International

Ukraine – perhaps it is the “wild east” after all….

They must pay well in Ukrainian football, because it seems to be a prime location for Brazilian and Nigerian footballers chasing the dollar. You can always tell where the money is in the game by the number of foreign players streaming into the market and right now, African and Latin American players , chaperoned by their agents, are looking at Ukraine and Russia.

How much money makes racism and violence palatable? Quite a bit, it would seem, if the reports coming out of Ukraine and the warnings of a bloodbath at Euro 2012, are anything to go by. Sol Campbell, always a player eager for publicity, has told England fans that Ukraine is dangerous and riddled with racism. He may be right, but is it any different to England of the late 1970s and early 1980s?

Campbell may not recall what football was like in the “golden age of football hooliganism”. Racist chants were commonplace, bananas on the pitch a regular occurance and “monkey chants” a staple of matchday in the pre-SKY paradigm.  Perhaps we have come a long way since then, so much so that we now feel very threatened by similar behaviour elsewhere. That’s a positive.

But there’s a difference. Eastern Europe’s barriers have come down and you can see evidence of the “hardness” of their football fans when they come to London. I saw three Legia Warsaw fans on the London Underground two weeks ago. Shaven headed,  bedecked in suspect t-shirts with one proudly displaying the old skinhead branding of “Love” and “Hate” on his knuckles. He was a throwback and sadly, that’s something we may be looking at in both Ukraine and Poland.

Recent footage of fans in Ukraine adopting a Nazi salute had the soundtrack of “Zigger-Zagger”, a song once beloved by Chelsea fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of the footage reminded you of the scenes that used to accompany Manchester United, Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall games. It’s eerily familiar but we are dealing with a generation that spreads its messages virally, is discontented has no fear of authority.

Campbell’s outburst, at this stage, wasn’t really needed. Football fans have already identified that Ukraine and Poland are certainly not Germany, France, Spain , Italy and England – the traditional homes of football. Only 5,000 England fans are going to Euro 2012 – perhaps fewer after the expose this week on TV – and that is one twentieth of the number that went to Germany in 2006 for the World Cup.  The experience of British fans when they travel to Russia and other Eastern European locations would have informed the decision-making process. Given that most football fans are not black in Britain and only recently has the Asian community embraced the game, the vast majority of travelling England fans are white, bald and beer-bellied – rather similar to the average Donetsk crowd!

It is the players that are likely to bear the brunt of racist chanting. What’s a mystery is that Ukraine’s two top clubs are full of foreign players. Shakhtar Donestsk have eight Brazilians in their ranks and Dynamo Kiyv have five Brazilian and four Nigerians. Presumably they have become immune.

Sol Campbell said that Euro 2012 should not have been awarded to Ukraine and Poland. He’s actually right. It took England 30 years to secure a tournament and often the excuse was poor stadiums and football hooliganism. The people that make these decisions – FIFA and UEFA – should examine their motives: 2010 – South Africa (debatable); 2012 – Ukraine/Poland (debatable); 2014 – Brazil (about time); 2016 – France; 2018 – Russia (predictable); 2020 – TBA; 2022 – Qatar (why?). Money talks, without a doubt – Brazil and Russia are two of the four BRIC countries (India and China, your time will come) and Qatar: well, well, well, all that oil!

Ukraine is a tough country. It’s rich in minerals and big on heavy industry. It’s also one of the top arms exports in the world. Unemployment stands at around 7.9% but the economy is growing at a rate of more than 4% a year (coming after a huge slump in 2008-09). Football is on the up, with Ukrainian Premier crowds now averaging 11,300 per game. Shakhtar Donetsk, champions in seven of the last 11 seasons, are watched by 34,000 at home games. Like Russia, football clubs are seemingly prepared to pay big money to bring big names east.

Needless to say, the PR men are desperately trying to save the day for Ukraine at the moment. Ukrainian legend Andrei Shevchenko has come out and told the world that racism is not a problem in his country’s football. The TV evidence would suggest otherwise. It’s clearly going to be a case of Caveat Emptor for anyone making the trip to Euro 2012 this summer.

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