04 June 2012

Eastern European Xenophobia Under Western Eyes: Euro 2012 in Poland-Ukraine

The scenes of racist and anti-Semitic behaviour among Polish and Ukrainian football fans shown in the BBC’s recent Panorama programme speak for themselves. There is little about these images that could be ‘manipulated’, as some Polish commentators have suggested, to make these supporters look worse than they are. There is a serious problem. But does it merit Sol Campbell’s warning to stay away, or risk ‘coming home in a coffin’? Luke Harding’s damning article on Ukraine certainly seems to concur with Campbell. Harding was right to point to the mess that Ukraine is in; but his analysis lumped several separate problems together, not all of which represent a threat to travelling fans: Merkel’s boycott, for one, is nothing to do with racism, but with political freedom, while the Femen group’s naked protests are, while perhaps self-defeating, raising very legitimate fears about sex tourism (though Harding’s warning’s may help to ease this problem if fans from Western Europe stay away).

Before we start cancelling our tickets, it is worth remembering that racism and anti-Semitism in football are Europe-wide phenomena. Louis Saha recently singled out Italy and Spain on Newsnight as particularly unpleasant places to play in. In the UK, West Ham fans are notorious for making gas-hissing noises at matches with Tottenham Hotspur (like Cracovia, one of the teams featured in Panorama, supposedly a ‘Jewish team’). What the scenes in Panorama show is what happens when bigoted fans are allowed to express their hatred uninhibited by police, football authorities or government. One can imagine what would happen were the English Defence League allowed to purchase black tickets for football matches and behave as they pleased. In this regard, the report was a shocking indictment of the bodies responsible for football in Poland and Ukraine, of their complacency and incompetence.

Was Panorama an indictment of Polish and Ukrainian societies at large? Many in the West have been rightly alarmed by the rise of right-wing politics in Ukraine, where the right-wing Svoboda, or Freedom Party, has become a clownish centre of attention, and won seats in local authorities. Yet while Svoboda’s rise should be a cause for concern, as yet it has no MPs in the national parliament. Recent Greek or French election results show a more alarming swing to the right than current Ukrainian or Polish politics. With regard to Poland, polls by the Anti-Defamation League in ten EU countries do show high levels of anti-Semitism in Poland, but even higher levels some Western European countries, particularly in Spain. Poland doesn’t look good in these polls, but it also doesn’t appear unique.