Racism, rather than Ronaldo and Ribery, dominates Euro 2012 storylines
The families of England's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, left, and Theo Walcott will not be attending Euro 2012 for fear of racism.
June 7th, 2012
03:09 PM ET

Racism, rather than Ronaldo and Ribery, dominates Euro 2012 storylines

The UEFA European Football Championship is second only to the World Cup in size and prestige, and it's equally rich in storylines. But right now, one storyline seems to overwhelm all others.

The story today is not whether Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo can shake his reputation as Europe's Lebron James, a man who wows fans all season only to choke in big games. Nor is the story about whether defending champion Spain can defend the title without two of its biggest stars. It's also not about how Franck Ribery and the French squad can rebound from an embarrassing, soap opera-esque campaign in the 2010 World Cup.

Heck, the media aren't even paying that much attention to German coach Joachim Low's promise to break world soccer protocol by allowing his team to smoke, drink booze and have sex during the tournament. That would normally be prime tabloid fodder.

Nope, the story today is about racism, especially within the stadiums of Poland and Ukraine, which are jointly hosting the Euro 2012 tournament beginning Friday. The day before the competition began, the Dutch national team opted to train on the opposite side of its training ground at Stadion Miejski in Warsaw because of racist chants, Dutch captain Mark van Bommel said Thursday.

And while a recent BBC investigation showed several instances of bigotry and racism at club games there - some of them violent - Polish and Ukrainian officials are insisting their countries have been misrepresented.

"There is a problem with racism and anti-Semitism in Poland, but it is blown out of every possible proportion in this material," Marcin Bosacki, Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman, said of the BBC documentary. "We are hospitable and treat all people who come here as friends."

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK Volodymyr Khandogiy also defended his country, saying, "Ukraine is very well known for its tolerance and it has a long history of living together with other nationalities. In our national football championship, roughly half of all the players are from Asian, African and Brazilian countries."

Regardless, many players and former players are speaking out, and English police issued a warning to fans after the Ukrainian neo-Nazi group Donetsk Company threatened to attack black and Asian English supporters during the tournament, Sky Sports News reported.

The families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, black English internationals who play for London's Arsenal, have said they will not attend the tournament because they fear becoming victims. Former English captain Sol Campbell, in the BBC documentary, warned his countrymen to stay out of the host countries.

"Stay at home. Watch it on TV. Don't even risk it because you could end up coming back in a coffin," he told a reporter.

Italian international Mario Balotelli threatened to walk off the field if he was the target of racism during the game. He had some pointed words for anyone who might hurl a banana at him - an expression of bigotry in Europe that has been all too common at soccer matches in the past.

“If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to prison because I will kill him," he told Football France. "Racism is unacceptable to me, I cannot bear it. I hope there will not be a problem at the Euros because if it does happen, I would straight away leave the pitch and go home. ... We are in 2012. It can't happen.”

UEFA President Michel Platini responded by saying that any player who walks off the field during a game will get a yellow card (if a player receives two yellow cards in a game, he can be ejected). If a player is subjected to racial abuse, Platini said, he should report it to the referee who will have the authority to stop or even abandon the game.

"We will certainly support the referee if he decided to stop the game, but it's not a player, Mr. Balotelli, who's in charge of refereeing. It's the referee who takes these decisions," Platini said. "So, the referee has been given advice and he can stop the game if there are problems."

Anti-racism advocates say they appreciate UEFA's stance, and Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, told Reuters after Platini's news conference, "There is no question we are more worried about racism at this tournament than at any other and it is good to know that Mr. Platini understands what is going on."

The group will have 31 independent monitors - with two at each match - looking for evidence of racism, both obvious and nuanced, and will report any "right-wing banners and insignia, and discriminatory chants" they see or hear in the stands. They will also observe online fan networks prior to matches to determine if incidents are being planned, according to UEFA.

Fans will also be encouraged to help monitor behavior, as UEFA will have a dedicated hotline to report racism as well as an online form, both of which will be publicized outside of stadiums prior to matches, UEFA says.

"The UEFA system is three strikes and you are out," Powar told Reuters. "A fine, then another fine, then forcing teams to play behind closed doors. If the system is in full effect we could have a team kicked out of the competition for far right banners."

After the 2008 Euros, UEFA fined the Croatian national team almost $21,000 for racist banners and chants during their Turkey game.

While Platini has said he can't predict what will happen once you pack tens of thousands of fans into Polish and Ukrainian stadiums, he doesn't think either country presents an exceptional case of racism. It's more a microcosm of the bigotry around the globe, he said.

"I don't think there's any more racism in Poland and Ukraine than in France or anywhere else, or even in England," he said. "It's not a footballing problem. It's a problem for society but we will try our best to regulate the problem in our football."

There have definitely been instances of racism in soccer across Europe for years. John Terry, a defender for the English club, Chelsea, faces a racism trial for allegedly uttering a racist slur at Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers in October.

Liverpool's Luis Suarez was fined more than $60,000 and suspended eight games after England's governing football body found him guilty of hurling racist epithets at Manchester United and French international defender Patrice Evra, also in October.

