Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Europe, The Beautiful Game Is Turning Ugly

The euro-crisis may be creating a generation of frustrated Europeans who will not enjoy the same level of prosperity and achievement of their parents.  Unemployment for the overall Eurozone sits at 12.2 percent according to Eurostat, and the number skyrockets for youth and the countries of southern and eastern Europe.  The overall rate in Spain and Greece, for example, is over 25 percent.  In Italy, unemployment among people ages 15 to 24 is a record 40.1 percent.  In these countries, far right parties are on the rise as people search for scapegoats to exorcise their frustration.  But racism and xenophobia are also mixing with football - “the beautiful game” - in a grotesque way.

The latest example occurred last month when Croatian player Josip Simunic led fans in a Nazi-era chant after defeating Iceland in a playoff game.  “For the Homeland. Ready!” was the official chant of the puppet regime that ruled Croatia from 1941-1945.  For this Simunic has been banned from travelling with the Croatian team to the World Cup this summer.

Idealizing the Nazi era has become a strange iteration of xenophobic sentiment, finding its most shocking success in Greece’s Golden Dawn political party.  This openly Neo-Nazi movement garnered 7 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 Greek national elections and currently hold 18 seats in the Hellenic parliament.  A new report by Human Rights Watch states that anti-immigrant violence has reached alarming proportions.  Just as concerning, police and government authorities are failing to act, providing tacit approval to Golden Dawn or even acting in complicity with the violence.

On the soccer pitch in March, Giorgos Katidis recently celebrated a game winning goal by running to supporters and giving the Nazi salute before being swarmed by team mates in celebration.  After punishment, members of his team, AEK Athens, went on to defend him as a victim.

In Italy, superstar Mario Balotelli has been the recipient of abuse from Italian and Spanish fans who have chanted racist epithets, made monkey sounds, and even thrown inflatable bananas on the field.  In 2012, Ghanaian player Kevin Prince-Boateng famously walked off the pitch with his teammates in protest at Italian abuse. 

For the third year in a row this August, fans of Hungarian team Ferencvaros flew a flag honoring Laszlo Csatary at their match against MTK Budapest FC.  MTK Budapest has historic ties to the Jewish community in Budapest and Csatary, the Hungarian commander of the Kassa internment camp in Slovakia during World War II, tortured Jews and deported thousands to their deaths.  For his role in recently seeking to bring Csatary to justice, the fans last year made a sign claiming the mother of Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to be a whore.  The year previous they commemorated a Jewish blood libel.  The Hungarian Football Federation has not banned these displays or taken any punitive action.

In the lead-up to the 2012 Euro Cup in Poland and the Ukraine, BBC1 produced a documentary entitled “Stadiums of Hate” detailing racist and anti-semitic violence in the football culture in those countries.  Poland and Ukraine football representatives responded cowardly, claiming that racism wasn’t a problem, but even if it did exist, it existed in other countries, too.  When faced with the evidence provided in the documentary, the tournament organizer UEFA refrained from criticism, responding that holding the Euro Cup in these countries was an opportunity to challenge racism.
In Ukraine the nexus of sports and politics is currently on display in Independence Square.  A major nationalist party opposing President Yanukovich and his turn to Russia is Svoboda, a party founded by World War II partisans loosely aligned with Nazi Germany and that until 2004 provocatively called itself the Social-Nationalist party.  Its red and black flag is displayed ubiquitously in the current protests, but has been banned in football stadiums by FIFA as a racist symbol.

It’s shocking to see crude racism and xenophobia have such potency in the 21st century.  Scapegoating, however, may be an inherent part of human culture.  It certainly is one more reason to hope economic conditions turn around soon. 

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