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Slovakia: UEFA Combating Racism in European Soccer

European soccer's governing body, UEFA, finds itself combating a growing incidence of racist abuse by fans. This past weekend's match in Bratislava, where Slovak fans taunted black England players, was only the latest in a series of recent matches marred by racist behavior. But is UEFA fighting a losing battle? RFE/RL reports the feeling is that football can only go so far in solving what, at bottom, is a societal problem.

Prague, 16 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- England soccer player Emile Heskey said it was the worst racist abuse he'd ever experienced on the field.

Heskey and fellow black teammate Ashley Cole were playing in an international match against Slovakia in Bratislava on 12 October when Slovak fans suddenly began taunting "monkey, monkey" at the two men because of their race.

Witnesses said it wasn't an isolated incident involving just a few rowdy spectators, but almost the entire crowd. Heskey said even the medical team on the sidelines -- the men manning the stretchers -- joined in.

Juraj Oblozinsky, the vice president of the Slovak Soccer Association, was quick to apologize for the incident, saying the behavior did not represent the sentiments of the wider Slovak public: "The leadership of the Slovak Soccer Association, as well as the Slovak soccer public, distance themselves resolutely from any expression of racism or intolerance, which appeared by some individuals during the Slovakia-England match."

But Paul Newman, the head of the English Football Association, disagreed. He said many people were involved and has called on UEFA, European soccer's governing body, to levy a heavy fine.

UEFA is now investigating the incident and has scheduled a disciplinary hearing for 21 November.

It seems, these days, all UEFA does is investigate charges of racism. In recent weeks, the organization has levied fines on soccer clubs in the Netherlands and Yugoslavia because of the racist behavior of their fans, and each weekend only seems to bring more incidents to investigate.

Part of the problem is that the fines UEFA imposes are often laughably low -- and clubs have little incentive to take them seriously. The team targeted by UEFA in the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven, was fined around 20,000 euros -- a drop in the bucket compared to the club's budget of millions of euros.

UEFA spokesman Mike Lee says that in spite of the modest fines, his association is taking racism seriously. He points out UEFA recently adopted a 10-point plan in conjunction with an international group, "Football Against Racism in Europe," to educate the public on the dangers of racism.

The plan includes measures to warn fans in advance that racist taunts will not be tolerated and instructs police to act against belligerent spectators.

But efforts to combat racism in international soccer are stymied by a lack of consensus on the root cause. Lee is quick to point out that there is little that international soccer can do to counter what at bottom is a societal problem.

Michal Vasecka is a research fellow with the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs and an expert on issues of ethnicity and exclusion. He says the abuse -- at least in Bratislava -- is connected with deeper problems of cultural development and identity.

He explains that Slovakia was industrialized relatively rapidly in the last few decades, giving it the outward appearance of an industrialized society, but without the social and cultural development that goes with it. "Slovakia is a country that is the most heterogeneous, ethnically heterogeneous, in Central Europe, but the 'culture of tolerance' is not as well developed [here] as in the European Union, or even with respect to neighboring countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary."

He continues, "[Slovakia] is still a country that is trying to solve its own identity problem, and precisely [during] such times, the people are relatively aggressive toward those people who are different."

Others see more economic and political forces at play.

Piara Power, the national coordinator of the British-based antiviolence group "Kick it Out," says racism in some countries -- such as Holland -- can be linked to the recent rise of right-wing political parties. He says these groups target minorities as a way of gaining support and in the process create their own climate of tolerance for racist attitudes.

He says the phenomenon is happening in Eastern Europe, too: "We've got problems in Central and Eastern European states and many young people are turning to parties of the far right and neo-Nazi parties for answers to many different problems that they have -- problems of economic development, problems of direction, if you like, and that's resulting in an overspill into football culture."

Power says there are no easy answers. He points to the relative success Britain has had in combating racist attitudes in domestic matches, but concedes that that success has not always translated to English fans crossing the Channel to see matches in continental Europe.

The incident in Bratislava has at least raised levels of awareness there of the problems -- and costs -- of racist attitudes. The Slovak press, while focusing also on the poor behavior of the English supporters, has roundly condemned the actions of the spectators.

Vasecka, for one, isn't convinced the experience will lead to more tolerance in the future: "Racist attitudes [in Slovakia] are consistent and not really changing with time. In other words, people who have negative views of black people --- the percentage of these people in Slovakia [has] practically not [changed] since 1990."

UEFA isn't saying what disciplinary action lies in store for Slovakia, although there will be considerable pressure to levy a very high fine.

Heskey meanwhile says he no longer plans to take his family along when England plays matches abroad. He says it's simply not worth the trouble.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.