England is not alone. In the last six or seven years, black players in France, Russia, Germany, Spain, Slovakia, Sweden and Scotland have reported fans accosting them with monkey chants. Spanish club Real Madrid was fined in 2009 after its fans made fascist gestures and shouted slogans about "the gas chamber." In 2005, then-Spanish coach Luis Aragones was fined a day's wages after reporters heard him during practice refer to French superstar Thierry Henry as a "black s**t."

Several groups outside the governing bodies of FIFA and UEFA have taken up the cause of racism in football, including Henry's Stand Up Speak Up campaign. The result has been greater awareness and a stark drop in racist instances. Despite this season's Terry and Suarez incidents, Europe has come a long way since the days when fans unabashedly lifted banners in the stands taunting black players.

One hung in the stands by fans of the Italian club, Internazionale in Milan, targeted Ivory Coast and Messina defender Marc Zoro. It famously read, "Peanuts and bananas are the pay for your infamy." During an earlier match against Inter Milan, the abuse became so unbearable, Zoro picked up the ball and threatened to walk off the field.

Yet, even with the strides made in recent years, the controversial documentary that has been denounced by Polish and Ukrainian officials suggests that the headway made in western Europe has yet to make its way east.

In the BBC Panorama episode titled "Stadiums of Hate," reporter Chris Rogers attends club games in the host countries for a month. He encounters fans in Lodz, Poland, making monkey noises at black players and chanting, "Death, death to the Jewish whore." In Warsaw, Rogers stepped off the train to see "White Legion" spray-painted on a wall with a white-power symbol, the Celtic cross, planted between the two words.

In Rzeszow, Poland, a fan held aloft a sign saying, "Death to the Hooked Noses," another shot at Jewish people. In Krakow, fans wore anti-Semitic shirts and attacked police when they couldn't get at opposing fans through a Plexiglas barrier that had been erected in the stadium.

Things seemed just as bad, if not worse, in Ukraine. There were more monkey chants in Kiev, and in Kharkiv, Rogers stunningly found hundreds of men, women and children throwing their hands up in an apparent Nazi salute and chanting, "Sieg heil!" A common greeting in Adolf Hitler's Germany, it means, "Hail, Victory!"

Of the gesture, Volodymyr Kovrygin of the Kharkiv police told Rogers there was no racism at the game and that home fans were merely pointing at the opposing team's supporters.

One of the documentary's most disturbing scenes also came at Kharkiv when home team fans surrounded several Indian students sitting in the stadium's family section and brutally attacked them. The Indians were rooting for the same team as their attackers.

Despite these seemingly indisputable images, the documentary is not without its detractors. Bosacki of the Polish Foreign Ministry called the episode "cheap journalism," while Khandogiy, the Ukrainian ambassador, called it "unbalanced and biased reporting."

"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," Khandogiy said.

Even one of the documentary's sources - the American-born Jonathan Ornstein, who heads the Jewish Community Center of Krakow - has come forward to say the BBC "exploited" him as a source.

In a statement to The Economist, he wrote, "The organization used me and others to manipulate the serious subject of anti-Semitism for its own sensationalist agenda; in doing so, the BBC has insulted all Polish people and done a disservice to the growing, thriving Jewish community of Poland."

Powar, who heads Football Against Racism in Europe, had a different take: "I think we know the situation in domestic football in both Poland and Ukraine, and I'm afraid the documentary hit the nail on the head - it's a very bad situation,"

He went on to praise the efforts of those working to tamp down bigotry ahead of one of the world's most anticipated sporting events.

"There is some good work going at grass roots level to make sure that Euro 2012 inside stadiums does not resemble the sort of scenes we saw in the documentary," Powar said.

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Filed under: Civil Rights • Europe • Protest • Race • Religion • Soccer • Sports • World
soundoff (415 Responses)
  1. rick

    Pretty stupid comment about Lebron James. Did you see him play Thursday night and take Boston apart. Idiot!!

    June 8, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  2. obsthetimes

    thank god for the united states. the only place where this can't happen!
    europe is a beautiful place but its the pits for people of color.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • c

      Are you seriously suggesting there is no racism in the US?

      June 8, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Sodomite

      Please tell me you're just being facetious.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  3. obsthetimes

    These two guys aren't even african or Caribbean. Imagine what would happen if they actually were.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Shannon

    The UEFA should stop having games in these environments. Why allow these people the opportunity to behave this way? They will learn how to act when they are no longer hosting these games. The UEFA is to blame for this becoming so bad. Protecting the players and the sensible fans should be their priority. Move the games indefinitely and it will end.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:46 am | Report abuse |
    • tom

      That would mean not having the Euro tournament at all. I travel and live all around Europe and racism can be noticed everywhere. So maybe it should be held in the US?

      June 8, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  5. Lyderhorn

    I guess the extreme right wing in Poland and Ukraine are getting their message out to the world: "if you're immigrant or black don't come to this country, it's dangerous for you". Sad to see a small minority take the spotlight the first day from the majority who prepared for this . Extreme right infiltrating some supportergroups is not a new fenomenon in Europe.
    Good luck to Poland and Ukraine.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Alex in NJ

      Do you realize that Neo-Nazi's, which are the concern, are the extreme LEFT? Nazi's were National SOCIALISTS. I seriously have never understood how people keep equating Nazi's with the extreme right.

