Football’s dark side casts ominous shadows on the streets of Krakow

The graffiti stares back at you as soon as you leave John Paul II International Airport and set off on the drive into Krakow. It follows you into the city, on the sides of the roads and the little clusters of apartment blocks. White supremacy symbols mostly, though it does not take a great deal to find the larger, more sinister pieces of work.

At least the authorities here are trying to do something about it. Maybe not enough, but more than you might realise given the way England’s host city has commonly been portrayed as shrugging its shoulders and wondering, bemusedly, why the rest of us are getting so worked up.

They spend around zloty 150 000 ($46 000) every year trying to remove the spray paint from Krakow’s walls. Interkulturalni, one of the organisations tackling racism, has a “Streets of Shame” section on its website, where the public can post photographs and report offenders. The city council has its own hotline and the Krakow Post is routinely filled with stories promoting multiculturalism. One recent front-page headline read simply: “Stamp Out Racism.”

The problem, according to Interkulturalni, is “institutional racism”, passively accepted by the public. Already we have had the monkey chants that polluted a Holland training session at the Wisla Krakow stadium and, just as shockingly, something that strayed suspiciously close to an attempted cover-up. Listen to the footage and it is not merely a handful of people involved, as Uefa tried to purport, but hundreds. It is the ghastly “ooh ooh” noises that symbolise only one thing, and it was pitiful in the extreme that Uefa, as well as a number of Dutch journalists, tried to pass it off as something it very obviously wasn’t.

The default setting for many is that Uefa got it wrong awarding the tournament to Poland and Ukraine when this could easily have been predicted during the bidding process in 2007. No doubt that line will be pursued even more vigorously if there are more problems over the coming weeks. Yet that is to presume the alternatives had a racism-free guarantee when that is plainly not the case given that the rival bids came from Italy and a joint package from Croatia and Hungary.

Croatia, to put it into context, were fined at Euro 2004 after their supporters targeted France’s Sylvain Wiltord and displayed banners bearing Celtic crosses, the symbol of the white power movement. The same kind of thing happened when they played Turkey in Euro 2008. Alternatively, think back to England’s game in Zagreb in 2008, when Emile Heskey got the full monkey treatment. Or the most sinister one yet: the friendly against Italy in Livorno in 2006, when the Croatian fans stood on the terraces in the formation of a swastika and made Sieg Heil salutes.

Italy had been favourites to land this tournament and, presumably, would have been a more popular choice, yet they, too, have demonstrated an apparent inability to embrace a multi-ethnic identity. Juventus supporters once held up a banner about Mario Balotelli, then 18, with the words: “A Negro cannot be Italian.” When he broke into the Italy team, another bore the message: “No to a multi-ethnic national team.” Balotelli has become a serial target in his young career, but whatever misgivings he might have about this tournament it is unlikely he will encounter anything so callous as his experiences in his own country.

This is not to avoid the very clear issue that Poland and Ukraine have a serious social problem, or the sense of deep unease that the black players in the Dutch squad cannot even do a lap of their training pitch without being hounded. It is just that before there is any more demonising of the co-hosts it is wrong to file this away as simply a problem for Eastern Europe. There is not a country in Europe where prejudice does not exist in some form, and that includes what some might class as more civilised football environments such as Italy or Spain or Portugal.

One of the reports into Euro 2004, compiled by Football Against Racism in Europe, talks of Spanish fans with tattoos and flags featuring neo-Nazi symbols such as Waffen-SS skulls, Celtic crosses and the number 88, the abbreviation for HH — Heil Hitler. More recently, consider the abuse directed at Balotelli on Manchester City’s foreign excursions last season, first at Villarreal, then Porto. Or remember the treatment reserved for England’s black players during a friendly against Spain at the Bernabéu in 2004 and the indignation in the Spanish media when their English counterparts had the temerity to complain. Antena 3 talked of “absurd accusations” and “gross exaggerations”. The sports daily As accused the English of being “very serious when it comes to race, politically correct to the extreme, which is just another way of hiding their own defects”.

There are people in Poland and Ukraine who are starting to suspect the same thing, and maybe with at least the basis of a point. Anyone who watched the Panorama documentary, Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, will understand that a football match in Krakow or Kiev is very different to one in London or Manchester. Yet let’s not be too self-congratulatory or delude ourselves into thinking the English Premier League is devoid of racism, especially after some of the things that have happened over the past year. Or that just because the newspapers don’t like to give them too much publicity there are not groups of boneheaded men going on racist marches through various towns and cities on their weekends.

Of course, the issue is strikingly worse in Poland and Ukraine, where the anti-racism campaigners are only just starting to get their voices heard and there is still the sense that many people in high positions would rather turn a blind eye. Uefa, we know, are patently weak when, if they had been stronger, the two host countries would have been under greater pressure to clean up their act. But this is Uefa, an organisation that initially told us what happened in Krakow with the Dutch squad was not racism and would probably still be peddling that line were it not for Mark van Bommel taking it upon himself to tell it like it really was.

Now we hear reports of Russian supporters with far-right flags abusing the Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre Selassie, and it is not being alarmist to look at, say, Ukraine’s games against France and England with a little trepidation. Before then, the Ukraine coach, Oleh Blokhin, will inevitably be asked to explain his comments, in the New York Times in 2006, that “the more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation — let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not some Zumba-Bumba they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league”.

The football has been good so far, and there has been plenty to enjoy, but there are clearly going to be sporadic moments when Euro 2012 is difficult to love. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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