Will Racism Turn the Euro 2012 Soccer Tournament Ugly?

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The European football championships begin in Poland and Ukraine in just over a week, but a BBC documentary is warning English fans to stay away and one Italian player has threatened to kill anyone who dares to taunt him about his race. So the tournament is not off to a great start so far.

The local organizers of the quadrennial tournament are furious over a BBC film that aired on Monday titled Stadiums of Hate. It depicts local soccer fans in the two host nations as violent, Nazi-loving racists — charges that have been leveled at more than few English soccer fans over the years. (The ex-captain of English national team will actually go on trial this year on charges that he abused a black opponent.) The show included footage of Polish and Ukrainian fans making monkey noises at black players, throwing up Nazi salutes and anti-Semitic chants in the stands, and beating up minority fans—even those supporting the same team.

Obviously, these are particularly sensitive topics in Poland, but it's a problem that's not unique to Eastern Europe or Great Britain or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Mario Balotelli, a black Italian striker who currently plays for Manchester City, has encountered racism wherever he's played; including his home country, where rival fans once threw a banana at him in the street. Balotelli said if it happens again during Euro 2012, "I will go to jail because I will kill them." He also threatened to "walk off the pitch and return home" if fans in Poland or the Ukraine taunt him during matches. 

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FIFA and UEFA (the global and European soccer federations) have made anti-racism campaigns a focal point of their public service efforts in the last few years, but judging by the BBC video there's a lot of work to be done. The report also includes some harsh statements from current and former black players telling fans to stay away from the tournament or "end up coming back in a coffin." Two black players from England's team have said that their families won't be joining them to watch the matches, over fears for their safety.

Tournament officials insist that their countries are safe, although the fact that SWAT teams have had to round up gangs of hooligans ahead of the first match suggest there is something to be concerned about. Even Amnesty International is issuing warnings of trouble. Some of the more "sophisticated" soccer fans in Europe criticized the hosting of the tournament in former Eastern Bloc countries from the very beginning, but it's possible that holding a major international event is the exact thing these countries need to root out their worst elements. The entire tournament is seen as a chance for these countries to show they've grown up enough to belong to the modern European community. If they can't restrain the thugs and racists, there's no telling what Balotelli and other minority players will face before the summer is over.

You can watch the entire Stadiums of Hate below:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.