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. klei

    Why do you have to separate the words 'racism' and 'anti-Semitism'? It's not as if anti-Semitism is especially grievous or more severe than vanilla racism. Shame on your sensationalist reporting.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. aleksandra

    This is not true! Please confirm your data about racism antisemitism in Poland with some statistics. We are very happy to host people of different races, nations, beliefs and skin color in our country! We are very proud that Euro is taking place in Poland! It is a great celebration for us!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dr. Furtado

    In our national football championship, roughly half of all the players are from Asian, African and **Brazilian** countries."

    Dear Elliot,

    Thanks for the enlightening piece on racism and sport. However, I couldn't help noticing your reference to my beloved country of Brazil (see excerpt above). I know that (for some) Geography is a daunting (even boring) subject taught in schools (at least before the invention of the Internet :)). But, I would assume that CNN writers would make an effort to (at least) check Wikipedia before publishing. So I will help you:

    Brazil is ONE single country. There is no multiple "Brazilian countries" scattered around the world. I assume you are referring to South American countries, right?

    I know you are quoting someone. But, couldn't you at least edit it?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cheese Wonton

      Well, at least the author didn't call you Mexicans.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BigR

    It just shows, humans are nothing but a little smarter monkey.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Agnes

    I cannot believe how much out of proportion the BBC and CNN media coverage on that topic is. Media often create stories – BBC created this one just before the EURO (I wonder why?) and CNN is following the BBC route. I would think that BBC and CNN do not need to create controversial stories to attract viewers/readers. I wonder why BBC and CNN want to destroy EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine? The way you report does not help but only fuels the situation. It's not objective, it creates an impression that racism is normal in Poland. IT IS NOT. It is confined to a very small minority of people with which Polish authorities should deal more decisively. It creates an impression that Poland is a dangerous country. IT IS NOT. I am a Pole and I feel really, really abused by your coverage. Please do not create stereotypes. The stereotypes you create are as harmful and dangerous as monkey chants you report on, or maybe even more because you are so influential.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  6. PJ

    Europe? Racist? NO. WAY. EVERY time Europe falls apart, the Fascist Nut Jobs are waiting in the Wings. Doesn't matter if it's Germany, Greece, Poland, Serbia, or Upper Slobovia – they ALL thirst for the Throne of Blood...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. bkh

    bring back meathead!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. me

    I'm sick of hearing that Poland and Ukraine are racist!!!Are You all blind????Do You not face the same problem everywhere???America??KKK???Are You so pure and healed???C'mone- cut that crap!!That problem does not exist in Your countries??Sorry-I don't believe that!!!!So focus on more important things!!CNN I'm so dissapointed-You should at least try to focus on some other things that things that concern racism in Poland and Ukraine-Cause Euro 2012 is not about racism!!!C'mon I barelly see Black people in Poland and yet You're screaming so loud about racism in Poland and Ukraine- funny that is!!!!The issue is that the Euro 2012 has just begin so focus on that instead of focusing on that relatively small problem that We will comprehend of Our own-cause we hate it either!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Huh ?

      You don't see many black people in Poland ? Could that be why racism is a problem there ? Could it also be possible that todays America as people blow it up to be ? We are more diverse than most countries & racism is kept alive by people who want to propogate the "feel sorry for me " clause. Ohh & when was the last time youve heard KKK stories on the news ? If you want to leave racism behInd in America then let it die !!!

      June 9, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Huh ?

      Meant to say -todays America isnt as racist as people blow it up to be !!

      June 9, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  9. palin support? really?

    Racism is a disease most spread by those claiming to be victims!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. R

    CNN would be better off writing an article about the booming Polish economy instead of this poorly crafted provocation piece.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Salli

      So telling the facts and hearing them directly from the athletes is provocation? Me think you doth protest too much in hearing the truth!

      June 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. GoEuro2012Go

    When reporting every monkey chant during training and the games could be tempting for journalists for whatever reason, they still need consider the fact that this monkey chanting group represents only about 0.02% of total population of Ukraine and Poland. The math is done on numbers that combine population both countries is about 84,058,188 and lets say 20,000 is number of hooligans on the stadiums involving in no political correct behaviour. Hopefully we will hear about hospitality and friendliness of rest 99.98% and Euro 2012 events in more balancing light.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Juanmom

    Anna, I cannot believe you posted this immature, racist comment. I'm so glad I reported you for abuse!

    June 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Salli

    The US has its share of racial problems, some states and cities worse than others. However, in 2012 I don't know of any incidents where professional athletes have been called derogatory names during a game!!!! From the Williams sisters playing in France to Balotelli in Italy, all receiving racist chants during games, the citizens of those countries have shown their worst side of humanity, bigotry.

    How many people have to tell stories of racism so bad in the Urkraine that one biracial child was stabbed and others are humiliated on a daily basis? Yes, Ukraine, YOU have a problem! So does Italy!

    No country is an island and it is time for acceptance of others globally.

    @Gary Craft: "Mostly black on white violence??" Where do you live? That is not the entire country so don't even front like it is.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jack

    Holy cow. Some people said something racist at a football game. This is huge news. Spread the word about the absolutely unbelievable, incredibly important news story.

    June 8, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Brit

    I see a lot of post claiming that the story inaccurately represents the issues of racism and that energy is better spent on focusing on the up coming games..or something positive about Poland. But doesn't anyone see how terrible it is that a organized ethnocentric group is making threats to attack anyone they perceive as too different from them.. People HAVE to know what to expect..when attending such a large event. Think of how many people could be hurt or killed when passions are already running high.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
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