International soccer officials fear this summer's European Championships will be marred by widespread racism following an explosive documentary revealing major social issues in both host nations.
An exposé by the BBC's Panorama program, broadcast in the United Kingdom on Monday night and set to be shown again in multiple countries, detailed the extent of race-related soccer hooliganism in Poland and the Ukraine, where the Euros will be jointly staged starting June 8.
Reports of violent behavior at games in those nations were already frequent, but the ugly scenes displayed by Panorama, – including crowds making monkey chants at black players and targeting minority athletes with foul language and physical threats – have brought the issue to the forefront of pre-tournament discussions at European soccer's governing body UEFA.
Footage of Asian students being attacked at the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv, where three group matches will be staged, was shown, as were scenes of fans making Nazi salutes and chanting anti-Semitic epithets.
"I trust the fans, but we shall see," said UEFA president Michel Platini. "There are problems at every tournament, always."
UEFA's concerns have been amplified by an unusual dynamic this year. The global economic downturn means far fewer fans will be traveling than usual. The lack of visiting supporters will be exacerbated by the exorbitant prices being demanded for accommodations in the host cities. The threat of racism and violence has served as an additional deterrent.
Whereas in previous tournaments stadiums were filled with visiting fans from the teams involved, Euro 2012 will see a higher proportion of Polish and Ukrainian fans. Sadly, both countries still have cultural intolerance that has been largely eradicated in soccer circles in many other nations.
The Panorama documentary showed that abuse of black players is commonplace in Poland and the Ukraine, and Platini's UEFA hierarchy knows it faces a huge backlash if the tournament is beset with problems.
The racism situation is of particular concern to the England national team. Its 23-man squad has eight black players, including high-profile stars such as Champions League winner Ashley Cole of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of English Premier League champion Manchester City. The families of many players have opted not to make the trip.
Even Mark Chamberlain, the father of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, has decided not to come, despite the fact that his son is just 18 and will be performing in his first international senior tournament.
Former England star Sol Campbell was quoted in the Panorama program urging fans not to travel to the event. "Stay at home and watch it on television," Campbell said. "Don't even risk it … because you could end up coming back in a coffin."
Although all soccer hopes for a trouble-free and high-quality event, Poland and the Ukraine are ill-suited to be co-hosts. Hotel rates of more than $1,000 per night for two-star accommodations is an extreme example of event price gouging, and the sheer distances involved mean expensive and complicated travel between venues.
In cities such as Donetsk, unaccustomed to accommodating wide-scale tourism, there are simply no beds left.
When the bidding process to host the tournament took place in 2007, Poland-Ukraine emerged victorious in a shocking result – ahead of the heavily favored Italian bid. Italian soccer was recovering from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that saw several top clubs involved in corrupt activities, and its failure to win the vote was seen as the UEFA committee sending a powerful message.
So, for the third time in four tournaments there will be co-hosts – an unwieldy and unsatisfactory scenario. The Netherlands and Belgium was manageable in 2000, mainly because of the relative small size of those countries and seamless travel links between them.
Austria and Switzerland in 2008 was less appropriate, especially because the national teams of both hosts were of dubious strength and bombed out in the group stages. In a 16-team tournament (which goes up to 24 teams in four years) it is simply not right that two teams are given automatic places in the field, as Poland and the Ukraine have been this year.
These, though, are administrative factors that owe much to the clumsiness of UEFA and can be forgiven for now. The racism issue is far more pressing. An event like Euro 2012 is a showcase for soccer and is universally seen as the second-most significant international tournament after the World Cup.
If the fears of social problems are realized, it could set the anti-racism movement in the sport back more than a decade, to a bygone era when disgraceful antics were considered the norm. UEFA, and soccer itself, holds its breath.
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