As Euro 2012 peers its head around the corner – ominously for some England football fans, though inconsequentially for most – the media has been awash with pieces regarding racism in the host nations, Poland and Ukraine. The bulk of it has focussed on the revelation that the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not be travelling to the group stages of the tournament, for fear of racist abuse. The prolific undercurrent of racism in Ukrainian and Polish football does indeed warrant anxiety; racism is still present in the English football (as demonstrated by the recent Premier League season), but campaigns such as the ‘Kick It Out’ movement indicate a much stronger intent to eliminate racism that has been shown by UEFA, Polish and Ukrainian authorities hitherto. Indeed the 2012 tournament will be a spotlight on the desire of these groups to clampdown on racism, should any occur.
The BBC has also recently aired a Panorama entitled ‘Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate’, which documents the conduct of fans at domestic football matches in both the host nations. In the programme there are swathes of the crowd, in almost every game, that engage in Nazi gesturing, with no interventions whatsoever from authorities. One senior Ukrainian police officer rather glibly claims in an interview that the support had been culpable only of pointing to the opposition fans, with no Nazi connotations intended.
This occurred at a game between teams in the top tier of Ukrainian football, which is noteworthy in the fallout of the media storm: Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman, Oleg Voloshyn, hit back by saying that "Nazi symbols can be seen at ... any match in England, but does it mean that fans should not come to London for the Olympics?”, which is not only incorrect, but a rather fatuous point to boot. It is a non sequitur because the demographic of fans that will be attending the Olympic Games is quite different to those that frequent our football stadiums. And that is in no way an indictment of our current football stadiums, either. English football has had its hooligan heyday during the 60s and 70s, although since the inception of the big money Premier League, and other advances in the policing and stadium requirements, things have been much improved. To claim that one would see the kind of behaviour in the terraces of England’s lower leagues – let alone its jewel in the crown – is rather fanciful. Conversely, to say that there are no longer English football fans who would want to comport themselves in such a manner, given half the chance, is likewise naïve. But for the moment, British society at large holds racism in enough contempt for it to not be apparent, or at least accepted, in everyday life. And herein lies the problem for Poland and Ukraine, as demonstrated in part by the by the response – or lack thereof – by stewards and police to the abhorrent behaviour. It would seem that there is simply not enough attention paid to the racism that appears to blight the terraces of Polish and Ukrainian football grounds, which must indicate a lack of compassion to the cause by these societies.
In an article by blogger Brendan O’Neill on The Telegraph’s website it is argued that this view in itself is ironically xenophobic, where an anti-racist stance serves as a well positioned veil, allowing us to sneer at the “uneducated peoples” of these nations. Perhaps this is true, although the more likely reason for people voicing their concern is that there is a slew of other countries in Europe that clearly do not have the same profile for racism in their football stadiums which were not chosen to host. Time will tell if any players or fans of ethnic minorities receive abuse at the tournament, and one can only hope that sufficient measures are taken by the relevant bodies to prevent any untoward behaviour.