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The European Championships, a showpiece event in the soccer calendar that comes around just once every four years, has rightfully been hitting the headlines this week; however it has been for all the wrong reasons. Hosted in the Eastern European nations of Poland and Ukraine, serious concerns have been raised about the possibility of racist abuse against both visiting players and fans by a minority of local ‘fans’.
The tournament organizer, UEFA, has faced a high level of criticism for allowing these countries to host the tournament when racist and prejudicial behavior is displayed with alarming frequency in their stadiums. The BBC’s ‘Panorama’ show conducted a research into the behavior in stadiums of both Poland and Ukraine and the resulting television documentary shocked viewers. The documentary showed black players being subjected to monkey chants and thrown bananas, whilst some Asian fans were brutally attacked by other fans in the stadium and were given very little assistance by the stewards present at the game. There were also frequent incidents of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi attitudes that also extended outside of the stadiums.
Whilst UEFA president Michel Platini has vehemently defended their decision to host the tournament in Poland and Ukraine, other soccer luminaries have condemned the decision and taken their own action. Former England centre-back Sol Campbell is one such person and has warned England fans of all ethnicities to stay at home and watch the tournament on television rather than risking abuse and violence by travelling to support the team. Controversial Italian striker Mario Balotelli also voiced discontent with UEFA’s decision, stating that if he is subjected to racist abuse whilst playing at the European Championships, he will simply walk off the pitch.
In the wake of these statements and similar comments from footballers of both past and present, Platini confirmed that any player walking off of the pitch because of racist abuse will be booked. Platini then qualified this by saying that referees would have the discretion to end a match prematurely if they believe racist abuse is occurring. Although Platini’s fairly cavalier attitude to a complex problem has won him very few fans in the last month, the ire of some fans was cooled by his declaration that referees would be able to stop matches early, and should do so, if witnessing racist abuse from fans.
This lessening of tensions did not last long however, with preparations for the opening game of the tournament between Poland and Greece overshadowed by claims the Dutch team were subject to racist chanting during their first open training session in the Polish city of Krakow. Although the Dutch FA will not file a complaint with UEFA, due to the presence of political chanting at the time also, the case has raised an ominous shadow over the entire tournament. All eyes will now be on both the training sessions and matches of the likes of England and France, both of whom have a large number of black players in their squads.
Needless to say, if there are any more reported cases of racism in either country, whether it be in a stadium and directed at players, or on the streets against fans of the visiting teams, strength will be lent to the condemnations of UEFA for allowing a tournament such as this to be hosted in these countries. Platini is likely to bear the brunt of these accusations and will not be able to use ignorance as an excuse, with concerns about racism in the Eastern European leagues having been well publicized for years now.
With UEFA firmly in the firing line should any further incidents occur, Platini and Co. will be watching on anxiously as the tournament moves into the group stages and will be hoping that the tournament will be remembered for its football and not its off-the-field controversies.
Image Courtesy Kancelaria Premiera