Euro 2012 frontline in battle with racism
WARSAW (AFP) – With just a year left until Euro 2012 kicks off in Poland, authorities and campaigners say they are determined to use the football showpiece to stamp out stadium racism.
"We're treating the European Championship as a chance to make things civilised," tournament security chief Adam Rapacki told anti-racism campaigners, who wrapped up a two-day meeting in the capital Warsaw on Wednesday.
The former commander of the police anti-gang squad, Rapacki is also overseeing a crackdown on hooliganism, which has long afflicted club football here.
Racial abuse carries a jail sentence of up to three years in Poland. Rapacki said around 100 probes are launched every year.
"But we're aware that the real numbers are shadowy, as a lot goes unreported," he added.
To redress that, 20,000 police officers have received special training. Authorities are also tapping English expertise to improve stewarding.
European football's governing body UEFA has the issue firmly in its sights.
"For us, racism as such is a phenomenon of society, which plays itself out in and around football," Patrick Gasser, in charge of the issue at UEFA, told AFP.
"We have taken this on in order to make a positive contribution to society but also, obviously, to eradicate it from the football scene," he added.
Starting on June 8 next year in Warsaw and ending three weeks later in Kiev, capital of co-hosts Ukraine, Euro 2012 marks the first time the continent's top international tournament will be held behind the old Iron Curtain.
That ups the ante, said Piara Powar, the British head of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE).
"This is about the legacy, not just Euro 2012, but about how football in Poland, Ukraine and the region will benefit," he said.
Since the collapse of communist rule two decades ago, far-right groups have fed on and stoked social and ethnic tensions across the region.
They flourish among fans who worship England's once-notorious hooligan 'firms' (gangs) -- a hardcore of 3,000-5,000 in Poland, a nation of 38 million, Rapacki estimates.
Besides abusing black players, far-right fans also chant anti-Semitic slogans or brandish neo-Nazi banners.
That is notably shocking given the region's World War II history, when millions perished at the hands of the occupying Germans, including the overwhelming majority of its Jews.
"You rarely see a Ukrainian Premier League match without a display of racist, right-wing slogans. Unfortunately, it's a discourse that's embedded in the Ukrainian football scene," said Pavel Klymenko, of Kiev-based Football Against Prejudice.
Ukrainian authorities have failed to wake up, he claimed.
"Recognition of the real extent of the problem is the first step to fighting it," he added.
Whereas West European campaigners have long worked directly with fan groups, the far-right's hold makes that harder in the ex-communist bloc, noted Rafal Pankowski, who runs FARE's regional operations.
One solution is to get respected ex-players onside. Iconic 1980s Poland striker Dariusz Dziekanowski is leading the way.
"It's important to use former national team players to help minimise this problem. We can't cut it off completely, but we can minimise it," said Dziekanowski, who has had campaigners address his youth-coaching programme.
The Polish football association can punish clubs that fail to stamp out the problem, although the penalties look paltry in West European terms.
A starkly anti-Semitic banner at a second-division match in May 2010 earned the guilty club a 2,500-zloty (635-euro, $918) fine.
This month, however, a 20-year-old fan involved in the incident was jailed for six months.
Fans can also be hit with stadium bans, but critics point to slack enforcement.
Article written by Jonathan Fowler.