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Black Soccer Fans Address Euro 2012 Racism Claims

  • Tom Balmforth

Three Congolese students have a beer in the fan zone in Kyiv. While some longtime residents stay away for fear of violence, visiting fans talk of a welcoming atmosphere.

Three Congolese students have a beer in the fan zone in Kyiv. While some longtime residents stay away for fear of violence, visiting fans talk of a welcoming atmosphere.

KYIV -- A coach who once derided African soccer players in Europe as "some Zumba-Bumba" to be paid in bananas. Racist violence and Nazi salutes at a Ukrainian club match. And a former England player who warned fans not to go unless they wanted to come back "in a coffin."

So, how dangerous is it to be a nonwhite soccer fan in Ukraine?

Foreign fans traveling to Ukraine -- and Poland -- for the Euro 2012 championship that kicked off on June 8 thought they had plenty of reasons to be wary.

But in Kyiv at least, the picture so far has been mixed -- some foreign fans suggest the concerns about racist abuse have been exaggerated, while longer-term black residents tell of sporadic incidents of abuse or assault.

The racism fears were heightened ahead of the tournament primarily by a BBC documentary that included footage of soccer hooligans from Ukraine assaulting a group of Asian students and making Nazi salutes at a recent match in Kharkiv. Former England defender Sol Campbell, reacting to the footage, said not to go to Ukraine and Poland or risk "coming back in a coffin."

See All RFE/RL's Coverage Of Euro 2012 Here

Despite the critical coverage, black soccer fans like 27-year-old Emeka Bona from New York have traveled to Europe's largest soccer festival believing the reports to reflect the views of only a minority of far-right fans.

"I knew that a select few were not a representation of the entire country. I chose to come, and I made plans and I went with them," Bona says.

Lishen, a 30-year-old Londoner in Ukraine for the Euros, says Ukrainians have been very welcoming in the 36 hours he has been in Kyiv. He recounts how he and an American friend sat in a park with local fans, drinking beer and singing Bob Marley songs into the early hours of the morning.

"After seeing the stuff on [the BBC's] 'Panorama' and Sol Campbell's comments, and stuff like that, it was a concern," Lishen says. "But in all honesty, I have not had any issues whatsoever."

Fears Of Violence

But some black students who live in Kyiv tell a different story. Piernot Kaya is a 22-year-old student from France who has been in Kyiv for four months.

Karpaty Lviv supporters hold up a German Nazi flag at a soccer match against Dynamo Kyiv in 2007.

Karpaty Lviv supporters hold up a German Nazi flag at a soccer match against Dynamo Kyiv in 2007.

"Personally, I've been attacked three times so I believe that racism is common here. Apparently, black skin is a threat to the Ukraine," Kaya says. "I'd tell those with black skin not to come here and stay where they are. Go to Europe, but don't go to Ukraine. For me, Ukraine isn't Europe."

His four friends, also from France, agree with him, although students from Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon, many of them here for several years, have mixed feelings.

Hamuli Patrick, 22, from Congo, says that in his three years studying in Ukraine, he has never experienced racism, although his 22-year-old friend Joseph says someone recently threw a bottle at him in the subway and that he and his friends were subjected to monkey chants in a cafe, leading to a fistfight.

Prechus, a 20-year-old student from Nigeria watching the soccer in the fan zone in central Kyiv, says his friends stayed at home out of fear of racism fueled by the Euro 2012 matches.

"Most of my friends actually didn't come here because the racism might be more here, centered [around] the football," Prechus says. "But I haven't discovered, myself, any form of racism. So, that's why I am here to watch the match."

'No Racism In Ukraine'

Soccer commentators Denis Bosyanov and Mikhail Gerasimenko say the critical coverage of Ukrainian soccer has portrayed "fewer than 2,000 ultras" in Ukraine as representing the mainstream public attitude toward nonwhites in Ukraine and that the problem of racism in the stands is worse elsewhere in Europe.

Oleh Blokhin, Ukraine's head coach -- he of the "Zumba-Bumba" comment back in 2006 -- said on June 11 that "there just isn't racism in Ukraine."

In fact, the main incidents reported thus far have involved Polish and Russian fans.

Last week, monkey chants were heard at a Dutch training session in Poland, spurring players to threaten to walk off mid-game if it happened during a fixture. And Russian fans reportedly hurled racist abuse at a black Czech player at the Russia-Czech Republic match on June 8 in Poland.

Still, fan Emeka Bona says the wave of bad press could become the impetus for a crackdown on racism in soccer in Eastern Europe and beyond. Russia is holding the World Cup in 2018.

"Here we have now a united front to combat racism. Everyone is vigilantly watching for it and hopefully we can eradicate it from the game," Bona says.

"I know it is a long shot, but I think it is the beginning and I think while the world is watching is the best time to begin the battle against them."

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