The most important sporting event in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall begins June 8 with the European soccer championships hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
But a complicated racial issue has arisen as the families of two of England’s black players have said they will probably not attend the 16-team tournament, fearing abuse or violence in Ukraine, where the team will play its first three matches. A BBC documentary depicting racism at soccer games there has further inflamed emotions.
At the same time, one of England’s top players, defender John Terry, faces a criminal charge after the tournament of racially abusing a black opponent during a club match last October in the English Premier League. The charge led to Terry’s being stripped of his captaincy of the English national team.
Although racism in soccer has been a continuing problem in England, Italy and Spain, it has by degree seemed to be more virulent at matches in Eastern Europe, with some fans making monkey chants and throwing bananas at black players, while others have given Nazi salutes and chanted, “Sieg heil.”
In 2011, the Bulgarian soccer federation was fined after fans made monkey chants toward the English players Theo Walcott, Ashley Young and Ashley Cole during a European qualifying match in Sofia. Also last year, the Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos walked off the field when a banana was thrown toward him at a league match in Russia.
The British government and the chairman of the English soccer association have expressed concerns about the possibility of racial abuse of players and fans in both host nations, particularly Ukraine. Few families of the English players are planning to attend the tournament, called Euro 2012, a spokesman for the soccer association said.
Ashley Walcott, the brother of the English wing Theo Walcott, said recently on Twitter that the family was avoiding Euro 2012 “because of the fear of possible racist attacks/confrontation.” He added, “Some things aren’t worth risking.”
A third of England’s team is black. Mark Chamberlain, a former player and the father of the teenage forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, has said he will skip the group matches in Ukraine but may attend the tournament’s later stages. The final will be played in Kiev on July 1.
“It’s a major concern,” Chamberlain said in a British television interview. “I think your safety is more important than a game of football. It’s just prudent to keep myself away from it.”
Not since the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo has Eastern Europe staged a sporting event the magnitude of Euro 2012. As co-host, Ukraine hopes to showcase itself 26 years after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and two decades after it gained independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Yet the soccer championships will be played amid a planned political boycott of Ukraine by some European leaders over the imprisonment of a former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, and accusations of an erosion of democracy. Widely publicized concerns have been expressed about racism, sex trafficking, overly aggressive police, the spending of more than $13 billion to host the event in a struggling economy and exorbitant hotel prices charged to visitors.
“When Ukraine got this, people were saying it would be a showcase, to show its democracy, that its economy was growing, that it was part of Europe,” said Steven Pifer, a former United States ambassador to Ukraine who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Now that it has arrived, the price gouging, corruption, the perception that Ukraine is going back on democracy and the decision by some European leaders to stay away is going to put a rain cloud over their parade.”
There has long been a strain of xenophobia in the Slavic cultures of the former Soviet Union. While anti-Semitism has waned, it has often been replaced by racism toward people from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa.
Club soccer at the top level in Europe, however, is increasingly inclusive, with players from different nations, races and ethnic groups joining to form the highly regarded teams at Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. National teams in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany also field multicultural squads.
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