KIEV, Ukraine – Fans from around the world played soccer together in the center of Ukraine's capital Friday in a move to combat racism and promote tolerance.
Ukraine has been rocked by allegations of racism and a call by a former England star for supporters not to attend matches here because they might return "in a coffin." Ukrainian officials have angrily denied the claims and have promised a warm welcome to supporters.
In co-host Poland, European soccer authorities are investigating alleged racial abuse directed at two black players during Euro 2012 matches and have pledged zero tolerance of discrimination during the three-week tournament in the two countries.
Dozens of fans wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Football Unites" played five-minute matches in the Euro 2012 fan zone set up on Kiev's main avenue. Hundreds of spectators cheered and applauded the players.
"People from different nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds — we play, we form teams, it's just a friendly street kick," said Aniki Johnson, a 50-year medical equipment salesman from Nigeria, who helped organize the event. "It's been very, very peaceful, a very friendly atmosphere."
Dan Nott, a 30-year old geography student from Bristol, England, wearing a blue vest, emerged exhausted, but upbeat after his match against a team of yellow-vested players ended in a 1-1 draw.
"It's to unite people across the world, to say 'no' to racism," Nott said, breathing heavily. "It's a good cause."
A group of Ukrainian rights organizations said this week that hate crimes are growing here because of a general rise in aggressive sentiments caused by the economic hardship of recent years.
According to the activists, Ukrainian authorities do little to punish the perpetrators of hate crimes and often write off such attacks as mere hooliganism. That's because such incidents can be harder to prove and victims are often scared to report them, fearing retribution from attackers and abuse from the police, activists say.
Ihor Rudoi, 25, a warehouse worker in Kiev who has played soccer since childhood and came to watch the anti-racism street matches, said sport should serve to promote tolerance, not cause aggression.
"There can be fights on the pitch, but when the match is over, that should be it," Rudoi said.