Dutch captain Mark Van Bommel was appalled: Just one day after he and his players had made an emotional pilgrimage to Auschwitz, they were targeted by the same vile racism that the Nazi death camp’s architects used to rationalize their crimes—the dehumanizing people they deemed the “other.” As Holland’s players jogged out for a training session in front of 25,000 people in a stadium at Wroclaw on Thursday, black players like fullback Gregory van der Wiel and midfield enforcer Nigel De Jong were targeted by a section of the crowd making monkey noises — a signature gesture of racists populating Europe’s stadiums.
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“It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz that you are confronted with this,” Van Bommel said after the session. “We will take it up with UEFA and if it happens at a match we will talk to the referee and ask him to take us off the field.”
But Van Bommel got what could be an early taste of how UEFA plans to deal with the issue, when officials — including those representing the Dutch Football Association — initially denied that there had been any racist abuse during the Dutch training session. That response further infuriated the Dutch skipper. “You need to open your ears,” he said, clearly exasperated. “If you did hear it, and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.”
Needless to say, UEFA would rather the problem would go away and not spoil its showcase. But there have been sufficient indications that racist and neo-Nazi fans plan to make themselves heard that the European federation has had to plan for the probability of having to deal with incidents of racism in the crowd.
UEFA President Michel Platini — legendary captain of a French national team in the early ’80s that included a number of talented black players — emphasized that players won’t be allowed to take matters into their own hands. Last week, Italy’s Mario Balotelli had warned that if targeted by racial abuse, he’d simply walk off the field. If he did, Platini warned, he’d be punished.
“It’s a yellow card,” Platini told a press conference on Thursday. “We’d certainly support the referee if he decided to stop the game. It’s not a player, Mr. Balotelli, who’s in charge of refereeing. It’s the referee who takes these decisions. So the referee has been given advice and he can stop the game if there are problems. We will stop the game if there are problems because I think racism is the worst of this.”
The UEFA head of refereeing, the shiny-pated Pierluigi Collina, explained that the teams had been told of the procedures for handling racist abuse. “Referees have a protocol so they know what they have to do,” he explained. “The match director, who is responsible for each match, knows what has to be done on the field of play.”
But nobody has publicly explained those protocols. And as Van Bommel appeared to indicate, it may take player power to force officials to react.
England’s goalkeeper Joe Hart, asked about the issue at a press conference, indicated that England players are under instruction to let the referee deal with any instances of racist abuse. (England will likely field four or five black players in their opener against France on Monday, and the French will likely do the same.)
“Our advice is to get on with it and see how the referee and Uefa deal with it,” said Hart. “Hopefully the referee and Uefa will take it into their own hands if that problem does occur… We can’t take rules into our own hands. If the referee feels it’s right for us to walk off then we’ll follow him.”
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Hart’s Manchester City teammate Balotelli epitomizes a new generation of black players who don’t believe that they are required to show patience and tolerance for naked racism in 2012. “I will not accept racism at all,” he recently told an interviewer. “It’s unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them.”
Van Bommel epitomizes a generation of white footballers who’ve grown up with black teammates at every level, and treats an attack on one of his teammates as an attack on the whole team. Footballers rush to the defense of a teammate kicked or punched by a rival player; Van Bommel clearly plans to treat racial abuse in the same way.
UEFA wants nothing to spoil a tournament that represents a massive global TV spectacle and commercial opportunity — sponsors are not going to be comfortable being associated with a match called off after players walk off in response to racist abuse. But if those players are not willing to swallow any racism expressed from the crowd — and the authorities of the host countries are unable or unwilling to deal harshly and decisively with it — referees at Euro 2012 could find themselves asked to make judgement calls way beyond the bounds of their core competency.