Just a couple of weeks to go and the world’s attention is turning to the Euro 2012 Championships. Much of the press coverage from the UK has been negative, first focussing on the poor preparations of England’s training ground and recently on racism in both Polish and Ukrainian football. The BBC’s Panorama programme recently covered this in a lot more detail, trailing racism in both countries in the press with former England footballer Sol Campbell warning fans not to go to either Poland or Ukraine or risk ‘coming home in coffins’.
I’m a normal bloke who’s proud to have lived in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world for most of his life, who’s been to enough games at Wembley and travelled half way around the world for the world cup in South Africa. I’ve also been to more than a few Polish football games in my time to boot. I can only tell you my impressions on the people of Poland and how they will welcome visitors and try to avoid sounding either like an apologist or a scaremonger.
Poland is an overwhelmingly white country. With most polls putting white Catholics at around 97% of the population there can be plenty of days when you don’t see anyone of any alternate nationality. I’ve seen racism too. As I documented in my blog ‘Welcome to Warsaw’ on previous occasions, I’ve seen a man make monkey noises at the substitution of a black player in a Legia Warszawa game. I’ve seen the white power symbol and SS twin lighting flashes scrawled on walls and worn on T-shirts. I’ve spoken with a half Nigerian girl who told me she’d been abused twice the 18 years she’d lived in Poland. This is a country in which overt nationalism and a racism we would find shocking can be found relatively easily – and it’s abhorrent. But the picture is more complex than the recent headlines and reports have credited.
Poland is a land of contrasts: Growing cosmopolitan cities surrounded by a countryside which can sometimes look and feel as if the last 100 years have passed it by unremarked. Young or old, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, those who have benefited from Poland’s quite stunning economic growth since it won its own freedom or those who haven’t – there are many polarised ends of the spectrum in Poland. For young uneducated Poles from the countryside and on the margins of Poland’s success since it won its freedom in 1989, the heady togetherness found in a mix of martial arts, tribal league team support, aggressive nationalism and fear of the outsider (driven by Poland’s unfortunate position as the cricket ball between Germany and Russia) can be powerfully seductive.
After the Allies carved Poland into an ethnically homogenous country at the end of the Second World War it lost forever the multiculturalism which had previously made it quite exceptional in Europe (with a population of some 3 million Jewish people, 10% of the population and many other ethnic mixes besides). Subsequent stoking of anti-Semitic feeling by successive Communist Governments led to the last few Jewish people
leaving for life abroad. A thousand years of
relatively comparatively undisturbed Jewish life wiped out.
In the turbulence of Poland’s transformation in the early 90s the racist skinhead culture grew powerful as rampant inflation took hold and for many it looked like Poland would turn into an economic basket case like other former Communist occupied countries. That it didn’t is partly down to the work ethic and discipline of Poland’s people who worked desperately hard for a better life.
People like my friend Marcin. A guy who as a child was forced to stand in line to queue for bread before school. Who suffered deprivations most of us from the West can read about but not comprehend. A man who has built his own company up from the ground and is now enjoying the success of this hard work. For many professional Poles like Marcin the future is bright and the (occasional) racism found in Poland is both repellent and embarrassing. And yet, Marcin sits in the same football stands as those same men who wear white power beanies and polo shirts. From the same background, but with a different outlook on life.
Poland shouldn’t be afraid of the world’s attention. We should be glad the world is holding a mirror up to this wonderful country. Now let’s show the world its true reflection.
I say to someone from an ethnic minority wanting to join the 10 million plus visitors to Poland each year this summer, please come and visit us. This is a wonderful country and Polish hospitality is without equal. The national team’s supporters are not the same supporters of league games you’ll see on TV and in the press with all their virulent tribalism. They’re families, they’re hard working people who take pride in their country and want to show the world how much it has changes and how much potential it has. The Polish Government has taken the policing and security of this event extremely seriously – they know how important it is to Poland’s reputation. You should take the same care you’d take visiting
any unknown city as a tourist, but not more.
Which reminds me of my trip to South Africa for the World Cup. The UK media spent a lot of time talking about the rampant crime, terrifying HIV rates and extreme poverty in the run up to the football- saying some England fans were ‘virtually certain to die.’ But not one England fan was arrested or killed in that month. But proving the media wrong about South Africa doesn’t prove them wrong about Poland – that’s up to everyone Polish person when kick off begins.
Poland has to show the world the success it has forged after so many years of oppression in its recent history. Poland has to give those within it who fear the world outside the chance to believe things should be different. That is what UEFA means when it talks about the power of football to change lives.