Racism is alive and well in Europe

2008-07-14 00:00

So I found myself recently in Vienna, for the Uefa Euro 2008 soccer tournament, as a kind of precursor to 2010. It was hot. It was so hot, I thought I was melting. The Viennese, I could not fail to notice, were turning pinker and pinker. They don’t have any air conditioning to speak of and what they do have seldom works. You know how people who come to us from Europe say: “Why don’t you have double glazing?” and “Don’t you people notice the cold?” Well, so it was with me, except the other way around. No, they didn’t have air conditioning, because it never really gets hot, I was told. So, it was miserable. Really miserable.

What I discovered quickly, though, was the indescribable joy of a seamless transport system. You stepped out of your hotel and a tram or a bus was there to meet you. You travelled for a while, got off the tram and entered the subway. As you set foot on the platform, an underground train would arrive. It would be spotlessly clean. You travel for a couple of stops and catch a bus somewhere, which arrived the moment you crossed the street to the bus stop — and so on. It was initially bewildering, but how easily you became used to it.

I noticed one or two things about football fans of the European variety as well. They drink. They are mostly fairly young. They sing lots of songs wherever they go. They drink. They wear their country’s colours a lot. They go about in gangs and they do a lot of taunting of other countries. Oh, and did I mention, they drink?

We had an interesting session with an organisation called Fare (Football Against Racism in Europe) and they told us of some of the problems they need to deal with concerning racist behaviour in the stadia. There was a time, for instance, when a black player could not go through a game without bananas being thrown at him, or monkey noises being made. That doesn’t happen so much anymore.

Other kinds of racism are on the increase, such as the ubiquitous Nazi salute, but there other less obvious forms. Such as chants of “Vukovar, Vukovar”, when the Croatians are playing. Vukovar was one of the most devastating of the battles between Serbs and Croats in 1991, and the Croats suffered tragically. I commented, and I firmly believe, that we are going to need some serious training in this country on these sorts of signals in order to deal with them.

The other thing you could not fail to notice, was the size and the scale of the main public viewing area in Vienna. This is directly commensurate with the size and scale of the support of football in Europe.

I went to visit numerous museums and exhibitions to see the way in which cultural tourism offerings had (or had not) leveraged off the Uefa Euro 2008 event. To my excitement, I found that most of them had done so. For instance, you would find at the Künstlerhaus, where they were running an elaborate football exhibition, that the ancient statues on the outside of the building had football boots on them. Similarly, there were giant football boots, in the colours of each of the participating countries, outside the Museum’s Quarter.

Even the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace (seat of power of the Habsburgs from Marie Theresa to the abdication of Emperor Charles I in 1918) had an event taking place in the grounds called “kick your ticket” where five-a-side football was being played. And the winner got free entrance to the palace.

More disappointing was the actual interpretation of the palace. This was, after all, one of the major seats of the empire in the Western World. The tour asked you to cast your eye on interesting bits of crockery, this clock, that chair and some painting — all a bit like you were looking at something frozen in time — a mere curiosity. The tour was almost entirely shorn of the political and historical context.

And it came to me that given the role which Austria had played politically in the region, particularly in relation to Serbs and Croats, shouting “Vukovar” on the football field when Croatia is playing speaks of the tragic role of the empire and its divisive consequences on real people.

This is no different from the impact of apartheid on this region. No different from the idiocy we have seen in recent months when foreign nationals from other African countries have been attacked and sometimes killed by our people. No different, perhaps, from the madness of Zimbabwe.

In soccer, at least, the protagonists kick balls at each other, rather than aim weapons of war. That, surely, is a thing to be encouraged.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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