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Euro 2012 has begun amidst a media furore over racism in Polish and Ukrainian football. Sam Beaton argues that the media's portrayal of the issue does not get to the root of the problem

As the Euro 2012 Championships kick off in Poland and Ukraine, controversy surrounding the tournament has spread far beyond fans of football, becoming headline news around the world. Footage of Asian football fans being assaulted by a crowd of white Ukrainians has gone viral on the internet. This combined with an investigation by BBC’s Panorama into the hooligan culture of the two nations, has led to most coverage of the Euros being centred around issues of racism rather than the football. Claims by the authorities that such racism was being confronted and eradicated in the build-up to Friday’s opening matches appeared to ring hollow, after allegations made by the Dutch team revealed that several players were greeted with racist chants and ‘monkey noises’ in an open training session in front of 20,000 supporters in Kraków. This is by no means the first time that controversy has arisen in the build-up to a major football competition – security concerns and fears of violent crime occurring at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa turned out to mostly be untrue – yet judging by the events of the week past, it is much more likely that Euro 2012 may fall foul of a number of incidents which could tarnish the reputations of the host countries.

Of course, to say that there are problems with football hooliganism and racism in Poland and Ukraine is nothing new. Resovia Rzeszów, one of Poland’s oldest football teams, garnered international notoriety in 2010 for displaying a crude Nazi-style caricature of a Jewish person along with the banner ‘death to the hook-nosed ones’. In reports by the Never Again association over an eighteen month period, 133 race-related incidents took place in Polish football between September 2009 and March 2011, the overwhelming majority of which featured Nazi and far-right symbolism.

Far from being relegated to the stands at stadiums, incidents such as the ‘Mlawa Pogrom’, in which over a hundred people participated in burning Roma homes, shows that racism is alive and well in the country. In Ukraine, skinhead violence against Roma, Tatar and Jewish people is of considerable concern, as are increasing tensions between the Ukrainian and Russian populations. In addition, anti-Semitism has consistently breached the political theatre, where candidates are often ‘accused’ of being Jewish as a form of mudslinging – the last Presidential election in 2010 saw both unattributed leaflets and open allegations of Jewish heritage being levelled at Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Yulia Tymoshenko .

Such instances should rightfully be condemned by football fans and anti-racists alike, yet unfortunately the so-called ‘strong crackdown’ by UEFA on racist incidents has yet to come into fruition. So far, no action has been taken with regards to the racism some Dutch players were subjected to on Friday, aside from hollow promises to monitor the situation. This echoes the tokenistic fine levelled on the Croatian FA after the displaying of Nazi flags and racist chanting of supporters in their Euro 2008 quarterfinal match against Turkey – a fine of less than $20,000 for a multi-million institution.

In the wake of Italy’s Mario Balotelli saying that he would leave the field if subjected to any racial abuse, UEFA’s Michel Platini disgracefully warned players they would be subject to a yellow card if they did so. But should this be much of a surprise? As organisers of a tournament with millions upon millions in sponsorship, television rights and so on it makes sense that they would downplay, or even cover up, anything that could get in the way of the completion of a money-spinning competition. For capitalism, nothing gets in the way of the pursuit of profit, and for a system that has historically tried to divide people by any means necessary – be it coercion, colour or class – this is a typically uniform response.

In this regard it will be interesting to see if UEFA responds to the events of Friday evening where Russia beat the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. As security fears in Poland and Ukraine have been escalated and at times sensationalised in the international media; another country with an equally serious problem with hooliganism and racism, Russia, has been completely overlooked. Football fans will be aware of incidents concerning supporters of Zenit St Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow throwing bananas at black players on the pitch – indeed, upon Peter Odemwingie’s sale from Lokomotiv to West Bromwich Albion supporters unfurled several racist banners celebrating the Nigerian international’s move away from the club, including one with a banana and the words ‘thanks West Brom’ [as an interesting aside, West Brom fans countered this act with a 'thanks Lokotomiv banner, showing Odemwingie celebrating scoring the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Arsenal [pictured below]]. It appears that such shameful behaviour from a section of Russia’s fans is continuing, following substantial evidence suggesting racial abuse was targeted towards Czech defender Theodor Gebre Selassie. Some Russian supporters would later clash violently with stewards, leaving several people hospitalised. Some commentators have predicted that similar scenes will be witnessed on Tuesday’s match against Poland, which falls on ‘Russia day’, or the day of the Russian Federation’s Declaration of Independence. It is likely that many Russians will attempt to march through the city centre in Warsaw in the build-up to the game.

