Racism in Poland and Ukraine catalyst for change
It can be so easy to jump on a bandwagon, particularly when it comes to race relations.
Once the tide of popular opinion gets rolling, why not hop on and enjoy the ride alongside the rest of the onions in the cart?
The outrageous anti-semitism, homophobia and openly Nazi ideals exhibited and highlighted in the Ukraine and Poland have rightly been condemned.
In classic tabloid journalism style, football finds itself in the crosshairs of negative public opinion just as Euro 2012 gets underway.
The pictures and video of young white men abusing opponents and fans with the worst kind of language, visual skullduggery, and in some cases violence, is hard to stomach.
As a fan, I was a skeptic of the whole idea of taking the best, most competitive national football tournament in the world to places like Poland and Ukraine. I immediately doubted my interest in travelling to such venues, as I knew they would be unwelcoming to people of colour.
But as a player in the field of youth and social development, I was forced to put aside my own jaundiced views and look with fresh eyes at this part of the world.
I drew heavily on my experiences of living and working in places such as Algeria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Places where football has come to represent political and ideological differences. Where the colour of a fan’s shirt is often the difference between social acceptance and vilification.
This is never truer than in the case of Euro 2012. When I looked more closely at the football pedigree of Poland and Ukraine, I was forced to admit, it isn’t half bad. And more importantly, the societal challenges politicians are tackling are enormous.
Who among us does not remember the stylish Russian-fuelled Dynamo Kiev teams of old. Those Soviet-backed polished teams were a mystery, all we knew was that they were good enough to compete in and win the European Cup Winners Cup a couple of times. The modern Kyiv, Ukrainian spelling rather than previous Russian translation, is a testament to football perseverance.
In fact, the classic football farce, Escape to Victory – featuring the likes of Sly Stallone, Bobby Moore, Russell Osman and Pele as a Caribbean national (if only) – was inspired by a far less Hollywood version of events during the Second World War.
The idea is taken, very loosely, from the so-called Death Match, in which FC Dynamo Kyiv defeated German soldiers while Ukraine was occupied by German troops in World War II. A true story, where legend has it that the victory cost the Ukrainians there lives.
The truth is far more complex yet equally disturbing. The team played several matches against German teams, emerging victorious in all of them, before finally being sent to concentration camps where most perished.
Who among us would seriously object to a nation with this kind of football pedigree hosting a major international tournament?
And Poland, well on its way to becoming a world football power prior to the Second World War, lost some six million people due to the occupation. Football has never quite been the same since.
A new dawn was hailed as the Polish team won the football competition at the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympics, and indeed fine performances followed, only to slip back into the pack. A new golden generation beckons for this tournament and beyond.
Yet, it is no surprise that the second- and third-largest Slavic countries after Russia, have a small, nasty and vocally intolerant element in society. The pair share not only a long border and many commonalities but also a tortured and troubled recent past.
Such history must give rise to concern about the very fabric of society. The discrimination and taunts remind me more of the intolerant deep-seated sectarianism once associated with Rangers and Celtic matches than mere bouts of hooliganism.
I actually think UEFA should be applauded for their foresight in going to a region that needs all the help it can get. The competition organisers, local politicians, and football officials rightly saw the tournament as a chance to showcase new-found democratic principles of proudly independent countries.
The images of racism that have already tarnished the tournament are indeed startling, but it would have been far worse for UEFA to have ignored the wider role it can play. So often the organisation is taken to task for not living up to its responsibilities. While we may not like some of the scenes we have seen, there is little doubt domestic Polish and Ukrainian forces are now more determined than ever to tackle a deep-seated societal challenge.
And if you don’t think UEFA understands such challenges, you are wrong. UEFA’s current corporate social responsibilities team includes people who worked directly in the Balkans following the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Strong supporters of the anti-discrimination movement, that team also includes people who spent time in the mission to Rwanda after the atrocities there.
The intolerance within the Eastern Bloc region must be tackled, and I believe this tournament will be a powerful driver in helping do that. That is why, for me, one of the lasting triumphs of these games will be the growing determination to rid the society of internationally unacceptable practices.
Helped by organisations such as FARE, which will provide discrimination monitors at all games, this tournament promises to be a development success.
The exposure to an international audience has been, and will continue to be, a critical factor. Internally, most people have been shocked and embarrassed at the racist image Poland and Ukraine have been branded with. It has started a compelling and complex debate about social intolerance that was not on the agenda prior to the tournament. Stung by the criticism, authorities have pledged renewed efforts to tackle these issues.
My own experience suggests this international dimension is critical. Having spent so much money, it would be devastating to the nations and region for the rest of the world to be left with the impression that intolerance is acceptable in their society.
Thirty years ago, we in the UK faced consistent criticism due to similarly shocking images. Let us not forget the rampant racism and hooliganism in the UK of the 1970s and 1980s. Having been visited by West Ham’s Inter City Firm personally, and seen first-hand the carnage of Manchester United’s Red Army, Tottenham’s Yid Army, and Millwall’s Green Street Firm, I can attest to the violence, bigotry and hatred once acceptable and widely tolerated in the UK.
It was the vicious lens of international coverage and domestic introspection after some horrific scenes and disaster coverage that forced a societal change and political action.
Just as with Escape to Victory, it is hard not to be puzzled by the fact that many of these overtly racist and homophobic hooligan firms have now been immortalized in a series of documentaries and movies that have glamorised the life of the ignorant British hooligan.
Having been on the end of more than one boot in the name of football, I can tell you, that was just as abhorrent as some of the scenes we are now being shown in Poland and the Ukraine.
Delroy Alexander is the Chairman of the Sacred Sports Foundation, a not for profit charity based in the St. Lucia. He is a seasoned sports administrator and is a former Chicago Tribune senior investigative business reporter and a Pulitzer Prize nominee journalist.
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