x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

At Euro 2012, there's no place for sport's ugly underbelly

Racism in sports, as in society, exists everywhere. But some countries have tolerated it for far too long.

Another week, another heartwarming tale of bigotry and violence from the east of Europe.

No, not the now notorious BBC documentary Stadiums of Hate that exposed the extent of football-related racism in Ukraine in the build-up to Friday's European Championships (but we'll come to that).

This time, an Emirati chess official has been deliberately run over by a car and kicked and beaten unconscious by three Hungarian police officers who thought he was an illegal immigrant, an incident seemingly tinged with racial overtones.

Saud Mohammed Al Marzooqi, a member of the UAE Chess Federation who was visiting the town of Szeged with the Emirati chess grandmaster Salim Abdulrahman, sustained five broken ribs and numerous bruises, and stopped breathing at one point during the Friday attack.

"Salim and I were walking back to our hotel," Mr Al Marzooqi told The National from his hospital room in Szeged. "As we were walking a group of drunken men approached us and started intimidating us so we avoided them and made our way to our residence."

Minutes later, Mr Al Mazrooqi, who suffers from asthma, was knocked down by a car and assaulted. That help eventually came from Hungarian chess grandmaster Peter Leko is reminder that bigotry shows itself in individual cases and should never tarnish a whole nation. But racially-motivated attacks, usually by right-leaning groups or individuals, are on the rise. And little is being done to arrest the trend. In Eastern Europe, it seems increasing intolerance is being increasingly tolerated.

Now, all eyes are on the European Championship. Even before the documentary aired, stories of racism had been threatening to cast a shadow over the tournament. The families of England players Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott had already announced they would not attend due to their fear of being the targets of racist attacks. Former England defender Sol Campbell had earlier advised England fans, dramatically if not without genuine foundation, to stay at home or risk returning in "a coffin".

Naturally, authorities in Ukraine have not taken this too well, prompting the country's president, Viktor Yanukovich, to reassure visiting fans that hooliganism is a "small" issue and that offenders will be watched closely.

It's not that such intolerance does not exist elsewhere in Europe either. England, Holland, Italy and Spain all have their problems. Indeed, anyone with memories of European Championships past would be aware that in Turin, Italy (1980), Malmo, Sweden (1992) and Charleroi, Belgium (2000), England fans have not exactly distinguished themselves in foreign lands. Campbell undoubtedly has a point, but shop-owners familiar with chairs flying through their front windows all over Europe would advise English fans not to be too preachy.

The difference is in these countries, serious efforts are being made to clamp down on intolerance, with considerable success. The BBC documentary is certainly damning, highlighting the scandalous treatment of African students in Ukraine and the official acceptance of, and reluctance to punish, violence.

The rising tide of racism is, of course, not the domain of football or sporting events. Or indeed, the murky underworld of chess. Witness the ugly, in-your-face hate being spewed by Israeli citizens and politicians against illegal African immigrants, or "infiltrators".

Racism flourishes when no, or token, action is taken against it. England, perceived as the birthplace of hooliganism, has shown how strong policing can drive seemingly endemic bigotry, and violence, out of football. It is certainly not a foolproof system of course, but one that Eastern European countries must adopt.

Sol Campbell was right; fears over Euro 2012 cannot be underplayed. One racist attack would be one too many. When authorities turn a blind eye, don't expect the hooligans to hold back.

 

Akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter @AliKhaled_