Colours of Europe

Was it a mistake to award Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine?

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published: June 8, 2012 3:16 am

Was it a mistake to award Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine?
Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;/ our efforts are like those of the Trojans.

— Constantine P. Cavafy

There is a kernel of truth in the easy and lazy claim that it was a mistake to award Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine. Warsaw of so many tumults and Kiev,with its Baroque beauty and textbook xenophobia,lag at least half-a-century behind liberally enlightened West Europe. Maybe the Poles and the Ukrainians will match the civilised etiquette of social co-existence one day,but that won’t be any time between June 8 and July 1 this year. What’s guaranteed,scared fans and observers say,is that UEFA will live to regret its stupidity for many years to come.

The popular discovery of the persistent problems of the Pale didn’t begin with Panorama’s documentary on football in Poland and Ukraine broadcast first on BBC One on May 28. Footage of the programme,“Stadiums of Hate”,did prompt former England captain Sol Campbell to advise fans: “Stay home,watch it on TV… don’t even risk it.” Football on the telly may be zilch,but it’s better than “coming back in a coffin”. Campbell’s warning was preceded by announcements from the families of Arsenal wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that they were not travelling to Euro 2012 fearing racist attacks. The British Foreign Office had still earlier warned “travellers of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent” to take “extra care”. Stories about black and Asian students and workers being abused and roughed up in Polish and Ukrainian cities had,in fact,begun occupying media space and time as early as April. Inside the stadium,it’s a sight-and-sound show of monkey calls,anti-Semitic chants,bananas and Sieg Heils.

UEFA has turned the criticism into a justification. Hosting the biggest sporting event in eastern Europe since the 1980 Moscow Olympics is the best thing that could happen — not to European football,but to these societies. In UEFA officialese,the tournament is an opportunity to tackle problems like racism. In other words,the unreformed laggards would observe,learn and wake up to a morning when they stop coming to a standstill by the dozen to stare at a black or Asian bloke crossing the street. Because,believes UEFA,both Poland and Ukraine are under pressure to project a pleasanter image to the wider world.

The shadow that falls between UEFA’s noble ideal and the language of denial from the authorities in the host states is the fact of show. With large contingents of police deployed and the “hooligans” (the hosts’ attempt to pass off as a mere footballing matter what UEFA doesn’t deny is a deep-rooted problem) likely to stay away from international matches (they,apparently,obsess only about club football),Poland and Ukraine guarantee an incident-free Euro 2012. For a show,everybody can be compelled to pretend for a month. Then they can go back to beating up the Asian students in the stands,who,by the way,would be supporting their own club.

What is in danger of being subsumed under genuine fears and generated fear-psychosis is the distinction between the two host societies. Poland is no longer where it was in the mid- or late-1990s. It has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and is a few technicalities away from entering the eurozone in or around 2015 (whether or not the eurozone is still around is another matter). Poles travel rather widely these days and are growing accustomed to seeing foreigners with darker skin tones on their streets. Ukraine,however,missed its bus when the Orange Revolution and Viktor Yushchenko failed,remaining frozen in attitudes dating back to the early 20th century,past the xenophobic post-war Soviet propaganda.

Therefore,while Poland is gradually discovering for itself the missing link of socio-cultural evolution,Ukraine still doesn’t quite believe that there is a light to see. For instance,the fascist party (linked to Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France) that runs the city of Lviv believes race problems don’t exist in their city because there are very few foreigners there. That is,there will be no race problem if foreigners simply don’t come. A councillor from the party,speaking to The Guardian recently,defended the local club Karpaty Lviv’s violently racist fans by calling them “patriots”. He brushed aside regular attacks on blacks and Asians as “banditism,not racism”. And what about the Nazi salutes? They are Roman Aves,not Sieg Heils. Touché.

UEFA’s other nightmare has been Ukraine’s old and crumbling infrastructure,stadiums reportedly still incomplete last month and possible five- to 12-hour-long queues at the few border crossings with Poland since the promised new crossings never opened. Can special Euro train lines and Adam Gyorgy’s Chopin “Études” in A minor at the opening ceremony herald an “incident-free” three weeks? Luckily,Lviv hosts only three matches. Achilles,as Constantine Cavafy lamented,can always leap out of the trenches with his violent shouting. UEFA’s efforts can bring disaster. But football is a bigger religion than race and nation.

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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