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European Union Distressed by Pre-World Cup Racism


German authorities want to make sure everything goes well during the World Cup, and they've made security a top priority. But it isn't just terrorism they're worried about.

Soccer is often called the beautiful game, but in recent years it's been getting ugly. There's been a rise in racist and anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, and as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, that threatens to spoil the world's most popular sport.


In November, 2004 Spain played England in Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium. The match degenerated when Spanish fans began taunting black players on the rival team.

(Soundbite of crowd)

POGGIOLI: The monkey chants outraged the soccer world and triggered intense soul searching, but it had little effect. There have been similar scenes elsewhere in Europe, in France, Eastern Europe and Italy. Marc Zoro of the Ivory Coast, who plays for the Italian team Messina, was reduced to tears after being subjected to racist chants while playing again Inter Milan.

Mr. MARC ZORO (Italian Soccer Player) (Through translator): We black players are always the victims of this matter. Every time we walk onto the (unintelligible) during the match we are insulted. We hear monkey chants. We are called gorillas and all these things. I do not think this is right.

POGGIOLI: In recent years large numbers of players from outside Europe have joined top European teams. Simon Cooper, sportswriter for the Financial Times say racism in European soccer reflects the radical changes mass immigration has brought to European societies.

Mr. SIMON COOPER (Sportswriter, The Financial Times): Most of Europe never had much black or brown immigration. And so this is the first contact people have really had with people of different skin color. And so the taboos that in the United States or in Britain are largely ingrained against racism have never really been discussed in these countries.

POGGIOLI: Along with racism, another old demon had raised its head in European stadiums. There have been numerous anti-semantic incidents, in particular in the Netherlands, Hungary, Spain and Italy. Paddy Agnew is an Irish journalist who covers Italian soccer.

Mr. PADDY AGNEW (Irish Journalist): Well, you see swastikas, you see Viva Mussolini, I mean we had things like splendid banner at a Rome derby, you know, the Lapsia fans telling the Roma fans that Auschwitz was their home and the oven was really where they should be put.

Mr. LEONE PASERMAN (Rome's Jewish Community): The worst to think what that happened wasn't exposure of the banners, the worst was the public's reaction.

POGGIOLI: Leone Paserman is the leader of Rome's Jewish community.

Mr. PASERMAN: If players didn't react and the referee didn't react, what's shocking was the diffidence of the general public.

POGGIOLI: As racist incidents multiplied over the last few years WAFA and FEFA, the European and international bodies governing soccer, held conferences on how to eliminate the plague. In March they agreed on several types of sanctions against racist and anti-Semantic incidents, including match suspensions, heavy fines and point reductions for teams and stadium bans of at least two years for offending spectators. But Rob Hughes, sportswriter for the International Herald Tribune says sports authorities and teams can only do so much.

Mr. ROB HUGHES (International Herald Tribune): Society has first of all to recognize that it's not a football problem, it's a problem of society itself. And secondly, society them has to have the collective will to fund the depth of policing that you get in England.

POGGIOLI: England was able to root out racism in soccer thanks to a campaign by fan clubs. But Hughes says there were also sever punishments for offenders and teams. And some stadiums were turned into what he calls police states, with closed-circuit TV cameras on virtually everyone seated there.

Mr. HUGHES: What you can do is what England have done quite effectively. You can get it out of the stadium, which is a start. But all you really do then is push it out onto the streets and you get the same violence, the same hooliganism, the same racism on the streets of England that once you might have been able to siphon off in the stadiums.

POGGIOLI: As World Cups hosts, German authorities are on heightened alert. Stadium surveillance will be intense and police are working closely with authorities from neighboring countries to prevent violence. But they're facing a dilemma. As the country that spawned Hitler and Nazism, Germany must avoid heavy-handed repression. Yet it can't allow any glorification of the racism in enshrined in its past ideology. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.