EURO 2012, Poland – In my youth in England, football was not considered an
appropriate pastime for a good Jewish boy.
Hence my passive appreciation
of “the beautiful game” was platonic: “play” for the footballers, “tonic” for
The June 8 opening of the Euro 2012 championship in Warsaw was a
Invited by FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe)
together with “Never Again” of Poland in cooperation with UEFA, my visit was
based on an unprecedented Wiesenthal Center victory last October, in Buenos
We had protested the anti-Semitic chants of the popular Chacarita
Juniors Club. The Argentine Football Association’s response was to strip
Chacarita of points, resulting in its downgrading in the national
By issuing this historic ruling, as a powerful penalty model for
UEFA, the European branch of FIFA, resulted in my participation in the highly
sophisticated campaign kickoff, with the slogan: “Respect-Diversity – Football
UEFA President Michel Platini defined “diversity in football as
a microcosm for diversity in society,” setting a “zero-tolerance policy against
racism on the field.”
With the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the
subsequent post-Communist vacuum, the old phantoms of nationalism and
anti-Semitism were resurrected in the Central and Eastern European States where
the Holocaust had succeeded. Like “phantom limb” syndrome, a limb had been
amputated, but the missing member still itched to be scratched. The Jews were
gone, but the prejudices died hard, as Jew-hatred moved from political discourse
to the football terraces.
In the 1990s, we were already applauding FARE’s
work, together with the British Council, in bringing English Club Stewards – who
were confronting “monkey” chants and violence against African players in the UK
– to mentor counterparts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where Roma were –
and still are – the prime target.
Holding the EURO 2012 championship in
Poland, and especially Ukraine, poses a major challenge, harrowingly portrayed
in the BBC Panorama television documentary Stadiums of Hate, available on
“Never Again” has trained monitors to identify such Nazi or
White Power symbols, Hitler salutes of “Sieg Heil” and any incitement to
violence at all the EURO matches.
FARE is organizing “Streetkick”
impromptu games for local kids with anti-racist motifs and inclusion methods in
every match locale. Referees have been instructed to suspend or stop any feat in
which a player is targeted for ethnic slur.
Players participating in EURO
2012, shown the documentary Terezin: The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City, were
shocked to learn that the football team playing in the film for a Red Cross
visit were, after the screening, sent to Treblinka and gassed on
It is more difficult to focus on the hard-core local and
visiting extreme-right hooligans. It takes only a few to destroy a game for the
majority, yet signposts were noticeably evident, from the largest Warsaw fan
zone to the ominously named “Valhalla Viking Pub.”
At the Polish Foreign
Ministry’s official launch, a group of Afro-European star players shared their
pain as victims of football hate.
Gareth Crookes (UK): “The banana fell
next to me. I picked it up, peeled it, ate it, and then threw the skin back into
the crowd. There was a wave of applause as I played on, though I had terrible
Paul Elliott (UK): “I was having an awful game when the
banana fell. I played much better in the second half and was asked by a
journalist, ‘what happened?’ I stressed the nutritional value in a banana!” Ruud
Gillet (Netherlands): “As the only Black player, I had to do better than the
rest. So, I adjusted my feelings. If they monkey-grunted me, I said it was
because I was good. Now there are many more Black players in the team, so they
[the racists] should be more careful.”
These responses recall the late
Simon Wiesenthal’s belief in the power of humor as a defense. Indeed, a good
joke is like a grenade – it can blow up a conspiracy theory and show the
absurdity of a stereotype.
In Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town, there are
street vendors selling numerous ugly clay hassidic effigies counting gold
At 11 a.m. on the day of the opening EURO match between Poland as
host, and Greece, one stand contained over a hundred figurines on
At 5 p.m., I returned and found only two unsold. The vendor
explained that fans purchased them to bring good luck. Hassidic magic was
clearly not working that day. The opening game ended in a one-to-one tie. The
national celebration was muted.
Was the purchase of “money-grubbing Jew”
statuettes due to fascination, anti-Semitism, superstition or a combination?
Wilfried Lemke, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sport
for Development and Peace, injected a gleam of hope.
“Football has the
power to change the world,” he said.
It can also inflame, as with the
riots at a FIFA World Cup in 1969, leading to the four day “Football War”
between Honduras and El Salvador.
Across Latin America, as in Europe,
football can be viewed as a religion with its saints and clerics, mostly
uninterested in the Middle East and its conflicts. A new constituency of friends
for the Jewish people? Standing throughout the inaugural match in the “Fan
Zone,” among over 100,000 exuberant Poles, in their red and white national
colors, I felt conspicuous wearing the only blue and white shirt in the
Attracting curious glances, I was asked if was a fan of their
“Israel” I said. “Shalom” replied my
So, what was that Warsaw epiphany? An appreciation that
football is, indeed, a most appropriate pastime for a Jewish boy.
writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.