Along some scintillating play in the group phase and the obligatory goal-line controversy, the story so far at Euro 2012 is, sadly, the specter of racist fan behavior bursting into the public awareness like never before.
UEFA has meted out fines to the national federations of Croatia and Russia for racist behavior by their fans, and was ridiculed for dinging Danish striker Nicolas Bendtner a much larger amount, $126,000, for displaying an unauthorized sponsor’s name on his underwear. I can appreciate the outrage over such a disparity, but in trying to regulate vile fan behavior, UEFA is grappling with a far greater problem than a few zealous skinheads. It is dealing with cultures and centuries of ingrained belief, not just some wayward malcontent off on his latest escapade.
Though certainly not unknown in Western Europe, where it is officially decried and often limited to the most extreme right-wing elements, such behavior is all too common in the East. Foreign teams with black or Asian players will sometimes leave those players behind for international matches, usually citing an injury or the need to rest “before the big league match this weekend.” Teams from the west of Germany traveling to the former East Germany are occasionally welcomed by racial epithets aimed at their non-white players.
Though occasionally fines are imposed for particularly unruly fan behavior, cases of racist chanting or abuse are common. Clubs and leagues are reluctant to punish paying customers, and UEFA normally can only intervene if such behavior is observed at an international club or national team match. Since teams in several countries simply don’t sign African or Asian players, such incidents at domestic matches are rare.
Ukrainian club FC Karpaty Lviv was fined 25,000 euros by UEFA last year after fans displayed a racist banner during a Europa League match with Turkish club Galatasaray. Incidents in Poland are common, though the country’s admission to the European Union in 2004 has been credited with reducing outbreaks of extremism.
Such abuse isn’t confined to the Eastern regions. Last April, monkey chants aimed at black Manchester City players Mario Balotelliand Yaya Toure during a Europa League match netted Portuguese club FC Porto a fine of 20,000 euros.
At about the same time the Porto fine was announced, a CNN.com report cited a study, entitled “Hateful,” by the group Never Again that documented 195 incidents of racist and discriminatory behavior connected to soccer in Poland and Ukraine from Sept. 2009 to March 2011. That’s an astonishing rate of racism.
"Unfortunately it seems racism is deeply rooted in the culture of soccer, especially in Eastern Europe," Rafal Pankowski, head of Never Again, which is based in Poland, told CNN. “Of course, it's a broader problem, affecting countries such as Spain and Italy, but it is a real issue in Eastern Europe. There is goodwill at the top of UEFA to deal with the issue, but their genuine commitment does not translate to national football federation level and this is where more awareness raising needs to be done.”
Racism in sport is rooted in society, and any external organization -- be it an international sports body or governmental agency -- is going to find changing a nation’s perceptions to be a very hard slog. Croatian fans, for example, are behaving as they have for decades, if not centuries.
During the 1998 World Cup in France, I attended a game in Lens, a small city about an hour’s train ride north of Paris. Everything about the day and the match were idyllic; the town center had been converted into a boisterous yet civil party zone, and majestic trees lined the boulevard by which one walked or biked or skateboarded -- no cars allowed -- to Stade Felix Bollaert.
In opposite corners of the stadiums were the few thousand supporters of Jamaica and Croatia, unmistakable in their colors and personas: Green-and-gold to my right, red-and-white checkerboards on my left. The joyous Jamaicans danced and sang after their national anthem was played; during their anthem the glaring Croatian fans gave a very Nazi-like salute.
When the captains came to attend the coin toss and exchange pennants and shake hands, the coin was tossed and the pennants exchanged, but Croatian captain Zvonimir Boban –- a wonderfully creative player who served more than a decade in the red-and-black of AC Milan -- ignored the opportunity to shake hands with Jamaican captain Warren Barrett.
To my knowledge, FIFA didn’t admonish Boban or the Croatian soccer federation for breaching this traditional and seemingly innocuous display of sportsmanship. It may seem a minor point, yet as a symbol of his nation -- Boban famously kicked a policeman who was beating up a Dynamo Zagreb fan when Boban played for that club -- he is credited with helping stoke the fires of nationalism that led to independence from the former Yugoslavia.
What UEFA is doing by fining these federations and clubs, and occasionally kicking them out of competitions, is taking advantage of staging its most prestigious tournament in an area of the world where intolerance sometimes prevails. The amounts of the fines aren’t nearly as important as what they represent, and what UEFA and other governing bodies are trying to attain against nearly impossible odds.