Published on Friday, 08 June 2012 15:23 Written by Ketlan Ossowski
England team members Jack Butland, Andy Carroll, Wayne Rooney and
Joe Hart walk through the gate at Auschwitz. Photograph: Michael Regan/AP
There's an interesting article in today's Independent about a visit the England footballers are making to Auschwitz. A group will travel from Krakow, where they are currently based for Euro training. Fair enough, but should they be going at all?
The English team will not be alone in having taken the opportunity of being in the vicinity of Auschwitz to pay it a visit: the German, Italian and Dutch teams have also been. Indeed, the England team itself went once before, back in 1997, followed by some particularly cretinous England fans who then photographed each other sieg-heiling at the gates.
The 2012 Euro championships seem set to be notorious mostly for racism, with co-host country Ukraine being the target of some scathing articles about the overt racism of local fans, but the problem is not confined to the Ukraine. This was highlighted by a training session last Wednesday by the Dutch team, coincidentally following their return from a visit to Auschwitz, who were greeted on the pitch with monkey chants by about five hundred Polish fans.
So angry has this made the teams that some have threatened to walk off mid-game if subjected to racist abuse. Others have gone further still: former Arsenal defender Sol Campbell last week told supporters to avoid the tournament completely because of the threat of racism and violence.
So is the visit to Auschwitz intended to make a point about racism and its possible consequences? If so, fine, though it didn't help the Dutch team much. Or is it to cock a snook at the racists among the Ukrainian fans, who I suspect won't give a shit? Or is it simply that a number of members of the England squad feel a duty to visit the hellhole that is Auschwitz because they are training within a reasonable distance?
If the latter, fair enough and I hope they get something from the visit, but I suspect this is yet another moment when sport is tipping over into politics. The continuing controversy over the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and her treatment at the hands of the government have led to diplomatic boycotts across Europe, with many senior government figures such as Angela Merkel, José Manuel Barroso and Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, stating that they are staying away until the human rights situation under Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has improved.
The UK government has boycotted the Euro championship for the same reason, though it's likely that the PM and other senior government figures will attend in a personal capacity should England be skilful enough to get to the semi-final or, Gawd 'elp us, the final. We should be so lucky.
As you can see, there are two separate issues here - the continuing racism of the supporters from the Ukraine and the human rights abuses of the Ukrainian government. As far as I can see, there is a simple response that UEFA could have made to the former and that is to have massively fined and then banned the Ukrainian team until their fans learn to behave like civilised humans. Ukraine being the host country, this would be awkward, but there are other countries that would happily stand in for one that's either gone out of favour or been kicked out. The human rights record of the host country is different. That requires a government response that makes the point, like a removal of all diplomatic, business and sporting links with the relevant country until it gets its act together. That won't happen, of course, since commerce rules the world and football is just another business.
So what's left? A cynically publicised visit to Auschwitz to make a not so subtle point about human rights abuses? Well, okay. It's not ideal but it does make the point as long as people are listening. Or as long as they can hear over all the racist chanting.