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Foul Play At Euro 2012 From Racist Fans


Switching gears now to a subject that also inspires passion around the world, the finals are set at Euro 2012. That's Europe's big national team soccer tournament. It's being held in Ukraine and Poland this year. Italy got into the final, thanks to two goals from the striker, Mario Balotelli.

But it was not just Balotelli's brilliant play that was the subject of headlines. Balotelli is black and before the tournament began he threatened not to play if he was racially abused by fans, which he was, and he was not the only player or participant to raise the issue of the hostile racial climate at one of Europe's biggest sporting events.

One of England's former captains warned black fans to stay home or risk, quote, "coming back in a coffin." Dutch soccer legend, Ruud Gullit, spoke out after his team was racially abused during training. Here he is talking about that.

RUUD GULLIT: It is sad that we have to talk about this, you know, because football is all about joy. It's also, I think, a possibility also for the two countries who are hosting it to put themself on the map, and so we don't need this and it's good that we talk about it. It's sad that we talk about it.

MARTIN: So let's talk about it some more. We've called Simon Haydon. He is the international sports editor for the Associated Press and he's with us from Warsaw, Poland.

Simon, thanks for joining us.

SIMON HAYDON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And you've been in Poland since the start of the tournament. So far, Germany, Croatia, Russia and Spain have all been fined for racist actions by their fans. Could you just tell us just a little bit about those incidents?

HAYDON: Yeah. What happened there - we have to emphasize this is a very small minority of fans who are really spoiling it for their countries. What would happen, generally, is that a player like Mario Balotelli, who is of African-Italian descent, would be the subject of fairly horrible monkey chants and also there were cases of bananas being thrown onto the pitch in his direction. These are all rather nasty. They were carried out by a small group and the soccer's organizing body has been very keen to slap down on these people very quickly, so it's the soccer authorities of each country that are being hit with some fairly hefty fines.

MARTIN: What are soccer's governing bodies doing to stop this? I mean, we remember that Balotelli said that if he were abused, he was going to walk off the field and then it was - you know, and the federation said, well, we'll fine you if you do that. That's going to be, you know, considered a serious, you know, offense on your part. Do you get the sense that the governing authorities are, in fact, taking this seriously?

HAYDON: Well, from a sporting point of view, thank goodness he didn't walk off the field because he's turned out to be the star of the whole tournament. It's the players - the players from ethnic minorities are in a terrible position. They take deep offense at being racially abused and would like to do something about it and yet they're told if they do do something about it, then they face - then they're going to get into trouble. So they're pretty well stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I think they're eventually persuaded not to take any action by their coaches and their colleagues, and essentially what they have to do is they have to tough it out. It's unpleasant and no one should have to be subject to such abuse, but they are. It happens. It's not just Poland and Ukraine. This does happen, I'm afraid, in most countries in Europe.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. I mean people were saying, well, this is an Eastern European issue, but I mean Balotelli's been heckled even by fans in Italy, hasn't he? And he's on the Italian national soccer team. So overall, though, I wanted to ask, do you feel that this kind of behavior has put a cloud over the atmosphere there? Has it been a regular part of the experience for most of the fans and players over the course of the tournament? Or do you see it kind of isolated but still disturbing?

HAYDON: I would say your last option there. Isolated but disturbing is very accurate. It is quite rare. What we do have to say is that when the big soccer teams pack up and go away, we'll be left with domestic football, where racism is much more endemic and much more vicious. There are large groups of neo-Nazis who link themselves up with Polish and Ukrainian teams and are more or less parasites on the backs of these clubs who might be trying to behave themselves.

But it's a problem that's not - that has lessened massively over the last couple of decades in Western Europe, but in Eastern Europe, where life is developing very quickly at the moment in the last 20 years, it's a problem that's not going away as quickly as they'd like it to.

MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, how was the tournament overall? How has it been overall? I mean as we mentioned, that Balotelli has been just absolutely lethal on the field. Overall, great - have you been having a good experience? Good play overall?

HAYDON: The soccer has been fantastic. It really is. This is the top tournament, even better than the World Cup. So for football fans, we love it. Socially, the Poles have been wonderful hosts and most people have had a great time. So you know, the small incidents of racism - we've got to get rid of them, but it's just a question of how we do it.

MARTIN: Simon Haydon is the international sports editor for the Associated Press, and he joined us from Warsaw, Poland. Simon, thank you.

HAYDON: Thank you. Bye, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.