Many people believe that sport transcends politics, and that amajor international athletic event should not be distracted bysocial turbulence off the field. Yet it s hard to dismiss the gathering storm of controversy thatwill greet the kickoff of the 2012 Euro Cup on Friday. Threats of racial violence, accusations of political repression andallegations of match-fixing are all part of the texture of thisyear s competition. I can t recall a past tournament with this much scandal, saysJohn Molinaro, a Toronto-based soccer journalist with Sportsnet.ca. |
In terms of international sporting events, only the World Cup ofsoccer and the Olympics draw more viewers than the Euro Cup. Thisyear s event is being jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine, andwill draw hundreds of millions of watchers around the world. But recent controversies have thrust the two Eastern Europeancountries, as well as tournament organizer UEFA, into damagecontrol mode. Boycott threats A month ago, stories emerged that Yulia Tymoshenko jailed leaderof the Ukrainian opposition party had been beaten in prison.This prompted several European leaders, most notably GermanChancellor Angela Merkel, to urge a boycott of the tournament.Earlier today, the British Foreign Office confirmed that it wouldnot be sending any ministers to England's three qualifying-roundmatches. Italy s Euro Cup hopes were thrown into question a couple of weeksago after Italian police arrested 17 people in a match-fixinginvestigation.
The sweep included defender Domenico Criscito, whowill be sitting out the Euro Cup. At one point, Italian nationalcoach Cesare Prandelli suggested his team might even skip thetournament in order to sort out its legal troubles. When it comes to footie, Italian match-fixing scandals have becomealmost as routine as histrionic, referee-baiting fouls. Molinaro points out that the Azzurri the nickname for Italy snational team were dogged by similar scandals at the 1982 and2006 World Cups.
While several top Italian clubs (includingJuventus and AC Milan) were punished with demotions to lowerleagues, in both years, the Italian national team managed to winthe World Cup. I don't think the current scandal will affect their performancein the field, says Molinaro. Charges of racism Perhaps the most damning development prior to this year s Euro Cupwas the airing of Stadiums of Hate, a BBC documentary thatsuggested white supremacist soccer fans in Poland and Ukraine areplanning to physically harm black, Asian or Jewish fans who attendEuro Cup games. In one of the doc s most bracing moments, former England footballcaptain Sol Campbell, who is black, instructs non-white soccer fansto stay home from the tournament, lest they leave Ukraine in acoffin. Polish and Ukrainian officials reacted with indignation, saying thedocumentary didn t reflect reality.
Even some outside commentatorshave suggested that the BBC engaged in selective reporting. Even so, there is little doubt that international soccertournaments inspire patriotic passions, which has the potential tomorph into ugly jingoism. It s not a great surprise that the spectre of racism has rearedits head, says Nigel Reed, a soccer correspondent for CBC Sports. Molinaro says both countries have a history of fan racism, which often manifests itself in taunts of black players. Hebelieves such xenophobia could spill onto the field.
It wouldn't surprise me to see fan violence either inside oroutside the stadiums. If there are racist or monkey chants directedat black players, I think you'll see those players march off thefield and thus [force] a halt to the game, he says. Political tensions This isn t the first major soccer tournament to be rattled bypolitical tensions. The 1982 World Cup, hosted by Spain, came onlymonths after the Falklands War, a brief but bitter conflict betweenBritain and Argentina over a series of tiny South Atlantic islands.Britain maintained control over the islands, and 649 Argentinesoldiers died. England and Argentina didn t go head-to-head in that tournament,but they met in a tension-filled match in the 1986 World Cup.
Thegame will be remembered for Diego Maradona s controversial Handof God goal, which helped Argentina dispatch the English.According to Argentine soccer legend Roberto Perfumo, winning theWorld Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim. The recent BBC documentary, as well as Ukraine s politicaltensions, have led some commentators to question Ukraine s fitnessto co-host such a prestigious sporting event. Flags were raisedabout Ukraine's wobbly government back in 2007, when the UEFAexecutive committee announced the location of the 2012 tournament. Reed says it s no coincidence that this tournament is beingco-hosted by two nations who have never staged a high-profile eventlike this before.
That s the preference of UEFA president Michel Platini, who iskeen to spread the gospel of European soccer, says Reed. Staginga tournament of this magnitude has obvious economic benefits forthe hosting nations, and also extends the brand and reach of UEFA. Says Reed, If you don t take football to these countries and letthem showcase themselves, you just leave it in Western Europe.
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