Fears are growing about entrenched violence, racism and anti-Semitism in Poland and Ukraine, co-hosts of the Euro 2012 football tournament. When I heard that BBC’s Panorama investigation programme would show a report on the subject, entitled ‘Stadiums of Hate’, I watched it with astute interest. After so much suffering, neglect and deprivation, I was absolutely thrilled when Poland and Ukraine were named as co-hosts for the event in 2007. Ukraine has progressed strongly in the last decade and Poland has made great strides since joining the European Union. It’s about time that football-mad Eastern Europe had a chance to host the European Championship. As happy as I was, however, there was always some doubt and fear in my mind based on my own personal experiences in Poland.
The BBC documentary only added to my fears. It seems to have added to everybody else’s fears as well, with a deluge of articles and reactions appearing all over the Internet. I did find the documentary shocking, with multiple examples of violence, racism and anti-Semitism in stadiums throughout the host nations. Former England defender Sol Campbell was interviewed on the programme, expressing his disgust. He even went as far as advising supporters not to travel and that those who did could well come back in a coffin. Is that an over reaction?
It is possible that Panorama displayed a certain amount of selectivity in the clips shown. Nevertheless, the core message was conveyed effectively and unmistakably. Hostile crowds, Nazi salutes, anti-Semitism, monkey chanting occurred whenever black players touched the ball. All of this culminated in a ferocious unprovoked attack on Asian students in Kharkiv’s Metalist stadium. Italian striker, Mario Balotelli reacted fiercely, vowing to kill any supporter who dares throw a banana skin at him, either on the street or the football pitch. After watching Panorama’s footage, Sol Campbell said he believed awarding the tournament to Poland and Ukraine was a big mistake. On the other hand, UEFA, European football’s governing body, stated that hosting the tournament in these nations would provide an opportunity to tackle social problems like racism and hooliganism.
Polish and Ukrainian authorities moved quickly to limit the fallout from the Panorama programme. According to CNN, an official from the Polish Foreign Ministry described the programme as cheap journalism, going on to explain that 500,000 British tourists visit the country every year without one single complaint of racism. The Guardian reported that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry labelled the reports a dream, a mythical problem. He also stated that Western countries have a much greater problem with racism. The English football team are taking the reports seriously however, with the families of two black players from the English team refusing to travel to the tournament.
As I mentioned earlier, I had my own experiences of anti-social problems in Poland. I spent six months in Lodz, Poland’s third biggest city, located right in the heart of the country. It is home to a fierce football rivalry between the two city teams – Widzew and LKS. Before we left for Poland, one of our university advisers warned us about that rivalry. He said unequivocally: ‘If you meet football fans on the street and they ask you which one of Lodz’s teams you support and you give the wrong answer, they’ll kill you. So turn and run’. This sounded a little more intense than the traditional football rivalries – AC Milan and Inter Milan, Liverpool and Everton, Celtic and Rangers or whoever else. He went on to tell us that a spectator was killed at the derby game just a few months before, when the police mistakenly loaded live ammunition instead of rubber bullets in a bid to control a hostile crowd.
In six months in Lodz, we were attacked twice. I was walking with three French nationals and two Germans late in the evening, and we were minding our own business when our use of the English language attracted some football hooligans who set upon us. We were very lucky to escape that evening by running for our lives. The second time, we were again speaking English in the city centre when we passed a guy who decided to use us for martial arts practise. Again we were lucky to get away from that encounter with some slight bruises.
So having lived in the United States, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, the latter country was the only one where I encountered trouble and the only one where I felt unsafe at night. The Polish people are magnificent, and some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I still have a great amount of Polish friends, but there are some serious anti-social problems, especially in poorer Polish cities like Lodz. Maybe in my case, it was an example of wrong place, wrong time … but twice? Perhaps, but I’m not entirely sure. Panorama highlighted mass displays of anti-Semitism at the Lodz derby and looking back, it was a wise decision to avoid attending football games there.
So what about Euro 2012? I think the honest, friendly people of Poland and Ukraine need and deserve to host this tournament. In a way, I share Sol Campbell’s fears given my experiences in Eastern Europe, but I’d disagree that the countries should not have been awarded the tournament. I never experienced racism in Poland but I do feel quite skeptical of those claims made by the Polish and Ukrainian Foreign Ministries that racism is practically non existent in both host nations. Maybe it was a case of xenophobia which lead to our bad encounters in Lodz. Maybe it was just bored hooligans looking for a fight.
I had two bad experiences in Poland but hundreds of positive ones and very happy memories. I would visit Poland again in an instant, although I would take extra care walking around certain districts in the hours of darkness. One of the most disturbing pieces of Panorama’s footage showed anti-Semitic Ukrainian hooligans clad in balaclavas and camouflage, training for combat in isolated woodland. Hopefully the authorities can deal with these problems and incorporate the lessons learned into the planning process for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The Ukrainian and Polish authorities, along with UEFA, are telling us to expect a quiet and peaceful Euro 2012, but those horrible images of the Indian students attacked in Kharkiv’s Metalist stadium aren’t going away.