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Eurovision: Thuggery and Football

In the end, the BBC’s exposé of football hooliganism in Ukraine and Poland lived up to the PR trail.

May 31, 2012 - Josh Black - Articles and Commentary



Since much of the build up was predicated on the decisions of the unwillingness of the families of Theo Walcott and Ashley Youngs (England football players – editor’s note) to take up the hospitality of the two joint hosts of EURO 2012, there was an inevitable sense that the issue had been prejudged and/or blown out of proportion. That Sol Campbell (former captain of the England football team – editor’s note) was wheeled out to provide a running commentary on the footage was bizarre, but generated the headline that the producer sought to achieve: “Stay away from the Euros or face bloody murder”.

You could not, in all conscience, try to convince the Walcott’s and Youngs’ that they were being hysterical, having watched the footage. Asian fans set upon by fans of the team they themselves were supporting in one of Ukraine’s nicest stadiums, while the police looked on uninterestedly; Polish fans engaging in Nazi salutes and “Sieg Heils”; and worst of all, an interview with a member of a radical right-wing group who boasted about his exploits in knife fighting in a city that had recently experienced the racially-motivated stabbing of two foreign students. Holidays that begin as calculated risks rarely end well and even one of the great sporting spectacles does unbalance the scales of life and death in this regard.

That said, I suspect that EURO 2012 will pass without violence. There is much riding on this (including, some analysts say, the fortunes of the Yanukovych administration in Ukraine – badly in need of some foreign prestige as it is). Moreover, I have been to both countries and believe them to be safe holiday destinations. The history of both countries is marked by terrible violence, but also by tolerance and heroism – Polish members of the Righteous Amongst Nations, those recognised as rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, make up a quarter of the total. Nearly two and a half thousand Ukranians are also listed. Moreover, the Jewish populations of these countries would not have swollen, had not their Jagellonian rulers been welcoming at a time when Jews were unwelcome amongst Western European nations at the time of the Inquisition and expulsions. Jewish tourism is booming in Eastern Europe, and I know Poles who actively seek to study their Jewish history.

While at some level racism, anti-Semitism and neo-facism could be contextualised in terms of dislocated labour markets, high youth unemployment and the radical redistribution of capital, this would not only worsen the casual extension of the evidence selected by Panorama over the whole of the societies in question, but miss the more subtle warning at hand. For the film is not merely a warning that violent extremism exists, but that there is a branch which breeds on football, and too little is being done to disrupt the groups that perpetrate it. In this, the reactions of the respective governments are instructive.

The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, rebutted the thrust of the documentary in his idiosyncratic, quiet, understated way, emphasising that no-one visiting Poland need fear for their safety. Ukraine’s response was wearingly typical:

  • A police chief, interviewed by Panorma, unconvincingly stated that the fans were not saluting, just pointing.
  • One of Yanukovych’s Ministers, Oleh Voloshyn, described the allegations as a “dreamed up and mythical problem” before engaging in “whataboutism”, where the spokesman attempts to pass the criticism back onto the prosecution.
  • UEFA 2012 director, Markiyan Lubkivsky, described Sol Campbell as insolent for stating that he would not travel to Ukraine, thus totally misunderstanding the nature of public service broadcasting.
  • There has, to date, been no mention of the programme from the president or prime minister, who are too busy trying to ignore representations from the IMF and European Union that a creeping budget deficit and the continued imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko spell trouble.

Panorama has therefore struck an important target: indifference. The Ukrainian anti-racist pressure group “Football against Prejudices” has admitted as much, accusing the football authorities of ignoring the problem for too long. It would indeed be a tragedy if Ukraine’s saturnine government were to retard the development of a more civil footballing society as they have interrupted the freedom of the press and of the political opposition. In the meantime, the security stakes have been raised for both countries, who will have to be on their guard. At the very least, Stadiums of Hate should be a reawakening for law enforcement authorities, and for the governments who fund them.  Escaping violence to tourists during Euro 2012 is the first step, but all of the nations of Europe should unite to make strides to kick not only racism, but aso violence, out of football.

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