Stamping out racism at Euro 2012

Borderline views: Feast of summer football is at center of our agenda for the next three weeks.

Neonazi rally (photo credit: REUTERS)
Neonazi rally
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Many of us are returning from work this week and sit glued to our TV screens, as we watch the live broadcasts of the Euro 2012 tournament, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. The feast of summer football (alternated by the World Cup and the Euro every two years) is at the center of our agenda for the next three weeks and woe betide all those other events – weddings, degree ceremonies, lectures – which threaten to divert our attention from the important matter of watching eleven young, overpaid men kicking a ball around a grass field, cheered on by tens of thousands of screaming, chanting fans.
For most of us here in Israel, both Poland or the Ukraine are much less associated with sports than with the darker aspects of recent Jewish history. It was therefore of immense importance that immediately prior to the beginning of the tournament, the players of the England and Holland teams, both of whom are staying in the Polish town of Cracow for the duration of the tournament, were taken on a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp and the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory.
Arranged by the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK, the visit of the English team had been preceded by a meeting in London the previous week between the team members and two Holocaust survivors who devote their time talking about their experiences to groups and schools throughout the UK.
The impact of the visit upon the players, who are not normally known for their deep thinking or intellectual prowess, was brought home by the fact that they were accompanied by the former Israel national coach Avram Grant, known to many of them from his days at Chelsea, Portsmouth and West Ham. Members of his family perished at Auschwitz. Also present was the chairman of the English Football Association, David Bernstein, whose family fled from the Nazis to find refuge in the UK.
THE HOLOCAUST Educational Trust works with schools, colleges and communities across the UK to educate about the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance.
Their programs educate younger generations about the evils of racism, xenophobia and hatred of the “other.”
The visit of the English and Dutch teams to Auschwitz will probably have resulted in many young adolescents who have no idea of what the Holocaust was, inserting the word “Holocaust” or “Auschwitz” into their Internet search engine this past weekend as they waited for the games to begin, to find out what it is all about. What, they asked themselves, could have been so important that their stars would take time out from intensive training schedules to go visit this historical site? The visit was held against the background of serious concerns by some of the national teams that some of their players would be subject to racial abuse during the tournament, especially given the poor record of fan behavior in some Eastern European countries in recent years. There have been cases of black players being subjected to racist chants from the fans in these countries, resulting in some of the teams threatening to leave the playing field in the middle of the game if such incidents recur during this year’s tournament.
Following the visit of the Dutch team to Auschwitz, some of the players complained that they were subject to “monkey” chants directed at their black players during their first training session in Cracow.
THERE IS no major team in an increasingly multi-cultural Western Europe today which does not have black players among its ranks. In the UK, the home of football, it took some years before either black players or non-white fans felt comfortable attending football matches, following periods during the 1970s when they, too, were subject to abuse.
The football authorities, the police and the government have all undertaken a concerted and intensive campaign in recent years to stamp out racism at all sporting events, clamping down extremely hard on offenders, some of whom have been identified through rigorous CCTV coverage of the fans at major sporting events. Those found guilty have, in some cases, been imprisoned, along with being banned for life from attending public sporting events.
Notwithstanding, there have been two cases in the past year alone where senior players have been accused of racially abusing players of the opposing team.
In the case of Luiz Suarez of Liverpool, he was banned for eight games for the use of the term “negra” against Manchester United player Patrice Evra. The England and Chelsea captain, John Terry, currently on duty with the England squad at the Euro competition, is to face a court case later in the year on charges that he racially abused another player, Anton Ferdinand, in a premier League game some months ago.
Although he has not yet been found guilty of the charge, he was stripped of the England captaincy by the English Football Association, an act which led to the sudden resignation of the highly paid English coach, Fabio Capello, just three months before the beginning of the tournament.
SPORT IN general, and football (soccer) in particular have indeed become the opium of the masses. The behavior of both the fans and the players has an enormous impact upon society as a whole. If racism and intolerance is acceptable as part of sporting rivalries, then it also becomes acceptable among younger schoolchildren who look up to their sporting heroes.
But if a major effort is made to stamp out such behavior both among the sporting stars and the fans on the terraces, then sends the strong message that such behavior is unacceptable. It is a lesson which also needs to be learned by Israeli football fans, many of whom display deep racist and anti-Arab sentiment at games involving Arab teams or players, the continuation of which could result in the exclusion of Israel at future international football events.
For some, it may have seemed to be a bit of a gimmick to take the football players to Auschwitz – some admitted that they knew almost nothing about the Holocaust prior to their visit. The visit was summed up in the words of England and Manchester United football star Wayne Rooney, who said: “We will speak of what we have seen. If that helps a few more people to understand what happened at Auschwitz then that’s good. It will never be forgotten.”
If the visit serves to raise the consciousness amongst thousands of young people about this bleak period in European history, and about the evils of intolerance and racism in general, then the whole competition will have been worthwhile, even for those who have no interest in the beautiful game itself.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

The views expressed are his alone.