Old habits die hard.
Even terrible ones.
To billions of its fans, soccer is known as “The Beautiful Game.” No sport is more popular or more widely played, and no athletes are more revered around the world or have higher Q Scores than the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and David Beckham.
This month, the UEFA European Championships are taking place, with Poland and the Ukraine as the co-hosts. Sixteen teams from Europe qualified for the second-most prestigious tournament in soccer, and for the past eight days dramatic games have been played out daily. The final will be held in Kiev on July 1.
For soccer addicts, this is a dream.
For Jewish soccer fans, in the language of Facebook, it’s complicated.
I’ve been to Poland. I’ve been to the Ukraine. I’ve visited Auschwitz, the Umshlagplatz, Majdanek, and the site where much of Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish community was killed in October of 1941. I’ve walked past anti-Semitic graffiti in Warsaw and been told “Go home, Jew” by passing cars.
Three generations removed from the Holocaust, the reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe is not as sunny as you might believe. Yes, there is a growing Jewish population in Poland, and in Germany. Yes, there are new synagogues, and new community centers across the FSU.
Yet at the same time, the undercurrents of racism and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe are, at best, just under the surface, or, at worst, front and center in the streets and stadiums. The BBC’s recent documentary on racist and neo-Nazi chanting and violence in Polish and Ukrainian football is a sober reminder that almost seventy years after the Shoah, it is somehow acceptable in a soccer stadium to be chanting “gas the Jews to the ovens”.
Soccer’s governing bodies know this. Just just watch the BBC clip or ESPN’s older feature on racism in European football and it’s quite sobering. Racism and violence in soccer go back decades and generations, and is not limited to Eastern Europe. The hooliganism of English soccer fans, the racism of Betar Yerushalayim’s fans, and the Fascist traditions of other clubs in Central and Western Europe are well-known.
But it’s not all bad news.
The visits of the English, German, Dutch, and Italian national teams to Auschwitz in advance of the tournament should be commended. You can also read about Kiev’s Fan Fest with a message of “Football Unites” that is pushing back against racism in soccer, and find countless statements from UEFA and FIFA about how racism has no place in soccer. The establishment of FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) is also promising.
But as the world’s best players ply their trade on the field, it’s hard to forget that the land they are playing on quite literally still is soaked with the blood of our ancestors. Especially when the stadiums that the games are taking place in still echo with neo-Nazi chants, violence against minorities in the stands, and monkey noises being made at African players.
In this case, the spectre of the Holocaust is more than a fading memory, it’s a stark reminder that time has not healed all wounds, and that old habits die hard.
Or haven’t died at all.
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