Racism. Anti-Semitism. Homophobia. Human-rights abuses. Yes, it must be time for another international soccer tournament. The European Championships—second only to the World Cup in the soccer pantheon—begins Friday in Poland and, thus far, much of the buildup has focused on off-field events and remarkably little attention has been paid to footballing matters at all.
In England, a BBC documentary lavished much attention on racist attitudes prevalent in Poland and Ukraine (which is co-hosting the championships and will stage the final in Kiev). Even before this exposé, the families of two black English players said they would not risk traveling to Eastern Europe, while the former England defender Sol Campbell (who is black) warned that any black English fans traveling to the tournament risked “coming back in a coffin.”
Meanwhile, Italy’s star striker, Mario Balotelli, who has been the subject of much racial abuse during his career in Italy and England, said he’d walk off the pitch and return home if he is met with a barrage of bananas or monkey-noise chants or any other favorite melodies drawn from the racist football supporters’ repertoire.
Michel Platini—the president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body—said Balotelli or any player who walked off the field of play would receive a yellow card. Nevertheless, Platini, clearly vexed that reporters seemed uninterested in talking about the actual soccer, also said that referees will have the power to stop the game if players are targeted with racist abuse.
The Poles and Ukrainians might reasonably complain racist abuse of players is hardly confined to the old Eastern Bloc. Italy and Spain have particular problems with soccer-related racism. For that matter, England’s preparations for the tournament have been overshadowed by a race-related controversy swirling around former captain John Terry, who will stand trial after the tournament on charges of racially abusing an opponent earlier in the season.
Not that these concerns are the only controversies hampering the tournament’s chances of being remembered as a great sporting festival and celebration of European footballing unity. For some time, the Poles and Ukrainians had to endure the condescension of Western Europeans wondering if the two countries were up to the task of staging the tournament. (This, of course, is a familiar tune played every time any soccer tournament is hosted by someone other than a traditional power. Similar doubts have been expressed about tournaments played in the U.S., Mexico, South Korea, Japan and, most recently, South Africa.)
Alas, this tournament’s troubles do not end with Poles and Ukrainians being patronized by smug Western Europeans. On Thursday the British government confirmed it would not be represented in any official capacity at any of England’s games being played in Ukraine. The Foreign Office cited “widespread concerns” about “selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine.” In particular, London objects to the continued imprisonment—and alleged maltreatment—of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years last October following a trial that, her supporters say, was nothing more than an attempt by President Victor Yanukovych to eliminate political opposition to his increasingly autocratic regime.
By boycotting the tournament—though as protests go this is small beer—London joins other European governments protesting Ukraine’s human- rights record. Angela Merkel had already confirmed she will not attend any of Germany’s games in the former Soviet Union, while Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union, will avoid Kiev too.
If the Yanukovych regime were of the embarrassable kind, it might be shamed by such worthy (if also purely symbolic) protests. As it is, Ukraine remains an unstable link—both geographically and figuratively—between Western democracy and Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Any hopes that hosting the tournament might nudge Ukraine away from its eastern neighbor appear forlorn indeed. What’s more, if politicians feel queasy about this tournament, how will they respond to Putin’s Winter Olympics, due to be held on the Black Sea in 2014?
Nevertheless, holding the tournament in Poland and Ukraine is a reminder that Europe is more than the euro zone’s problems. In particular, Poland is a paid-up member of Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe.” That phrase, much-derided in “Old Europe,” New York, and Washington, offered something to countries and peoples emerging from life behind the Iron Curtain. This tournament was supposed to be a demonstration of Europe’s reunification, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down. It may yet live up to that hope, but it cannot be said to have begun in the most auspicious style.
As for the on-field battles? Much will be made of Poland playing Russia in Poland while Greece could conceivably meet Germany in an Austerity Showdown in the knockout stages. However, Spain and Germany are the sides with form and pedigree, while the Netherlands and France are thought to be the favorites’ toughest challengers. Here at least, Old Europe still has the the upper hand.