Euro 2012: Poland and Ukraine - a hotbed of hate?

Sickening sight of the swastika: Supporters of Karpaty Lviv hold up a Nazi flag at a match against Dynamo Kiev in the Ukrainian capital in 2007. Photograph: Reuters
Sickening sight of the swastika: Supporters of Karpaty Lviv hold up a Nazi flag at a match against Dynamo Kiev in the Ukrainian capital in 2007. Photograph: Reuters
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AUTHORITIES claim visiting fans have nothing to fear in Poland and Ukraine but evidence suggests otherwise… especially if you’re black, gay or Jewish

When the BBC current affairs show Panorama aired its documentary “Stadiums of Hate”, about racism in Polish and Ukrainian football, the fallout was immediate and spectacular. The families of two black England players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, decided not to travel to Euro 2012, and Mario Balotelli announced that he would kill any fan who racially abused him. Suddenly, the spectre of European football’s showcase tournament being ruined by Sieg-Heiling neo-Nazis seemed halfway to becoming reality.

“The programme had a really profound effect on me,” says anti-racism campaigner Gary Mackay, who works for the Scottish arm of Show Racism the Red Card, “but what was interesting was how much of an impact it had on other people. I was at Prestwick Academy the next morning talking to pupils there, and two young girls in particular talked really movingly about how much it affected them.

“The footage of the Indian students being attacked by supporters from their own side was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, as were the comments of the government official who was saying that the neo-Nazi salutes were fans waving at opposition supporters. He was treating the issue with disdain, laughing it off.”

Concern about possible racist attacks on English fans was already high thanks to a Foreign Office advice that fans from minorities need to take “extra care” when travelling to Ukraine. A recent report by UEFA-backed anti-racism group FARE revealed that, in the 18 months before the tournament, the host nations had logged 195 racist incidents involving football, a figure its authors described as “only the very tip of the iceberg”. Far-right groups, they warned, are expected to be very active during Euro 2012.

In Ukraine, Kiev’s first Gay Pride march was abandoned last month after 500 right-wing football hooligans ambushed the parade, beating up would-be marchers. Donetsk, the drab mining town where England will play France in their opening game on 11 June and Ukraine in their final pool game, is home to the 3,500-strong neo-Nazi group The Patriot of Ukraine, about whom the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union said: “One should not underestimate the seriousness of this organisation. Their events are of an openly xenophobic and extremist nature.”

Although the authorities have promised to protect all fans and high ticket prices are likely to price out many violent “Ultras”, the match between an England side possibly including five or six black players and Ukraine in Donetsk on 19 June will be of particular concern. With only 5,000 England fans expected to travel (10,000 went to South Africa in 2010 and 100,000 to Germany in 2006) the 50,000-seater Donbass Arena will be overwhelmingly full of home fans for a match that could conceivably decide who goes through to the knockout stages. It won’t help that England have already offended their hosts by preferring to be based in the Polish city of Krakow.

Not that they will find Poland an oasis of racial tranquillity. A recent report showed scarves, T-shirts and stickers bearing slogans like “Jews forbidden” and “Beat the Greeks” openly available outside Widzew Lodz’s stadium. Anti-semitism is rife in Polish football, monkey chants common, and last month two black players from top-division side Lechia Gdansk had bananas hurled at them during the game. The threat to English fans is also explicit. A video posted on YouTube before Christmas entitled “Polish Hooligans Waiting for You (Euro2012)!!!” shows Polish fans brawling in stadiums, streets and even in fields.

Yet there are many who are willing to stand up for Ukraine and who believe that the Panorama version of events is a peculiarly skewed one. Yuri Bender, a British-born Ukrainian journalist who writes for the Financial Times, points out that Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev both field up to half a dozen black players each week without any abuse. Donetsk’s stadium was financed by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, a Muslim who has also built a new mosque in Donetsk, yet there have been no recorded incidents of racist chanting directed at him. When anti-semitic chanting was directed at Ihor Surkis, Dynamo Kiev’s Jewish owner, the visiting club was heavily fined. More than 80,000 police and stewards in Ukraine have been receiving “anti-discrimination training” over the past six months.

“My wife, who is of Afro-Caribbean origin, and our two mixed-race children, have accompanied me to Ukraine on several occasions,” says Bender. “There has certainly been no abuse directed against them and in fact quite the opposite. The locals have gone out of their way to make them feel welcome in Ukraine.”

In Poland, UEFA has praised the government for aggressively targeting football-related racism, with more than 1,800 Polish fans served with hooliganism-related stadium bans since March 2009. When an anti-Semitic banner was unfurled by fans of second division Stal Rzeszow in May, the club was fined 2,500 zloty (£460), its fans banned from matches for three weeks, and five fans currently face prison terms of up to five years for inciting violence.

Yet while there is no doubt that attitudes towards race in Poland and Ukraine are changing, there is still no taboo to unreconstructed racism. So, just as the election of Nigerian-born John Godson as Poland’s first black MP in 2010, followed by the election of Zambian-born Killion Munyama last year, point to a society where racism is not universal, the reaction of Poland’s most famous talkshow host showed how much remains to be done. “Godson is from Nigeria – the president of Nigeria ate his predecessor,” said Kuba Wojewódzki live on air, before then asking listeners: “Why do Nigerians have flat noses? So they can lap up water from puddles.”

Mostly, though, Ukrainians and Poles are apt to dismiss allegations of racism. The response of legendary pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, who now heads up Ukraine’s Olympic committee, to the Panorama expose is typical. “The fans sometimes fight, but this is not racism,” he said. Asked about the beating of the Indians filmed by Panorama, he said: “If something happened in that way, this is not because of racism. It’s a mistake. Please come, you will be happy, you will be impressed.”

That, however, remains to be seen.