By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) It should probably be considered a good thing that soccer fans in Ukraine and Poland are so ugly. That the racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic behavior on display at European soccer matches still has the capacity to stand out is testament to how far – and how quickly — our own country has evolved.
Transpose this to the NFL, and consider what the reaction would be.
Monkey-chants directed at a black player during warm-ups would result in swift condemnation from all corners. It’s almost entirely unimaginable, even considering America’s shameful history of slavery, Jim Crow, the civil-rights opposition of the mid-twentieth century, and the remaining undercurrent that still infects us, particularly in the south.
What happened to the Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre Selassie in Krakow last week would just not be tolerated here. Yet black players in eastern Europe are accustomed to such taunts, including banana-throwing.
Consider, too, how some tried to explain away the Selassie incident immediately after it was reported. According to the Telegraph, “Some local experts claimed the vile chanting was actually a local Wisla staccato chant of ‘Jew, Jew’ aimed at fans of Cracovia, their local rivals.”
So it’s no big deal, then. See? On with the European championship matches.
Far-right nationalism has long been out front when these crowds gather, with various organizations finding a voice. Imagine swaths of a Sunday football crowd wearing the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan or waving John Birch Society banners, and think about the ensuing firestorm. That’s exactly the kind of thing that occurs in Ukraine all the time, except with swastikas.
An organization exists called the FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) network, that monitors such things. Not that it has any power to stop any of it, of course.
Not when entire national federations are complicit. A report in England’s Daily Mail on Ukraine said “Nothing is likely to change. How can it when the nation’s football authorities turn a blind eye to the racial assaults, Nazi salutes and swastika banners that are a weekly feature of domestic matches?”
The report also includes a quote about the type of player the country prefers – one who exemplifies their ideal, “’and not some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he’s playing in the Ukranian League.’”
Those are the words of Oleg Blokhin, Ukraine’s coach for Euro 2012, who the Mail says is “an unreconstructed bigot whose racist rants would see him banished from the game in England.”
A recent story by Reuters concerned the still-accepted racism and anti-Semitism of Polish soccer fans, describing “anti-Semitic chanting and displays by far-right groups which organizations like the Warsaw-based East Europe Monitoring Centre say are also common in Poland.”
John Godson, a member of Poland’s parliament who is of Nigerian descent, told Reuters “’Anti-Semitism is still a problem. We have clearly not done enough in analyzing what we see happening in the stadiums.”
In charge of the current tournament is UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations. It has shown little desire to keep fans from continuing to act as they do.
Per the Telegraph yesterday, “Eastern Europeans with no emotional stake in UEFA’s showcase championship have been given an opportunity to advertise their sociopathic urges to the world while challenging a governing body with a poor record of responding to racist behaviour to join them in a political battle.”
In the early 1900s, my maternal great-grandparents fled anti-Semitic violence outside of Odessa, now Ukraine’s third-largest city. Around the same time, my paternal great-grandfather escaped the pogroms sweeping through his home in Poland. A teenager, alone, he stowed away on a ship to reach America.
Dark urges still simmer far away from here. The emotions of soccer are revealing chilling truths about places often out of mind.
I want to think sports stadiums simply provide a release for such things, venting away real danger — feelings that would otherwise compel angry people to act, rather than merely chant.
Sadly, history says I’m wrong.
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