      June 8, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. saywhat

    "Ukrainian neo-Nazi group vows to attack black and Asian English supporters"
    Welcome to Euro 2012 and a world gone crazy.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  7. J in NJ

    Throwing the banana is pretty darn funny.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
    • seriously

      I do hope that you are trying to be funny. However, this is not the forum for stupidity and ignorance.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  8. Zebula

    Dark skinned people have a problem with people whose skin is darker than theirs.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jody

    Wahhhhh, someone looked at me funny and I choose to make it a racial issue and screach like a baby.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      It might be funny to you, but to a black American that visits Europe frequently, it's getting worse over there. I haven't been to Poland or Ukraine, but Greece and Spain are both very bad, if you are a minority. In Athens, my brother and I were stopped on the street, by atleast 12 Greek plain-clothes police (or that's what we understood from the one "police" man that spoke broken English), about 30 minutes after arriving in the country, for no other reason, other than we looked like illegal immigrants. Again, when my brother and I were exiting a ferry at Rodos, out of the over 2000 people exiting the ferry, were where the only ones stopped and searched, and again, it appeared because we were the only black folks on the ferry. We were the only group followed in Athens at the museums and other enclosed sightseeing locations. All African, Caribbean or white folks from Albania and such countries were targeted, the entire time in Greece (10 days). Also, in Spain, my siblings and I experienced several instances when the bus drivers wouldn't stop to pick us up or stop the bus at our stop, and once again, it appeared racially driven. We weren't allowed into a restaurant in Esteponia, one waiter refused to serve us in Madrid, for what appears to be the same reason. The racial tension in some parts of Europe is very intense. In both Greece and Spain, I have numerous pictures showing Nazi signs or signs saying that all black children have AIDS or that all black people are inferior, and these signs where quite frequently seen. If all these instances show that my siblings and I have "thin skin" and should just "deal with it", then this world's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

      June 8, 2012 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  10. chilly g


    June 8, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • CosmicC

      Yes, racism isn't as acceptible here, so rather than admit they're racist, people attack Obama for being a socialist (if he's a socialist, so was Reagan) or are "birthers".

      June 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  11. tj66

    I don't understand.... There are no Americans and no Republicans playing...how can there be racism?

    June 8, 2012 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. Alex

    The difference between Europe and US is that minorities in Europe cannot tell whites to "go back to Europe". I hate to defend the right but it is hypocritical of blacks killing off whites in South Africa then expecting to be treated fairly when they come to Europe. Another symptom of hate, heh.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      Alex, there may be blacks killing off whites in South Africa (which I'm completely against), but to use that "fact" as a reason for the actions in Europe are absurd. Do you wanna look at who has killed more of the other people over time, whites or black?

      June 8, 2012 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Excitizen

      OMG your lack of reason is astounding! So according to you we should all be hating on someone because of something someone of their race once did to someone of our race! I can only hope you spoke without first thinking.

      June 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. BigHwasdemo

    The old only white people can be racist thing -DAH! That's a racist statement.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  14. MB

    No duh there's racism and antisemitism in Poland. Out of all the countries occupied by Nazi Germany, none were more willing to collaborate then Poland.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Sodomite

      Out of all the countries in Europe, none suffered as much as the Poles.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
  15. Historian

    Wow! I’m astonished by the level of historic ignorance of this crowd here. Let me try to give you some clues:
    Clue #1:
    Why there were so many Jews in pre WW2 Poland? Was it because they’ve enjoyed anti-Semitism there? No, it’s due to the fact that it was the most tolerant place in Europe.
    Clue #2:
    Poland was the first country that resisted German WW2 invasion and maintained the largest active resistance army in the world. Polish soldiers fought on all major fronts including battle of England, D-Day, North Africa, Europe, East-Soviet front and Middle East. 6 million Poles (20% of the entire population) died.
    At the end of the war it was gratefully betrayed by Roosevelt and Churchill who generously agreed to Soviet control over it.
    Clue #3:
    No single Polish national served in German Gestapo. Were there collaborates? Of course yes – like in every occupied country. But it wasn’t even close to the level of collaboration with Germans in France or any other European countries.
    Clue #4:
    The level of Anti-Semitism was much lower than in the US. The only difference is that Germans didn’t occupy this country (it was just too far away) therefore couldn’t build their death camps here.
    The situation in Poland was a bit complex: on one hand people risked their lives to rescue Jews, on the other, given such a strong determination in resisting German occupation, it was hard to accept a total lack of it among Jewish population. Claiming that Poles should do more for Jews who did literally nothing for themselves can’t be taken seriously.
    Clue #5:
    And finally, no one seems to be concerned about racism and anti-Semitism in Germany or even in US during WW2 –hmm… try to do some thinking for a change unless t’s too difficult…

    June 8, 2012 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • CosmicC

      Clue # 4 – Are you serious? You're the one who needs to check your history.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Eve

      Thank you!!!

      June 8, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Euro

      @Historian: Thank you for setting it straight!! 🙂

      June 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
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