By the time you read this, the opening day’s matches at the Euro 2012 would have been played, and fans of co-hosts Poland will rejoice or be in mourning after playing the inaugural match against 2004 champions, Greece. A good start for Poland will also be a relief to neighbours and co-hosts Ukraine, who begin their campaign only late on Tuesday.
Both the eastern European nations, pretty much the backwaters as far the continent’s economic and political pecking order is concerned, are on the defensive thanks to alarming western media reports that racism is about to engulf the biggest football tournament after the World Cup.
Poland and Ukraine share a troubled and traumatic history and there have been reports of both racist and anti-Semitic behaviour by club supporters in the two countries. Poland was under the occupation of Nazi Germany and then reeled under the influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union, whose shadow still falls across Ukraine.
However, a recent BBC Panorama programme painted both the nations black on the racism front, triggering suggestions that non-white fans in particular would be better advised to change their summer holiday destinations. People do acknowledge there are elements that need to be curbed, but many see the media campaign as sensational as that report has spawned many more. The UEFA, European football’s governing body, which held firm after awarding the tournament in 2007 despite construction delays and transport worries, has been calmer while giving referees the right to take the teams off the pitch if spectators racially target non-white players.
The level of media focus on racism close to the tournament seems a touch unfair. The problem is not exclusive to Poland and Ukraine, leading European nations have grappled with the menace of hooliganism and racist behaviour of fanatical groups. Britain has gained control over its boorish fans only in the last few years. The 1998 World Cup in France saw a French police officer battered into coma by rioters, after both crime and racism were highlighted around the 1990 edition in Italy. The Euro 2008, jointly hosted by Austria and Switzerland, too saw trouble with over 150 mostly Germans arrested for rioting around the match against Poland. But no major health warnings were issued for these tournaments staged by bigger economic and political powers.
There can be no running away from reality, but one just wonders whether the media is selectively projecting things. For instance, only gloomy pictures ranging from pollution to human rights were spoken about ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but all that talk vanished once the Bolt and Phelps show unfurled. The Delhi Commonwealth Games was definitely not short of controversies and the consistent bad publicity almost sank it. Still the alarm bells rung over issues like security and transport chaos proved unfounded. But the damage was done as foreign tourists, even local fans, and some star athletes kept away although the Games went off smoothly.
One hopes that soccer becomes the byword as action picks up in Poland and Ukraine. Both are desperate to use sport to gain wider acceptance and they deserve a shot at it.