The British media’s campaign to highlight racism in Ukraine ahead of the European Football Championship has gone from worthy to sensationalist to hysterical. Now, the crescendo of sanctimony is beginning to hit comic high notes.
Up to a million visitors are expected in the country during Europe’s prime international football tournament during the next four weeks. But it’s not too late to cancel that ticket
Articles on the neo-Nazi subculture amongst local hardcore football fans have cropped up with regularity since Poland and Ukraine were awarded the tournament five years ago, but two events seem to have unleashed a torrent of copycat horror stories.
The first is the very public refusal of the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – two up-and-coming black British footballers – to travel to Ukraine to watch them play for the national team.
The press turned giddy with glee. No one questioned whether the families correctly evaluated the risk of suffering a skinhead attack while shuttling between a five-star hotel, a VIP section of a stadium and a swanky Kiev bar. Instead, the decision was viewed as incontrovertible proof that Ukraine is racist.
The second was a special report by the investigative BBC program Panorama, neutrally titled “Stadiums of Hate.”
With a script that may as well have been written before his plane took off from Heathrow, the thirty-minute special showed a wide-eyed Chris Rogers watching football matches among crowds that appeared to consist entirely of shaven-headed, Nazi-saluting football hooligans.
After distasteful but non-violent encounters with anti-Semitic Polish fans, Rogers wondered “if what happens in Ukraine could possibly be worse.” Oh, but it could.
Every single match he attended in the country ended with a riot, a hate crime, or at the very least, a seven-year-old shouting Nazi slogans.
Footage of angry naked torsos in balaclavas was intercut with soundbites by blithe Ukrainian officials denying that any problem existed at all.
For his moral piece de resistance, Rogers shoved a laptop with the juiciest racist footage in front of retired England captain Sol Campbell.
Imbued with authority merely by virtue of being a footballer and black, without being a race expert or even playing in any stadiums featured in the program, Campbell was predictably outraged.
Afterwards, a visibly upset Campbell said that Ukraine was “just gangland” and “did not deserve” to host the Euros, before advising supporters not to travel there, “because they might come back in a coffin.”
The floodgates were now truly opened, with almost every newspaper conducting an (exclusive) investigation that mostly seemed to yield pictures of small groups of shaven-headed men in wood clearings wearing combats from the army surplus store.
Although many seemed to echo the Panorama piece, The Daily Mail showed personal inventiveness and dragged Stalin’s “savage legacy” into the headline, as if the prospect of being stabbed by a unit of forest-trained commandos were not sufficiently menacing in itself.
The article starts off with a Western saloon scene (in an English pub in Donetsk, of all places), with two Nigerian youths in the Clint Eastwood outsider role.
“The moment they walked through the bar door eyes narrowed and jaws dropped,” writes David Jones.
“When they asked for a menu, they were told the kitchen had ‘just closed’; their drinks took an eternity to arrive, and were served as if they were lepers; and when their backs were turned, two men feigned to strike them with their billiards cues.”
For the first time in history the leisurely Ukrainian food service has been recruited in the cause of racial politics.
Did the kitchen “just close” or did it just close? Did the barman intentionally shirk his duties, or was he just pouring Guinness the proper way, as is customary in such authentic establishments? Were the men served like lepers, or do Ukrainian pub waitresses serve everyone like lepers?
Being hit with a billiards cue is more than unpleasant, and it is perfectly possible that a football pub frequented by hardcore football fans would be staffed by racists.
But can you really gauge the degree of racism in Ukraine from this anecdote?
Yet this doesn’t stop David Jones from building his entire article on the “sickening” incident.
After listing Ukraine’s myriad faults, Jones labels Euro 2012 as “surely the most apprehensively anticipated football tournament in history”, though it is not clear if anyone has ever compiled an all-time rating based on this criterion. And if they did, Ukraine and its hooligans is probably still some way off the controversy of staging the 1978 World Cup in Argentina's military dictatorship.
This is not to be glib.
With hundreds of fatal racially-motivated attacks each year, Eastern Europe is struggling with a deeply-rooted social problem. Football fandom and neo-Nazism also overlap much more there than in 21st -century Britain.
Neither should the authorities be absolved. In the aftermath of the Panorama fallout, Ukrainian and Polish ministers have spent more time vocalizing just how “indignant” they are about the slurs on their national character than addressing the issues very clearly documented in the Panorama footage, some of which have existed for decades.
What fails to convince is the central argument. That violent club-obsessed ultras would infiltrate heavily-policed international matches with tickets costing upwards of 30 euro and perform mass Nazi salutes seems unlikely. That they would gather outside stadiums and target black fans is a likelier possibility, but also remote.
More probable, with the carnival atmosphere of an international tournament and Eastern Europeans’ traditional desire to impress Westerners, is that even the radical fans will be on their best behavior. And if history is anything to go by, if anyone is likely to cause havoc, it is those beered-up foreign fans who have little interest in Lvov’s medieval architecture, but a recurring desire to visit its bar district.
The problems with racist fans will return as soon as the domestic season starts in Poland and Ukraine, a few weeks after the end of Euro 2012. But by that time few will care.
As it is, many reporters are already in Ukraine, and their features editors are furiously searching for new angles from which to cover the tournament in the absence of any actual football. At various points imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, exorbitant hotel prices and cost overruns have been the media’s favorite hobby-horse. Now, racism is another subject to be beaten to death with a series of increasingly shoddy, self-righteous or far-fetched articles that by now usually have little to do with the actual issue.
When the matches finally start in less than a week, the scaremongering will likely be quickly forgotten, and reporters will be allowed to go back to discussing where Walcott should play on the pitch, as opposed to where his aunt is watching the match.
And if this means no more “shocking” Daily Mail investigations based on a bar crawl, that might not be a bad thing.