Sit back and enjoy the football
Ignore the hype and nonsense about Ukrainian fascists and Polish crazies – there’s a footie tournament on.
There was once a time when the job of a football referee was simply to uphold the rules of the game. No more. During Euro 2012, the ref will have to have one eye on the ball and the other on the racist savages from Poland and the Ukraine in the stands.
The debate about Euro 2012 has been less about how players can leave the pitch as victors, and more about how they can leave the pitch in disgust at the behaviour of fans from joint host nations Poland and, in particular, proto-fascist Ukraine. Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli has declared, ‘I cannot bear racism, it’s unacceptable for me… I would straight away leave the pitch and go home.’ He was quickly rebuked by UEFA president Michel Platini, who stressed it was the role of the referee to decide when to stop. ‘Referees can finish the game’, he told the BBC, ‘they have this power in case of racism’.
While the referee may not be able to fall back on goal-line technology to monitor the match, he will be assisted by an army of monitors trained to spot racist signs, chants and gestures that take place in what BBC’s Panorama last week dubbed Ukraine’s and Poland’s ‘Stadiums of Hate’. Thirty-one ‘independent international monitors’ have been trained to snoop on fans; their role will be ‘not to just look out for the obvious racism but the nuanced issues’. Polish anti-fascist group Never Again has trained ‘thousands’ of Euro 2012 stewards to learn how to deal with racism from fans. One estimate is that a total of 80,000 police and stewards have had ‘discrimination awareness training’. Even fans themselves are encouraged to be on the lookout, with a dedicated phone hotline being set up so they can report what one commentator calls the ‘racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism [that] are widespread and entrenched among certain supporter groups in these nations’.
Monitoring the behaviour of the ‘Nazi mob’ and ‘extremist yobs’ of Ukrainian football is not deemed to be enough, however. England fans are to be sheltered from the hordes in special ‘safe zones’ in the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Donetsk, a move welcomed by groups concerned for the safety of ‘black and Asian England fans’. These will be for registered England supporters only, with no Poles or Ukrainians permitted. Erm, exactly who are the xenophobes here?
England fans may be protected from the savages in the stadiums but, according to many, supporters need to be afraid when they stray outside into the Eastern European badlands. As Nick Lowles, head of UK anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, puts it, ‘My main concern is away from the stadiums, away from the mass ranks of the police and cameras, for small groups of England fans, particularly black and Asian fans’. Others share this concern. The UK Foreign Office has advised anyone of ‘Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent and anyone from a religious minority’ to ensure they ‘take extra care’ in Ukraine. The former England captain Sol Campbell has even warned fans to stay at home and watch the matches from the safety of their sofas instead, lest they ‘end up coming back in a coffin’.
Campbell goes further, saying UEFA was wrong to have awarded Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine. Apparently it should have told them, ‘if you want this tournament, you sort your problems out. Until we see a massive improvement… you do not deserve these prestigious tournaments in your country’.
A seemingly lone voice of reason comes from Mark Perryman of the London England Fans’ group, who has criticised the hysterical scaremongering about Ukraine as unhelpful. He said: ‘We refuse to believe that Ukrainians are all racist. We can remember exactly the same two weeks out from the World Cup in 2010 when we were told day after day “you’re going to be raped, car-jacked and murdered”. I think people are extremely suspicious of the way another country is being misrepresented.’
This may be the view among some England fans, but not in other quarters. Panic about Ukraine and Poland is widespread in the British media. As one commentator wrote in the Guardian, ‘a darkness still pervades both countries. On a recent visit to Poland and Ukraine, I couldn’t help but be struck by it.’
Indeed, the rationale that has been given by UEFA officials as to why they picked these host nations is that the championships will be, in Platini’s words, a ‘force for good’ that will ‘change the life for the people’. Since announcing the host nations, UEFA has taken the approach of patting the countries’ governments on the back for ‘targetting football-related racism’. Anti-racist campaigners have expressed their hope that their campaigns will endure long after the tournament. ‘We want fans to have that education’, says one, ‘to have that awareness of things that will stay with them long after all this over’. Another speaks of Euro 2012 as an ‘historic event’ for Poland and Ukraine: ‘It is forcing people to have a positive confrontation with multiculturalism.’
However, François Hollande and the entire French government have declared they will boycott all matches in Ukraine, alongside officials from numerous other countries, due to disappointment with the way it is developing. Yesterday, the UK government announced it would also be boycotting all matches in Ukraine due to the treatment of jailed leader of the opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko. Pressure is also being heaped on German chancellor Angela Merkel to boycott Euro 2012 by groups such as gay campaigning outfit All Out. All Out, with the support of Germany’s first publicly gay elite footballer, is collecting signatures for a petition against Ukrainian government plans to make saying ‘gay’ illegal. It says: ‘If we can convince chancellor Angela Merkel to follow the trend and also boycott it, it will make headlines everywhere and pressure [Ukrainian president] Yanukovych to finally denounce the laws in his parliament that want to make saying “gay” illegal.’ All Out concludes: ‘This Euro 2012, let’s celebrate more than sport.’
Indeed, for many anti-racist campaigners, Brussels bureaucrats and even footballers, sport appears a mere sideshow to the opportunity to lecture Ukraine and Poland about their backward, un-European redneck-style behaviour. What you end up with is the worst of both worlds: a cynical attempt to undermine the sovereignty of the two host countries by politicians and campaigners on a civilising mission, and the ruining of the football that, after all, is what Euro 2012 should be about. Rather than trying to make it ‘more than sport’ and hector the hosts, let’s celebrate Euro 2012 for one thing only: the football.
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