It’s not unheard of for England fans and the English media to lose the run of themselves in the run-up to a major tournament — it usually manifests itself in a belief that this is going to be their year. The build-up to Euro 2012 has, of course, been unusual in that respect with the FA’s and the team’s preparation so shambolic that there are few talking up their chances of lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev on July 1st. Instead, media and fans are losing the run of themselves on the supposed threat of violence and racial attacks.
Joe has already written thoroughly about the Panorama ‘Stadiums of Hate’ report, which was sensationalist and most likely overstated the scale and extent of an albeit very real problem of hooliganism and racism in both the host nations. Certainly, some of the images broadcast were horrific and darker-skinned fans might well be forgiven for being nervous about travelling to Ukraine having seen them. But it is also unlikely that people will be coming home ‘in coffins’, as Sol Campbell said, when he was shown the pictures of Asian students being attacked. You can’t blame Sol for his reaction but why did Panorama canvas him as a talking head on the matter when you imagine his familiarity with Ukraine would be sketchy at best? Why not people — particularly non-white people — with first hand experience of the country? The anxiety — which, among the seven visiting nations to be hosted by Ukraine, appears to be confined to England — has now reached almost hysterical levels with plans for England supporters to be protected in a gated community, to which nobody without an England supporters’ club card will be admitted. If implementing segregation is seen as the way to combat racial antagonism, we might say that the gentrification process of English football has well and truly reached its final point.
Of course, the irony is lost on few people of England fans being apprehensive about violence abroad, not least on the Irish, who saw far-right England ‘supporters’ go on the rampage at Lansdowne Road in February 1995. Nobody in Ireland, as far as I can recall, worried that the European Championships that England would host sixteen months later would be marred by violence. This despite the fact that violence at an international football match might be a better indicator of a potential reoccurrence at a tournament than violence in the closed circuit of domestic football. The people behind these segregated fan zones seem to also be unaware of how gravely offensive it might be to the hosts. And I am thinking here of the majority of Ukrainian people, who, I am guessing, are not aiming to use this opportunity in the world spotlight to show how much they hate foreigners, which, of course, they probably don’t. Think about it: you travel to a foreign country for a tournament and before the locals even get to say hello to you and give you a welcome and express curiosity about what western Europeans might think about their country, you retreat off into a sanitary cordon, rebuffing any contact with them. Would that have gone down well in England during Euro 96 if the French, the Czechs or the Croatians decided to do it?
Once again, I am not denying the existence of racism or hooliganism in Ukraine. People who know the country better than I do, however, have expressed a more nuanced view than Panorama’s. Black players for English clubs have experienced some terrible racial abuse in Eastern Europe in recent years, but all the major Ukrainian clubs field at least a few black players, and, according to some accounts, the racial abuse is not as ubiquitous as Panorama suggested. My own team, Sligo Rovers, played in Ukraine last year in the Europa League against Vorskla Poltava, and our star player, the former Cameroon international Joseph Ndo, experienced no racial abuse whatsoever. If anything, the welcome afforded Sligo by the locals was warm, respectful and curious. I’m sure there are people that have not had such a pleasant experience on their visit but it’s worth bearing in mind that not everyone on the terraces will be the thugs featured in ‘Stadiums of Hate.’
English football is to be applauded for the way it has largely dealt with the scourge of racism and hooliganism that once blighted the game so. Of course there are still outbreaks of each but the English game has made much progress. This latest psychodrama though is a hysterical flip-side of that earlier culture of confrontation; where once England fans (or at least a regrettably sizeable minority of them) used to see the public squares of foreign towns and cities as a battleground to be conquered, now they seek out spaces within them to privatise out of the reach of the people hosting them. The English media has sounded the ‘here be monsters’ alarm on a number of occasions in recent years, most notably about the likelihood of racial attacks in Eastern Germany during World Cup 2006 and the crime panic that preceded South Africa’s tournament two years ago. Both times the fears proved to be completely ungrounded and England fans that did travel said that they never felt anything but safe all the time they were there. That is not to diminish the clear reality of South Africa’s violent crime problem but the likelihood of it spilling over onto the World Cup was always going to be slim.
As I said before, the other six nations that will be playing in Ukraine do not seem to be reacting in this way. I have been following the Portuguese and the French press closely and, while they have alluded to the existing problems, they are not whipping fans into a frenzy of fear and panic. These are two countries with a significant number of black players in their squads and both take the problem of racism in football very seriously (a way in which the English often imagine themselves to be unique). There is an argument to be made that Ukraine should not have been awarded the tournament — the transport and accommodation situations are clearly inadequate for a championship in such a vast country — but its own problems of domestic hooliganism do not represent a very strong argument. The Ukrainian authorities reaction to the Panorama programme could have been far better but neither is it in their interests to allow foreign fans to be indiscriminately attacked while the world watches and I very much doubt it will happen. Remember how England fretted about its knife-crime problem hampering its bid for World Cup 2018? It didn’t have much of a bearing on England’s bid failing but few football fans would have allowed such a real problem to keep them away from a World Cup in England. The difficulties of travel have thinned the English numbers this year but I still imagine there will be plenty of English fans intrepid enough to wander out of the segregated fan zones, meet the locals and will probably have a pleasant experience to tell the folks back home.
Posted by Oliver Farry