Euro 2012: The Bigoted Game?

Racism and anti-Semitism are rife on and off the football terraces in Ukraine and Poland, the hosts of Euro 2012. Will the tournament be a dangerous place for ethnic minority fans?

"Stay at home. Watch it on TV. Don't risk it, because you could find yourself coming back in a coffin."

With these words, the former England captain Sol Campbell warned football fans from ethnic minorities that attending the UEFA Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, which begins this Friday, could leave them vulnerable to deadly attacks by local racists.

Campbell, one of England's leading black players, was speaking on a BBC program that highlighted in graphic detail the prevalence of white power symbols and racist chants at football stadiums across the two East European countries. Polish fans were filmed taunting rival supporters as "Jewish whores." At a match in Ukraine, a group of Indian exchange students sitting in the family section of the stadium in Kharkiv were subjected to a vicious beating. Black players on the pitch found themselves targeted by spectators making asinine monkey noises.

Still, Poland and Ukraine are not the only countries where football matches are tainted by the spectacle of racism. Examples are legion: one could mention Lazio, the Rome club infamous for being the favored team of the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, whose current supporters hounded a Dutch player off the team by mocking him as a "ni**er Jew." Or, in the same spirit, Steaua Bucharest, whose fans are given to waving portraits of Romania's wartime pro-Nazi dictator, Ion Antonescu.

Nor is the problem of racism confined only to the fans. During a 2006 UEFA match between Israel and Andorra, the Andorran coach, David Rodrigo, bellowed at Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun, "You are a nation of killers!" There was a particularly bitter irony at work here, as Israel only participates in UEFA competitions because of the racist Arab boycott that prevents the national team from playing in its own region.

This year, England -- which has made tremendous strides in combating racism among fans on the terraces -- was the site of another nasty incident on the field, when the Chelsea defender, John Terry, allegedly abused an opposing black player in racist terminology so vulgar that it cannot be repeated. To make matters worse, Terry was subsequently picked for the 2012 England squad; but when he returns home, he will almost immediately face a court trial as a result of this incident.

Given that racism continues to mar football across Europe, is it fair to argue, as Sol Campbell did, that Poland and Ukraine should never have been selected as hosts of Euro 2012? It's a tough question that resists a straight "yes or no" answer.

The first consideration is the level of danger. "The European championship will be played before a different audience," Rafal Pankowsi, a long-time anti-racist activist in Poland who has been working extensively with UEFA on this issue, told me. "The kind of people who go to the games will be a little different from your average Polish or Ukrainian fan. The risk of major incidents inside the stadiums is not a very big one."

In this regard, Pankowski is correct. Put bluntly, the hooligan element at football matches tends to be drawn from lower income groups who cannot afford tickets for prestigious international competitions. However, Pankowski cautions that "it is much more difficult to monitor and control what happens outside the stadiums."

That is why the stance of the authorities is key -- and equally, why the decidedly more backward attitudes towards race in Poland and Ukraine could well mean that police officers are at best indifferent to, at worst downright contemptuous of, potential victims of racist violence. A UEFA-sponsored report in 2011 documented almost 200 serious hate crimes at football matches in both countries leagues. The majority of these episodes have gone unpunished.

As the BBC's expose demonstrated alarmingly, casual racist attitudes inform the outlook of many law enforcement officials in Poland and Ukraine. In Ukraine, that problem is exacerbated by police corruption; according to a poll conducted last year by TNS, a market research company, only 17 per cent of Ukrainians themselves said they trusted their own police force.

Political culture is another challenge. Both the Polish and Ukrainian governments bristle instinctively at charges of racism and anti-Semitism, believing that it interferes with their own self-image as historic victims, rather than perpetrators, of bigotry. Poland's recent objection to President Obama's flawed description of Auschwitz as a "Polish death camp" illustrated, at the same time, the unwillingness of its government to accept the depth of Polish collaboration with the Nazis. In Ukraine, meanwhile, there is an unhealthy obsession with equating those who perished in the Stalin-orchestrated famines of the early 1930s with the victims of Nazi genocide.

In such an environment, promoting tolerance at football matches is a much more complicated prospect than in England, say, or Germany, two countries where law enforcement has a much stronger commitment to stamping out racist displays. Yet Rafal Pankowski, whose organization has diligently trained hundreds of Euro 2012 stewards in methods to counter racism, is adamant that hosting the championship is a unique chance for Poles and Ukrainians to confront racist agitation head-on.

"Euro 2012 is a positive opportunity to put anti-racism in the mainstream of public discussion," Pankowski said when we spoke. Other countries, like Russia, which has experienced football racism on a similar scale and which hosts the World Cup in 2018, can only benefit from any lessons that are learned, Pankowski believes.

Genuine football fans will be hoping that these lessons do not come at the price of injuries or deaths among the many black, Asian, Jewish and gay supporters on their way to Poland and Ukraine.

Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer and communications consultant. His articles and essays have been published by Commentary, Fox News, The New York Post, The Forward amongst others.