Will Europe boycott biggest soccer tourney of the year?

The 2012 European Soccer Championships are in danger

By Nicholas Nehamas

For Ukraine, co-hosting the 2012 European Football (Soccer) Championship was supposed to be an opportunity to modernize its infrastructure and show off closer ties with the West. Instead, this summer’s tournament looks like it might turn into an embarrassing “own goal.”

On Friday, a series of bomb blasts in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk injured 27 people in an apparent terrorist attack, potentially scaring off fans and other visitors.

Even worse, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has been on a very public hunger strike since April 20th and says she has been beaten in prison. As a result, top European leaders have threatened to boycott all Euro 2012 matches held on Ukrainian soil, including the final, scheduled for July 1st in Kiev (Poland, as co-host, will stage around half the tournament’s matches).

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko shows what she claims is a guard-inflicted injury in the Kachanivska prison in Kharkiv, in this undated handout picture received by Reuters on April 27, 2012. Prosecutors have said there is not enough evidence to continue with the investigation ordered by President Victor Yanukovich,

European Leaders Threaten Boycott

The twenty-seven members of the European Commission, the effective cabinet of the European Union, have said they will not travel to Ukraine unless Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is released. Meanwhile, nine European heads of state plan to skip a May 11-12 summit hosted by Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich in Yalta. And, worst of all for Kiev, Der Spiegel reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading a behind-closed-doors campaign for all EU political leaders to boycott Euro 2012. The EU has also criticized the manner in which contracts were awarded for Ukraine’s fancy new stadiums and airports.

From Hero to Zero

Tymoshenko was one of the stars of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which peacefully toppled the pro-Russian government of Yanukovich after a 2006 election widely viewed as fraudulent. But she proved less effective as a leader. Infighting with allies and allegations of corruption marred her three-year tenure as prime minister.

After Yanukovich regained power in a close election in 2010, Tymoshenko was arrested for signing a 2009 natural gas contract with Russia during a severe energy crisis, and sentenced to seven years in prison. She faces another five over embezzlement charges but Ms. Tymoshenko  failed to show up in court for that trial, saying she has been disabled by chronic back pain and requires medical care abroad. The government has refused to release her. Many observers believe her incarceration is politically motivated.

Will it make a difference?

Riot police take part in a drill to prevent violence among hooligans at the Euro 2012 soccer championship, at the Arena Lviv stadium in Lviv on May 4, 2012. Hooligan-related football violence in Ukraine and Poland is still a major problem for both countries. Pitched battles between rival gangs and riot police often spill out of the stadiums and into the streets. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

But we have to ask: will fans tune out this summer just because Angela Merkel isn’t in the V.I.P box? Somehow, we doubt it. The only thing that might make the average soccer fan to sit up and take notice of Tymoshenko’s plight is if the teams themselves fail to show up. And so far, this doesn’t seem likely. The Russian and Polish government both strongly oppose a boycott of any kind. The Poles, in particular, are in a tough place: thousands have signed a petition calling for the release of Tymoshenkobut most want the tournament, which kicks off in Warsaw on June 8 with the home team taking on Greece, to go forward.

Germany coach Joergi Low recently gave a press conference in which he also expressed his disapproval of calls for a boycott. And FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the most powerful man in world football, has often insisted that soccer and politics must never mix. Only Spain, who as the current world and European champions do have some clout, might consider skipping the tournament, according to Spanish foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo. But it seems extremely doubtful that any one team would agree to a boycott without the support of all the other major squads.

And if the teams do pull out of Euro 2012, they might ruin the summers of a surprising number of people in the United States. In 2008, ESPN broadcast the tournament for the first time, increasing its audience by over 800,000 viewers compared to the same time period in the previous year.

Racism: The Bigger Issue

Despite the outcry over Tymoshenko’s treatment, the soccer historian David Golblatt maintains she’s not the biggest problem facing football in Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general: “On the one hand, yes, it’s very bad when societies lock up previous head of state and abuse them in prison,” he told Latitude News in an interview. “It’s not a token of a strong, stable democracy. However, I find it amazing that it’s only now that people in power are taking issue with Ukraine. There have been unbelievable levels of racism in Ukrainian football for years. Absolutely off-the-scale. Fans unveil banners with iconography of the SS and Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Roma, anti-Semitic, white power. And this isn’t in the fourth division, it’s all over the top league.”

Black players fare particularly badly in Eastern European leagues, where some fans throw bananas and make monkey noises whenever they touch the ball. Theo van Seggelen, president of the global players’ union, FIFPro, recently told the BBC that he believes Europe’s stars are in danger of being racially abused by Polish and Ukrainian fans this summer. He also said his organization has collected data suggesting that 9.6% of players in the region receive racist abuse from the stands during games. Despite fines and bans, Eastern European clubs have proven unable to eliminate racist elements from their fan-bases.

Some players have taken matters into their own hands. In a match earlier this season in the Turkish league, Fenerbahce’s Emre Belezoglu admitted to using racist language against Trabsponzor’s  midfielder Didier Zokora, who is from Cote D’Ivoire. In the return match, which took place just last night, Zokora got his revenge, delivering a swift boot of justice to the groin of his abuser. You can watch the video below: