As European nations gear up for Euro 2012, the spotlight is turning to one of the host nations and its attitudes to foreigners. England winger Theo Walcott's brother has tweeted that he and his father won't be travelling to the tournament, due to fears over racist abuse. Earlier this month, the BBC ran a long report on racism in Polish football and, according to the Daily Mail, the Foreign Office has warned England fans to "expect racist attacks in Poland and Ukraine".
There's no point denying that racist incidents do still occur in Polish stadiums, even if less frequently than some years back. Some Polish fans still enjoy singing anti-Semitic songs during league games and chant "to the gas chambers" when a player from a team considered "Jewish" is leaving the pitch.
There have been incidents of black players getting bananas thrown at them and people imitating monkey sounds when they get the ball. The most recent situation was last month during a match in Poland's premier division when two black players from Lechia Gdansk had bananas thrown at them.I am the son of a Nigerian father and Polish mother. I grew up in Nigeria, coming to study in Poland in 1995. Arriving in the country, I expected, perhaps naively, that I would be treated as in Nigeria. Soon, I found myself being pointed at in the street, or referred to in the Polish equivalent of "nigger" or "monkey". While I have never been physically attacked in Poland because of my skin colour, I know many black people who have.
Faced with such experiences, black people (and other non-caucasians) in Poland often retreat into safe groups of their own. Some decry Poles as a nation of racists. "These people just don't like us and I don't understand why," and such things are what I've often heard Africans wonder aloud. In those initial years in Poland, I found myself feeling alienated and often very angry towards Poles.
Things are changing, though. Poles have got more accustomed to seeing non-whites on their streets. I, for one, can't remember the last time I got called names because of my skin colour. Economics has played a major role. When I came to Poland, people were earning on average $200 a month. Polish capitalism was just getting off the ground, times were tough and people were frustrated.
As the years passed, the economy grew stronger and Poland joined the EU. Poles started travelling abroad, meeting peoples of different races, and their attitude has palpably improved. Nothing civilises people quite as much as prosperity.
In 2010, Nigerian-born John Godson became Poland's first black MP. Today, there is also another black MP, Killion Munyama, originally from Zambia. I can't speak for Zambia but I find it hard to imagine a white person being elected into the Nigerian parliament today, even if they were born and bred in the country.
Some way to go
At the same time, some Poles' reaction to his appointment remind us we aren't in rainbow society territory just yet. At the time, Kuba Wojewódzki, Poland's most famous talkshow host, commented on air that "Godson is from Nigeria … the president of Nigeria ate his predecessor". He asked listeners: "Why do Nigerians have flat noses? So they can lap up water from puddles."
Yet I would still say fans from all ethnic backgrounds need not fear visiting Poland. Apart from the fact that Poles' attitudes towards foreigners has much improved in recent years, Euro 2012 is the biggest event ever organised in Poland. The world will be watching and the Poles' treatment of foreign fans and players will either bring them closer to that goal or do the opposite.