reporting series akin to NBC’s Dateline. Journalist Chris Rogers spent one month visiting Polish and Ukrainian soccer hotbeds, mingling with the hardcore far-right fan groups who are entwined with the game.

The scenes he documented are chilling. Amid the traditional images of organized fan choreography – banners, flares and firecrackers – Rogers captured the families of African players being baited with a chorus of monkey chants, entire terraces of fans, men, women and children all, offering Nazi salutes en masse, and banks of supporters abusing their opponents with the anti-Semitic slur “Death, death to the Jewish whore.”

In Poland, Rogers was granted access to witness Euro stadium stewards’ anti-racism training, learning that “it can be an uphill struggle in a country where ethnic and religious minorities are all but invisible.”

In Kharkiv, Ukraine, he witnessed 2,000 fans show support for their local team by raising their hands in Nazi salute -- a visual whose shock value is enhanced by the realization that approximately 300,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. (An estimated 3,000,000 Polish Jews also perished.) A Kharkiv police colonel, Volodymyr Kovrygin, interviewed in the wake dismissed the existence of racism and anti-Semitism in Ukrainian football, explaining that the fans were merely “pointing in the direction of their opponents as it were … with their right hands, to attract attention to themselves. It’s not Nazi.”

The naked violence is sickening to watch, as is the pain and powerlessness of the African players interviewed, but the apparent lack of any police response will be just as frightening for thousands of English fans planning to travel to the Euros, an ever increasing number of blacks and Asians among them.

The Ukrainians and Poles have primary responsibility for security at the stadia during the Euros, and the documentary ends with a horrific finale as a cluster of Indian students who made the mistake of daring to sit in the “family section” at Kharviv are thrashed by an organized group of thugs. Kicks and punches rain down as stewards look on without taking action.

Former England defender Sol Campbell closes the documentary with a final moment of controversy.  After suggesting UEFA was wrong to award the tournament to Poland and Ukraine, he bluntly urges English fans not to attend. “Stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk it... Because you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

Every major soccer tournament is traditionally preceded with a cycle of fear and panic-mongering.  Many doomsayers erroneously predicted the 2010 World Cup in South Africa would be stained by a spate of car-jackings in a lawless Johannesburg, which was branded the most violent city in the world.  These Euros have already been disrupted by reports of mass dog killings, tick-borne encephalitis, and price gouging, yet the disturbing documentary footage captured by the BBC is much harder to attribute simply to western panic-mongering.

Tournament organizers, UEFA, refused the BBC’s request for an interview, preferring to issue a statement reiterating its “zero tolerance approach (to racism) is still valid both on or off the pitch and ultimately the referee has the power to stop or abandon a match should racist incidents occur.”  They proceeded to once again state a hope that the one of the legacies of the tournament will be raising the issue of racism in the host countries: “Euro 2012 brings the spotlight on the host countries and clearly creates an opportunity to address and confront such societal issues.”

But the documentary has triggered an incendiary response.  Polish interior minister Jacek Cichocki called the program “very one-sided.”

Others have criticized it for presenting “selective evidence” by looking for racism and then using it to paint the broadest and bleakest picture. English journalist Oliver Holt wrote in the Daily Mirror that a documentary about this season’s English Premier League and the ongoing allegations of racism against England star John Terry and those proven against Liverpool’s Luis Suarez would have provided “a seam of rich material, more than enough for half an hour on Polish prime-time.”

The Polish government issued a statement expressing its “surprise” at the BBC’s use of Sol Campbell as an expert spokesman.  It drew strength from the fact that “13 out of the 16 national football teams (all but Sweden, France and the Ukraine) including the English, have chosen to stay in Polish cities” as a symbol of their “confidence in Polish safety and security.”

Ukraine’s Euro 2012 football director, Markian Lubkivsky, told journalists, “I don’t see any dangers for citizens of different nationalities to stay in Ukraine.  If the player Cambell has such a vision then it is his own point of view and it cannot be projected for the whole country.” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn went on the offensive, asking, "Nazi symbols can be seen at ... any match in England, but does it mean that fans should not come to London for the Olympics?"

The English National Squad has eight black representatives.  The English media has begun to monitor the fluctuating travel decisions of their individual families in typical obsessive fashion.  Young Arsenal stars Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have announced their families will stay at home. Joleon Lescott revealed his family will only come in the unlikely event of England making the final. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Manchester City’s controversial star Mario Balotelli found a way to steal the headlines. The Italian striker, who has been a victim of racists throughout his career, told France Football Magazine, "I will not accept racism at all. It's unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them."

The British government has simply advised “travelers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean  descent and individuals belonging to religious minorities to take extra care,” but Piara Powar, the London-based executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, the largest network of anti-discrimination organizations in the sport, advised minorities to avoid Ukraine.

In a telephone interview, Powar claimed the challenges “plaguing football reflect societal issues in Poland and Ukraine that are all too real,” but he glimpsed a difference between the two countries from their respective statements in the wake of the BBC documentary.

“Poland has more democratic dialogue than Ukraine,” he said, “The Ukrainian government’s responses suggest they remain in denial of a problem with the far right that truly exists. ”

“I don’t expect any trouble in stadia as there is a world of difference between the week to week realities of Ukrainian domestic soccer and the international football experience of the Euros where a unique environment is temporarily created,” but he predicted, “The danger to minority fans will exist there not during games but in the towns at night.”

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