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cerelia athanassiou & jonah bury: Trouble in the Cosmopolitan ‘Football Family’: The BBC’s Misrepresentation of Racism in Poland and Ukraine in the Documentary ‘Stadiums of Hate’.


 The last year has witnessed an increasing focus on the prevalence of racism, antisemitism and hooliganism in the host countries of Euro 2012, Poland and the Ukraine, within and beyond the English media landscape. The most recent example of this was the BBC Panorama documentary entitled ‘Stadiums of Hate’, aired on 28 May 2012, just eleven days before the start of the tournament. This had been an eagerly anticipated documentary promising to inform an English public that has for some time now expressed concerns about the degree of racism and hooliganism in the Eastern European host countries. Interestingly, racism and hooliganism had not too long ago been heavily associated with the English domestic game and travelling English fans abroad; the current discourse within large sections of the English media, however, seems to imply that racism and hooliganism are no longer an issue within the English game. While incidents of racism have not entirely disappeared, such incidents are dealt with, framed and condemned as individual acts committed by a few ‘bad apples’ and not as a larger issue affecting the wider landscape of English football; ‘racism and football’, then, is something that is more often associated with ‘other’ nations in Europe, and not with the multicultural English stadiums. Two of these ‘other’ nations can be seen in BBC Panorama’s documentary: Poland and Ukraine.

The BBC documentary describes the tournament as ‘Europe’s biggest festival of football’ and asks whether fans’ safety will be guaranteed. To assess this, the narrator spends a month in both countries, attending various football games and talking to fans. This issue of safety is at the forefront of this journalist’s interest in the host countries; the aim of the documentary is to shed light on the conditions to be expected there by English fans. It identifies the prevalence of racism, antisemitism, and hooliganism in both countries as key threats to general safety and aims to explain these complex phenomena in the 30 minutes allotted to it. While we acknowledge the limited timeframe of the programme itself, this does not preclude critical scrutiny, especially given the public outcry it has provoked in England since its airing. Rather than providing a review of the documentary here, we want to focus on two of its main arguments we believe to be the most salient to the current debate on racism, hooliganism and antisemitism in the context of Euro 2012: firstly, racism in the Polish and Ukrainian domestic leagues in comparison to their English counterpart; and secondly, UEFA’s vision of the Euros as a multicultural celebration of the ‘football family’.

Poland-Ukraine versus the English Premier League

The BBC documentary is obviously targeted at an English audience, hence the continual comparisons between the object of the documentary, the Polish and Ukrainian domestic leagues, and the English equivalent, the Premier League. We see these comparisons at work both implicitly and explicitly. At the very beginning, we are shown scenes from a heavily policed derby in the city of Lódź, communicating to English viewers that this severe level of violence of the terraces should be contrasted with the ‘family-friendly’ atmosphere of the English seated stadiums. The depictions of police presence as unproblematic at these football games also communicates that their force is proportional to the actual threat posed by fans. Surprisingly, there is no context here about the type of game the journalist is attending: a local derby, which has brought out local rivalries. The journalist expresses surprise when he witnesses football fans clashing with the police; ironically, in football fans’ imaginary, such incidents have been heavily associated with English football games in the 1970s and ‘80s.[1] The message for the English viewer here is that such ‘hooligan’ behaviour is something completely foreign to the English Premier League; something that would never take place in that context. There seems to be a certain historical amnesia at work on the BBC’s part: it was Margaret Thatcher, after all, who termed hooliganism the ‘English disease’. The strong ties between English hooligan culture and history and the rest of Europe are evidenced in the BBC footage shown in the documentary of the Ukrainian FC Metalist Ultra bar, where the walls were adorned also with English flags and scarves, together with symbolism associated with neo-fascism, like the Celtic Cross (on the symbolism of the Celtic Cross see Testa and Armstrong 2010). The documentary provides no discussion of the symbolism on display here other than a brief mention of the fact that the display of this symbol is illegal in Poland. Yet, what we are missing here is questions on why these groups have appropriated this symbol, the parallels between their ideology here and the presence and rise of the far right in Europe (beyond Poland and Ukraine), and how this relates to fans’ chants on the stadium. For example, such symbolism is not confined to Poland and Ukraine (e.g. Spain, Italy), yet we have no indication of this in the documentary. We are not suggesting a defence of the fans’ behaviour here; rather, we would like to put forward that a readiness to understand such behaviour within the context of the football stadium, and how it relates to wider social and historical factors, is necessary if we are to effectively battle racism in its many manifestations.

