Racism at Euro 2012: Some cultural context and why football is the answer

June 9, 2012

The Ukrainian coach, Blokhin, said something awhile back that speaks more to the current racism kerfuffle than Polish/Ukrainian excuses of “oh, those nazi salutes are just people pointing in the direction of the opposing team fans” or “they’re just protesting the exclusion of Krakow (excluded in part because of racism).”

Blokhin said and I quote:

 “The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation,” he said. “Let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League.” 

Sheva is a god so let nothing be said about his character from this quote but really, Eastern European football’s exposure to black people comes from the nigerians and Brazilians the oil billionaires imported to play in their post-Soviet teams. They didn’t really vet them because there was a belief that African players are naturally stronger and more skillful. So what they got instead was a ton of mediocre-ish players exposing political and class divides. The training regimes needed to be updated for the modern game. What did the players do? They blamed black players for it. Ultras have an outsized power in Eastern Europe. You’ll see a thread of anti-semitism in this too if you look closely enough. In Hungary, MTK are the second most successful club historically yet you’ll find they had the lowest attendance figures pre-relegation and you run the risk of getting beaten up if you dare to wear their shirt. I mean, they were a legitimately great team. But alas, MTK are considered a Jewish team. Are the players Jewish? They aren’t. But Jews have come to symbolize something, just like black players have. They serve as a reminder of power that rests elsewhere, of cultural change that is tangible yet imperceptible, of being left behind.

It is a complete and utter false equivalence when people say racism in, say, England, is even comparable to Eastern Europe. England has black people in their national team and a very high proportion of mixed-race people so the racism is less virulent, less hostile. I root for Sweden. One of the reasons why (the primary was that they were the first trading card I found for Euro 92 and also WC 94) was Martin Dahlin. An Afro-Venezuelan Swede! It helped that he also owned in 94 but 94 was important for the debut of the greatest Swedish player ever, Henke Larsson, a Cape Verde-an Swede. I rate him higher than even my idol, Zlatan, a Bosnian-Croat Swede, who will win Euro 2012 for Sweden. My point is that football is a microcosm of the culture of formerly monocultural countries. Football is one of the ways cultures are exposed to other cultures. My impression of Sweden was very different before I saw Dahlin and Larsson. But it’s not obviously easy for nations to seem like a multicultural ideal when demographic transition is such a difficult ask. Sweden struggles to assimilate its Bosnian/Serbian/Muslim/Arab population, seen in miniature by Swedish attitudes towards Malmo, Ibra’s hometown. Ibra talks in his book about the systemic pressures acting on him and others like him. His very presence in the national team is a negotiation of identity. Millions have to support him and that’s a negotiation too. Some countries have an easier time of this than others. This is why France’s WC-winning team was to be such a watershed moment. A French team that’s mostly black and Algerian? With a Basque standing in for white people? By and large, Europe is negotiating the assimilation of its Muslim population. Some of Europe’s biggest stars are Muslim, which will make the job possible. Benzema, Ozil, Ribery, Dzeko, Henry. When this is made clear in Ukraine/Poland, the idea is that they will see and appreciate the diversity that they don’t see in their home games.

Mario Balotelli is obviously one of the first players people who are convinced that football in Europe is racist will invoke. I submit that he is not a good example and yet at the same time, his saga is a model for how cultural attitudes evolve. Remember, football is both a “civilizing process” and “an antidote to civilization,” which is part of what makes it so intertwined with nationalism and ethnic pride. Balo is one of the most talented players in the game. Strong, lethal and blessed with incredibly vision, Italy’s hopes at the Euros rest on his often disinterested shoulders. He has been heckled more than any other black player in recent memory in Italy, a nation that has idolized Rijkaard, Weah, Thuram and Kanu, to name a few. His crime is not just being black but being Italian to boot. He is the first major black Italian player to represent Italy. Liverani, the first black Italian, was never good enough to conjure up this hysteria. Juventus fans claim that they’re not booing him or making monkey noises at him because he’s black but because he has a bad attitude. While he does have attitude problems, his blackness gives Italians permission to rain abuse on him that they wouldn’t on other players with bad attitudes like Vieri, Cassano or even the despicable Matrix. Ultimately, the abuse is part of Italy’s growing pains. They are forced to reconcile the fact that there are now black Italians with the fact that their hopes rest on someone who is other. To their credit, they have made peace with it to a large extent. Poland and the Ukraine haven’t had reason to. When the time comes, if it does, football will find a way to expand the meaning of what it means to be Polish or Ukrainian or what have you.

I was very cynical when UEFA decided to host in Poland/Ukraine because of their longstanding issues with racism and anti-Semitism. But on reflection, I think I believe more in football’s power to show people a new way than I do in the wages of racism. Football has a responsibility as the world’s most popular sport, something you find kids playing on dusty fields in every forgotten part of the world. Football unites because it is so primeval. We all get it. If anything can make a difference in Poland/Ukraine, it’s football. I trust it more than any political process or any recriminations.

I hope you go to Poland/Ukraine if you get the chance. Football will conquer all.

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