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By unknown | Feb 09, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

PARIS - Ghanaian football player Solomon Opoku heard the Serbian fans screaming racist insults and turned around as they set upon him, hurling punches and abuse.

PARIS - Ghanaian football player Solomon Opoku heard the Serbian fans screaming racist insults and turned around as they set upon him, hurling punches and abuse.

The attackers were supporters of Opoku's team, determined that a black player shouldn't take the field for their club.

Two days later, Olympique Marseille president Pape Diouf got a first-hand look at what his black players endure when he traveled to the team's Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) Cup match at Zenit St Petersburg in northern Russia.

"What we went through was hideous," Diouf, who is black, said in an interview with Associated Press. "It was the classic stuff, the bananas thrown at black players warming up, the monkey chants, obscene gestures. Not only does Zenit not hide the fact that no black player could play for this club, the fans say so themselves." Racism has become the scourge of European football stadiums. Whether the supporters are watching a minor league in Serbia or a major European competition such as the Champions League, matches are stubbornly plagued by prejudice from the Mediterranean Sea to the Ural Mountains.

Anti-racism campaigns aimed at fans have met with limited success at best, leaving the problem to Fifa, the sport's governing body, and Uefa to clean up.

Football officials have condemned fan racism and issued fines. But penalising clubs or nations in ways that would hurt both them and their fans - such as disqualification from tournaments, forfeiting points or stopping a match - is something they have been reluctant to do.

"You have countries, (like) Russia today, where racism is a quasi-official doctrine," said Pascal Mignon, a French sociology researcher at the INSEP sporting institute. "In Russia, xenophobia is quite strong".

During his successful bid to oust Lennart Johansson as Uefa president two years ago, Michel Platini earmarked anti-racism as a key priority in his election campaign.

"We're at a turning point in our sport," Platini said at the time.

"My idea would be to stop the match completely. There should be no half measures when dealing with racism."

However Platini has turned down multiple requests for an interview on the subject since last November, pledging to address racism in a speech next month at Warsaw, Poland.

The location is notable. The 2012 European Championship will be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, two nations with visible racist groups.

In Poland, sociologist Rafal Pankowski fights racism as a member of Nigdy Wieciej - or Never Again.

"This problem has come up at almost every club," Pankowski said, explaining that there have been anti-Semitic banners and chants at games as well as monkey chants.

The BBC reported last year that Leszek Miklas, the president of Polish team Legia Warsaw, acknowledged up to 20% of the club's fans were neo-Nazis. Speaking to AP, Miklas accepted individuals at his club have extreme fascist views, but wouldn't estimate how many.

"Polish society is fairly homogeneous, we don't have a lot of foreigners," Miklas said in an interview. "So Poles are less accustomed to other races and people who look different."

London-based Amnesty International, meanwhile, warned in a November report of an "alarming rise" of hate crimes in Ukraine. Much of the violence has been blamed on ultra-rightist groups such as the Ukrainian National Labor Party.

Its leader, Evhen Herasymenko, once said attacking dark-skinned foreigners is like "the immune system - the reaction of a healthy body to the infection that got into it." At England's 2010 World Cup qualifying match last September in Croatia, English forward Emile Heskey was abused throughout the match with monkey chants.

Fifa fined the Croatian FA 30,000 Swiss francs (about R330 00), a relatively small amount. England vice-captain Rio Ferdinand angrily told the BBC that "football authorities need to take a look at themselves."

Diouf was similarly outraged when Uefa fined Zenit about $58,000 (R580 000) for the fans' behaviour last March.

"There is a gulf between declarations of intent and real actions.

It's double-talk," Diouf said. "You can't scream from the rooftops and say that racism has to be eradicated ... and then when proven racist acts happen, the measures taken are always weak."

Some players, including Barcelona forward Samuel Eto'o, have threatened to walk off the field after being racially taunted. Yet others, such as Arsenal defender William Gallas, who is black, say making such a move is a complex decision.

In the end though, Gallas said, there's a point when enough is enough.

"If Uefa or Fifa do nothing, yes, leave the pitch because it's tough to be insulted when you're not able to react."

Some nations are better than others in prosecuting racist fans.

The situation in England has improved since the 1980s, thanks in part to aggressive anti-racism advertising campaigns and coverage of the problem by the British press.

So after Portsmouth defender Sol Campbell, who is black, was abused last September by Tottenham supporters - whose insults included the image of Campbell "hanging from a tree" - four fans involved were banned from attending football matches for three years after pleading guilty to indecent chanting.

Still, it hasn't stopped such incidents from happening. Egyptian forward Mido played for Middlesbrough against Newcastle in November, he was subjected to Islamophobic chanting.

Opoku who was attacked while he was on trial with the Serbian club Borac Cacak last year, left the club shortly afterwards but four of his attackers were sentenced to a total of four-and-a-half years.

Three years ago, police arrested more than 30 Borac fans for abusing Zimbabwean striker Mike Temwanjira. A year later, Uefa fined the Serbian FA after England's black players were abused during an under 21 match played in the Netherlands.

If it's hard to protect players at the top level of game from racism, what hope is there for the likes of Opoku?

"Players could actually be killed on a street corner," Diouf said. "That is why it's time for the international authorities to tackle this problem full on." - Sapa-AP


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