The importance of such a contextual perspective was illustrated in Łódź, when the journalist spoke to a Polish fan who did not participate in the anti-semitic (and sexist – though this is not recognised by the BBC journalist) chanting witnessed in Łódź about their logic and rationale; specifically fans’ chanting of ‘You Jewish whore’ at the opposition team. The fan explains that while the fans use this insult as a ‘weapon’ targeted at the opposition, they do not ‘think that they are offending Jewish people’. In the next sequence, the journalist seems perplexed that such insults would be commonplace in a city like Łódź, which had 230,000 Jewish inhabitants prior to World War II. We would suggest that the near-total absence of Jewish life and visibility in contemporary Poland is crucial here for the term ‘Jew’ to become such an abstract and frequently deployed rhetorical weapon, yet the journalist fails to make this connection. He simply looks for evidence of crude racism and antisemitism without any attempt to explain and understand. As previously stated, if we are to find solutions for the former, the latter aspect is imperative. Yet, the documentary only seems interested in underlining the prevalence of racism, hooliganism and antisemitism in the Polish and Ukrainian stadiums, which is contrasted to the progress of the English Premier League. Indeed, Sol Campbell’s observation of footage from the Polish and Ukrainian stadiums that their behaviour is reminiscent of the English football landscape in the 1970s and 1980s confirms the binary opposition between a progressive England and the still-developing Poland and Ukraine. This is an ahistorical contrast, suggesting that the history of battling racism in England can, and should, be imitated by other nations, and that this history was one of inevitable progress.


This ahistorical view of anti-racism campaigns in England also fails to highlight the importance of the English Premier League’s evolution into a global brand that caters to a cosmopolitan audience with a large disposable income and wants to attract the best players from all over the world. This development, and the launch of the English Premier League in 1992, did not follow a linear path, but grew out of specific circumstances, such as the stadium disasters in Hillsborough and Bradford in the mid-80s and, following the Taylor Report, the introduction of all-seater stadiums in England to increase safety and tackle the perceived risk of violence. Such measures, while framed to make the stadiums safer and more inclusive, simultaneously excluded lower income fans, among them young working class men, who became the ‘folk devil’ of football hooliganism. Moreover, the Euro 1996 provided an incentive for English football authorities to rectify the violent image of English football fandom. It could thus be argued that eradicating overt racism and hooliganism in England has been less a history of inevitable progress, and more a financial strategy that sought to profit from presenting the Premier League as an inclusive, cosmopolitan and multicultural environment. Understanding the Premier League’s business model is insofar important as it underlines its privileged position as a global brand. Crucially, this is not the case with the Polish and Ukrainian leagues and clubs, which while fielding foreign players, have a limited exposure beyond their respective borders. There is thus less of a financial incentive for these leagues to appeal to a global audience with a demonstration of multiculturalism, as is the case with England.

Cosmopolitanism and Anti-Racism

 The importance ascribed to multiculturalism and embracing difference is particularly evident in the visibility of anti-racism campaigns in England, such as Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football (now Kick It Out), launched in 1993, just a year after the formation of the Premier League. Since its inception, its aim has been to eradicate racism in football stadia and raise awareness of the issue, through a presence in stadium magazines and importantly, endorsement by known footballers. While Kick It Out has been largely successful in ridding English football of overt manifestations of racism, it has struggled with recognising, let alone eradicating, the structural and institutional factors which prop up and perpetuate racism in different forms. The fact that only 3 out of 92 English professional football clubs employ black managers, as well as the near-complete absence of British Asian footballers point to a more invisible and institutional racism at play in the English context. Racism has thus not disappeared from English professional football, and this was highlighted  in the documentary itself, which pointed to the October 2011 John Terry incident, where he allegedly called the Queens Park Rangers (QPR) defender, Anton Ferdinand, a ‘black cunt’, on the pitch. However, the documentary fails to present the multidimensionality of racism in English professional football: in contrast to footage from the rest of the documentary of crowds of fans exhibiting racism, this confirms the popular presentation that racism in England is confined to the individual.

This individualisation of racism in England is distinguished from its institutionalisation in Ukraine, demonstrated by the brazen denial of racism and anti-semitism in Ukrainian stadiums by a leading Ukrainian police official. This then also confirms to English audiences that Poland and Ukraine have yet to successfully catch on to the anti-racism bandwagon that England has already embraced; all this despite the efforts of The Never Again Foundation (which is funded by UEFA to tackle and monitor racism). Headed by Jacek Purski, Never Again are integral to the host countries’ attempts to make UEFA’s vision of the cosmopolitan ‘festival of football’ a reality. This requires an aggressive tackling and identification of racism: indeed, as Purski points out during a training session for stewards, if overt racism is not tackled by the hosts during the three-week long celebration of difference, then Poland and Ukraine risk embarrassing themselves on the world stage.