The media

What has also been fascinating is the analysis presented by media outlets, in particular the BBC, about the events of racism in Central & Eastern Europe. It is important for concerns to be made about the nature of racial abuse and violence on the international stage, yet much of the coverage, notably by BBC’s Panorama, has been inconsistent and in places quite hypocritical. Upon viewing the feature ‘Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate’ what could be a useful and insightful programme all too often betrays a certain Western European chauvinism, which deals to an extent with some problems in the British game, but finds it far easier to play up problems further afield. In this regard much of the criticism rings hollow: it is difficult to accept stories about how bad problems are overseas when sections of the Arsenal support regularly reference Auschwitz when playing Tottenham Hotspur, and John Terry’s racism trial will conveniently begin after Euro 2012 is over. Former England international Sol Campbell tells fans not to risk going “because you could end up coming back in a coffin”, yet the match against Ukraine in 2009, and subsequent UEFA Cup and Champions League matches between English and Ukrainian clubs, have passed without incident.

On the other hand, it was in Spain where several English players were targeted by abuse from Spanish supporters, highlighting that racism in football is by no means an Eastern European problem. The show has subsequently come under fire by participants of the programme, who say they were manipulated and words were taken out of context to fit Panorama’s hypothesis that the situation is out of control.

This is not the first time that Panorama’s actions have been questionable. A recent investigation surrounding human rights in Azerbaijan and the Eurovision Song Contest, which aired six days before the event, aimed to criticise UK entrant Englebert Humperdinck for not taking a stand against the regime. Yet this programme was surrounded by previews for the contest, continual BBC coverage of ‘the Hump’ and his bid for Eurovision glory, and the fact that the BBC financially sponsors the contest itself as an affiliate of the European Broadcasting Union. Subsequently, during the competition nothing was said or mentioned in the BBC broadcast about human rights or the ‘documentary’ (which, of course, never went as far as calling for a formal withdrawal).

Panorama’s raison d’être appears to be to flirt with controversy, shallow sensationalism and furore rather than promoting real investigative journalism. Whereas it is right to raise the issue of racism in football, evidence suggests it to be far more widespread than a certain few Eastern European countries, and it is from this alone that uneven perceptions and scaremongering grows. As Anton Shekhovtsov, researcher at Nottingham University recently pointed out on Al-Jazeera, concern has given way to hysteria to the point that every Polish and Ukrainian person is a racist.

There is no denying that racism exists in the host countries of this year’s championship, but the response to it on an official level has been far more subdued than the headlines would suggest. UEFA have permitted referees to call off matches if levels of racism directed at players is prolonged, and this is a positive step; but the organisation’s unwillingness to thoroughly investigate the recent events of the weekend shows how uneven the response is (it should also be noted how the onus has been put on the referee, rather than UEFA itself, who directly deals with TV licensing rights for broadcast internationally).

As British Ministers confirm that they will be boycotting the event’s group stages over both racism issues and what it calls ‘selective justice’ in the recent corruption cases and treatment of jailed former President Tymoshenko, it raises the question of why they still support the English team’s participation in the tournament. It could be argued that the Government would act differently if faced with a boycott citing ‘security concerns’ about the London Riots and the 2012 Olympic games. When the organised racists of the English Defence League receive protection from the police and licences to spread their hatred in public, can there really be any sense of moral superiority from the ‘civilised West’?

When it comes to dealing with such issues, UEFA could take steps to ban national Football Associations from participating in tournaments when there have been cases of racial misconduct. UEFA could also be proactive in banning known and active racists from attending matches. However, this seems to be missing the bigger picture. Racism is not something unique to football, or unique to Eastern Europe – it is an issue that has permeated almost all levels of society all over the world: and the profit motive’s ruthlessness in exploiting perceived differences for its own gain is a major reason for this.

Thatcherite policies saw an explosion in the growth of the far-right in Britain, as did nationalist movements in the East when these models were implemented after the breakup of the Soviet sphere of influence, and this is a political legacy that continues to this day, in the slashing of public services and rising unemployment around Europe. Can these forces then be trusted to sort out the problem from above, after regularly exploiting racial divides for financial gain? Progressive forces should support and welcome measures to curtail racism on such a basis, but the real fight comes from below. Anti-racists should not be afraid to tackle racism head-on when it comes to football stands or the community. Grassroots initiatives have been successful in the past at standing up for their communities – from Cable Street all the way to confronting the EDL – but taking this out of the greater class-struggle context must be avoided.

These same groups need to be pro-active in tackling the cuts issues head-on. The financial crisis of capital has led to great gains by the Neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn (pictured above) in Greece for instance, who routinely attempt to put the blame on immigrants and support vile ‘vigilante’ actions against such people. Where the BNP made gains several years ago in places such as Barking & Dagenham, the amount of racially-motivated violence against black and Asian residents grew – in other words, not only is there a direct correlation between the far-right and violence, but also between racism and recession.

The danger of the coverage of racism in Poland and Ukraine is not that it is highlighting the problem of racism, but that it attempts to do so in a vacuum: racism is a problem for all of Europe because the crisis is turning sections of society towards despair and scapegoating. So yes, let’s kick racism out of football – and out of society by recognising and organising against the mechanism that allows it to bloom.

From International Socialist Group site.

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