Published May 30, 2012
This should be party time for football, yet it feels as if someone is poisoning the punch.
The European Championship, arguably football's best international competition, kicks off next Friday, with world and European champion Spain a good bet to make history as the first team to win three major tournaments in a row.
The Euro 2012 co-hosts, Poland and Ukraine, should be wholly basking in the satisfaction of a job well done or, at least, done. Defying expectations and global economic storms, they've muscled up the billions and the discipline to build or renovate stadiums, roads and all the other expensive trappings such sporting mega-events now demand.
Never before have the Euros ventured so far east. By trusting countries that were still behind the Iron Curtain when today's players were in diapers, the tournament organizer — European football governing body UEFA — has dipped its toes into geopolitics, with sport being used to further glue Ukraine and Poland to Europe and to accelerate their post-Soviet modernization.
So, exciting times.
But sad and worrisome ones for football, too.
It's hard to get into the fiesta mood when some European leaders are giving Ukraine the cold shoulder, disturbed over its treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko. The jailed former prime minister with the trademark, braided blonde hairdo alleged in April that prison guards beat her, covering her with a bedsheet and punching her in the stomach.
Ukraine wants to impress with its new high-speed trains, airport terminals and promo videos, but can they erase the pictures released by Ukraine's top human rights official that showed ugly yellow blotches on Tymoshenko?
Of course not, no more than the $40 billion grandiosity of the 2008 Beijing Olympics could make us ignore the brave grannies, Wang Xiuying and Wu Dianyuan, who were sentenced to a labor camp for trying to protest during the games but reprieved after an international outcry.
World Cup, Euro and Olympic host nations are judged both for their infrastructure and for their behavior, which makes the global backslapping they seek from these events a double-edged risk.
UEFA, in a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil statement it emailed to me this week, confidently predicted Euro 2012 "will be a true celebration of football in a festive environment."
One hopes so. But, again, it's a struggle to wholly swallow that when the families of at least two of England's black players say they may stay home because of fears of racist violence at the tournament. Britain's Foreign Office advises black and Asian visitors to "take extra care" in Ukraine. And former England defender Sol Campbell urged fans to stay away because "you could end up, you know, coming back in a coffin."
Campbell, who played 73 times for England, issued his warning after the BBC showed him horrific footage of thugs kicking, punching and bloodying Indian fans, swarming over them like enraged animals, at a May 2 Ukrainian Premier League match in the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv. That 35,000-seater will host games featuring the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Portugal at Euro 2012.
"That is absolutely disgusting," Campbell, who is black, said as he watched the BBC's video. "I want to cry for them, because someone is living there thinking ... 'Is someone going to kill me today, because of my color?"
I asked Sergei Bubka, Ukraine's great pole vaulter and now president of its national Olympic committee, what he made of the BBC's documentary about racist and anti-Semitic hooliganism in Ukraine and Polish football. Bubka insisted fans would love Ukraine: "Please come, you will be happy, you will be impressed."
"The fans sometimes fight, but this is not racism," Bubka said by phone. Of the group assault on the Indians, he added: "If something happened in that way, this is not because of racism. It's a mistake."
"We have a lot of foreign companies, the dark-skinned people, working here," he said. "Also, we have plenty of universities ... where students from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America (are) studying and living."
Ukraine and Poland aren't the only countries where the tribal nature of football and the relative anonymity of its large, noisy crowds attract thugs. In England, for example, authorities are ordering some 3,000 identified football troublemakers to surrender their passports to police to ensure they can't travel to Euro 2012.
But, again, images of Indians being beaten in a stadium one month before it hosts the Netherlands vs. Denmark on June 9 are a stain on Ukraine.
My advice: UEFA President Michel Platini and authorities there should invite those same fans to the final in Kiev's Olympic Stadium on July 1. Pamper them, apologize, be photographed together enjoying the match. Zero tolerance for football hooligans, in action.
And, finally, there's Italy. Prosecutors there are piecing together compelling evidence of how football — not all of football, but a sizable chunk of it — is being poisoned from within by match-fixers, corrupt players and officials.
Italian Premier Mario Monti, damningly describing himself as "someone who was passionate when football was still football," even suggested this week that the country which has won four World Cups and produced 12 European Cup-winning teams should put the sport on hold for "two to three years" while authorities clean house.
One question hanging over Euro 2012 will be whether the 50 or so arrests in Italy since last year indicate that its football is more gravely infected by match-fixing than elsewhere in Europe, or whether its prosecutors are simply doing better at exposing the crooks.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester