‘The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation — let them learn from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not some Zumba-Bumba they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league.’
— Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, 2006
There you are, you see, Dr King — other people have dreams, too. Oleg Blokhin’s dream is a different sort of dream to the famous one you had. A less palatable dream, maybe.
Oleg, 59, is the coach of the Ukraine national football team, and Ukraine is a joint host of the current Euro 2012 football tournament, along with its occasional historical enemy, Poland. If you look at a picture of Oleg, you feel a warm chill of nostalgia: he has that big broad and flat face and frozen eyes you once saw surveying the endless procession of nuclear missiles from a balcony on Red Square in about 1972. This is not an entirely misleading impression; Blokhin is a creature of the USSR. He was, along with the acrobatic goalkeeper Lev Yashin, the most talented footballer ever to emerge from the Soviet Union, a Soviet footballer of the year three times running. Since the USSR dissolved he has dabbled in politics, being elected to parliament where he represented the Social Democratic Party of the Ukraine (SDPU) — which is not the sort of social democratic party that Roy Jenkins, say, would care to be a part of. It is a small but virulent pro-Moscow, anti-Nato, anti-western rump; it too, you suspect, is gripped by a certain nostalgia for times past.
Oleg’s quote about black players has earned him a certain, shall we say, notoriety, among the western press covering this exciting tournament. The Ukrainian population, en masse, has already been fingered for harbouring deeply racist sensibilities: a country full of angry young male yobboes intent on beating up foreigners, especially swarthy foreigners. This is good news for the joint hosts, Poland, because it takes the heat off them for a while. On matters of race, Poland is seen as enlightened compared to its eastern neighbour — in much the same way that in, say, 1956 the US state of Georgia might have been considered enlightened compared to its western neighbour, Alabama. In truth there is not very much to choose between them on this issue; Poland has acquired a sort of EU-imposed veneer of respectability, for sure, but there’s still plenty of racism kicking around, especially in the northern and eastern cities. The families of some of the England team’s black or mixed-race players have decided not to travel to the tournament for fear of the hostile racist reception they might well receive, and it’s difficult to blame them for this.
Already the Dutch team, which contains quite a few black players, have allegedly been subjected to monkey chants while they were training in enlightened Krakow. The point, I suppose, is that there are not terribly many black people living in either country, and thus no mechanism has been created to stop the local untermensch behaving in a rude, uncouth or moronic fashion. If you were to create a league table with the heading ‘Propensity of Any Citizen to Throw a Banana in a Sort of Pavlovian Manner Immediately Upon Seeing a Black Person’, most of the old eastern bloc countries would occupy the top places — although they would not be so far ahead of some southern European states, such as Spain.
I suppose these days we’d be near the bottom of the table, just above Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands — but it was not always thus. Things can change very quickly; it is not so very long ago that our own sort of Blokhin, Brian Clough, described African nations as ‘a load of spear-carriers who still eat each other’ and fans would cheerfully throw bananas onto the pitch when they saw the unusual sight of a black footballer. And of course our own John Terry has been charged with racially abusing an opposing player, although there is no suggestion that he threw a banana at him. Mr Terry denies the charge. But nonetheless, these things make our pieties seem vaguely absurd, and morally speaking the sort of high ground occupied by someone standing, temporarily, on an egg carton in a vast plain. We are separated from the Ukraine by about 20 years; the fervid objections we make to racism will be replicated there sooner or later. At the moment the intensity of our complaints are not remotely understood in much of mainland Europe, away from the nice bit in the north-west corner, our bit.
Nor is football’s governing body, Fifa, entirely fit to clamber aboard that egg carton. Its vice-president is the vile Argentinian Julio Grondona, who not so long ago delivered his considered analysis of what races could and couldn’t make decent referees. A Jew would never become a referee, he said, because ‘Jews don’t like hard work.’ I am not certain what was to be gained by sending the England team, resident in Krakow, to visit the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp. But someone should send Grondona along, for sure.
Some people have complained that, for the reasons outlined above, Ukraine and Poland were inappropriate venues for a tournament which cherishes its internationalism. But if not there, then where? We have become shriekingly intolerant of other countries, of countries where they do things differently to us. There have been complaints about Qatar and Russia hosting the world cup, Azerbaijan hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, China hosting the Olympic Games — all because in one manner or another they offend our sensibilities. The only answer, I suppose, is henceforth to hold every future tournament in Amsterdam.