Avoiding embarrassment is crucial to proving that these countries are worthy hosts; the tournament presents itself as an opportunity for both countries to further the process of moving closer to Europe and celebrate this opportunity. The documentary has exposed the fragility of the UEFA festival vision; the celebratory atmosphere and spirit envisaged and presented by the organisers is one of ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig 1995), where difference is celebrated and embraced by fans rather than being a point of serious or violent contestation. This ideal not only presupposes that fans know how to deal with difference, regardless of the social, political or geographical context but also removes games of their political, historical and social significance. In this context, any display of nationalism that does not subscribe to this ideal is seen as jeopardising the occasion, as something perverse, running counter to the ideal celebration that the tournament is meant to represent.


The documentary has confirmed to many English fans that this year’s host countries are not deserving of the honour bestowed upon them, which was explicitly pointed out by former England international Sol Campbell’s remarks that fans should stay at home because of the prevalent lawlessness in the two host countries who have clearly not prepared enough. Both Campbell’s and the documentary’s message seems to be that ensuring the right conditions for UEFA’s ideal of cosmopolitanism can be managed by following a straightforward and universal script of anti-racism work. Yet, since racism and other types of discrimination are heavily contextual, universalising step-by-step prescriptions for their eradication overlooks the depth and specificity of each case. Thus, in the documentary, the host countries are being judged on how well they manage to tackle overt manifestations of racism on and around the stadiums, rather than on their general ability to deal with the phenomenon in its complexity. But perhaps this is an acknowledgment that if we were to discuss the complexity of the phenomenon, we would also have to confront racism’s prevalence in all aspects of our ‘European’ community. This would of course involve a readiness to understand and battle more covert manifestations of racism, such as the above-mentioned issues of its institutionalisation, as well as the broader far-right ideologies which are articulated on many terraces across Europe. This would require a deeper and more sustained self-interrogation and critique. Further, it would demystify the belief that sports is situated outside of politics and should not be a forum for political contestation.

Instead, we are left with a situation of sensationalised moral panic: segregationist ‘England only’ fan zone seem acceptable and are welcomed by the English media and anti-racist groups alongside their performance of UEFA’s vision of cosmopolitanism as the ideal scenario for such a tournament. The performance is enacted through rhetorical strategies whereby the presence of British-Asian and black England supporters is used to provide England with a superior sense of sophisticated cosmopolitan fandom, only to use this to shield itself from the ‘barbaric’ local culture. This then gives the lie to the ideal of multiculturalism that UEFA’s Euro 2012 was supposed to be at the forefront of promoting. We do not want to dismiss individuals’ and communities’ fears of racism, anti-semitism and other types of discrimination. But we are worried by the precedent set here by the English governing bodies, whereby the way to deal with the complexities of the ideals of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is determined by those societies with the power to set the terms of the debate and to present themselves as the cosmopolitan ideal. The worry here is that this is precisely what is highly interconnected with far-right ideologies that foment racism and xenophobia in the place of dialogue and a productive politics of contestation. To repeat, the problem of racism and xenophobia exists in Eastern Europe as well as the rest of the continent. But, the problems of the ‘football family’ are not just limited to a few ‘bad apples’ like Poland and Ukraine not performing well enough when it is expected, but they are wide-ranging and can be found in the English back-yard as well. The way forward is not to play the discursive blame game that tends to privilege those at the top of the political hierarchy, but to find constructive ways of bringing these issues to the fore. Until we gain a sense that UEFA and the governing bodies mentioned above are serious about tackling racism and keeping it in the political and social spotlight beyond the week(s) surrounding major tournaments, we remain sceptical of the sincerity and feasibility of the ‘football family’s’ cosmopolitanism.

A football fan graffiti „fight” between teams in Łódź. The sign reads „ŁKS doesn’t read books”. The cover sign reads „Widzews still sleeps with their parents”, more signs: http://futbolfactorylodz.tumblr.com/

[1] Indeed, the cult status of English hooliganism is affirmed by films like Green Street Hooligans (2005), The Football Factory (2004) and autobiographical memoirs by former hooligans themselves, such as Pennant 2003.

List of References

 Billig, M (1995) Banal Nationalism. Sage: London.

Green Street Hooligans (2005) [film] Directed by Lexi Alexander. USA: Warner Brothers.

The Football Factory (2004) [film] Directed by Nick Love. UK: Vertigo Films.

Testa, A. and Armstrong, G. (2010) Football, Fascism and Fandom: The UltraS of Italian Football. A & C Black: London.
Pennant, C. (2003) Congratulations, you have just met the ICF. John Blake: London.

Cerelia Athanassiou is a PhD candidate at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol. Her research is on conceptualisations of security post-9/11, focusing specifically on the discursive strategies used by the Obama administration to disempower the Global War on Terror. She has a strong interest in post-structural and feminist approaches to political theory and intersections of security, popular culture and politics.

Jonah Bury is currently in his second year as a PhD student in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. His PhD research is based on exploring the role of homophobia and homosexuality in English professional football. His further research interests include the sociology of football fan cultures in Europe and the study of men and masculinities. (He is also a big fan of German football team Eintracht Frankfurt)

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