x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

No grey area in this black and white issue at Euro 2012

Authorities in Poland and Ukraine are 'doing the Poznan' over the issue at this year's championship.

A file photo from August 19, 2007 shows fans waving the Nazi flag in a domestic league match in Kiev, Ukraine. .
A file photo from August 19, 2007 shows fans waving the Nazi flag in a domestic league match in Kiev, Ukraine. .

Ah, the besmirching of the host nation of a major football tournament: an English summer tradition right up there with maypole-dancing, rain-lashed barbecues and broken metatarsals.

In 2010, we warned that South Africa was a den of vipers, thieves and murderous carjackers. As it turned out, the only real danger to travelling fans was vuvuzela-induced deafness.

In 2006, we quaked at reports that Germany was awash with Nazis. In fact, the closest thing to blitzkrieg was the relentless occupation of Baden-Baden's designer boutiques by the England players' wives and girlfriends.

And at the 2002 World Cup, England fans were warned to cover their tattoos to avoid being mistaken for members of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Believe it or not, that never happened.

Apparently the Japanese police were able to deduce that Yakuza thugs, although heavily tattooed, would be unlikely to opt for a snarling bulldog holding the twin flags of St George and Stoke City.

Those scare stories were never particularly frightening. Rational people saw them for what they were: cheap sensationalism to fill the news vacuum.

This year's assault on the reputations of Ukraine and Poland, however - that both countries are plagued by violent racist thugs - is being taken far more seriously, not least by the black players themselves.

The families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have opted to stay away from the tournament because of safety fears.

Their decision followed official advice from the British government that "travellers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent, and individuals belonging to religious minorities, should take extra care".

Sol Campbell, a former England captain, went even further: "Don't go," he told fans via a BBC documentary broadcast this week. "Don't even risk it or you could end up coming home in a coffin."

Campbell's quotes should be understood in context.

He appeared understandably emotional, having just been shown footage of Polish and Ukrainian domestic matches, where fans gave Nazi salutes and made monkey chants towards black players.

He had also viewed upsetting footage of some young Indian men being viciously beaten by a gang of Metalist Kharkiv thugs as they sat in the family enclosure of the Metalist Stadium.

It was heartbreaking - particularly when one of the victims seemed baffled that they had been attacked despite their support for Metalist, as if that would have made a difference.

Campbell is entitled to say what he likes but that precise moment was probably not the best time to be making a balanced judgement on the issue.

Inevitably, the Polish and Ukrainians did not take kindly to his comments or the BBC documentary as a whole.

Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, made a pointed comment that racist attacks occur elsewhere. He clearly meant England.

He is right, and some of those attacks have been uncomfortably close to football.

During Euro 96, a young Russian man was stabbed to death in Brighton by thugs who believed him to be German. England, the host nation, had just lost on penalties to their old foe.

In 2005, black teenager Anthony Walker was killed in a senseless racist attack near Liverpool. His murderers happened to be the brother and cousin of the England-capped Joey Barton.

In 2001, Jonathan Woodgate, the Leeds and England player, was convicted over an attack on an Asian man outside a nightclub. The court did not deem it a racist attack but the victim certainly did.

And let us not forget that England stalwart John Terry will return from the Euros to a criminal trial for the alleged racist abuse of Anton Ferdinand during a Premier League match.

So, yes, every country is struggling with what Uefa call the "societal problem" of racism. And, yes, major sporting events can provide a catalyst to tackling it.

What is concerning about Poland and Ukraine, however, is their failure to recognise that the problem exists at all.

On the BBC documentary, a Ukrainian police commander suggested that some 2,000 Metalist fans had not been giving Nazi salutes, as secret filming showed, but merely pointing at opposition fans with a straight arm. Oh really? So why were they also shouting "Sieg Heil"?

Also, why do the authorities not paint over the racist graffiti that blooms over both countries? Why was the Ukrainian Football Association "unable to say" if any action had been taken over the attack on the Indian men in Kharkiv?

Why did the Polish FA fine a football club in Rzeszow just a €1,000 (Dh4,563) for displaying an anti-Semitic banner, and ban its owner for just two matches?

And what exactly are black and Asian fans supposed to do once they leave the sanitised (and doubtless well-policed) fan zones which Uefa advises them to use to return to their hotels? We simply do not know.

Uefa, the Poles and Ukrainians are effectively "doing the Poznan" when it comes to racism and those who draw attention to it: turning their backs, linking arms and making plenty of noise to drown out the opposition.

No wonder that some black and Asian football fans, including the Walcotts and Oxlade-Chamberlains, are also turning their backs on Poland and Ukraine.

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