WARSAW — Euro 2012 was kicking off in Poland and Ukraine Friday amid fears that racism and politics could overshadow Europe’s premier football showcase, held for the first time in nations once behind the Iron Curtain.
Warsaw and Kiev hoped to use the tournament as a showcase for their ex-Communist countries, but instead have seen it mired in controversy over racist fans and Ukraine’s treatment of a top opposition leader.
With excitement growing ahead of the opening match Friday evening in a rain-drenched Warsaw between Poland and Greece, Dutch captain Mark van Bommel said his team heard racist chants during a public training session in the southern Polish city of Krakow.
“We all heard the monkey chants,” van Bommel was quoted as saying by the Dutch De Telegraaf newspaper. “We can’t accept that.”
A BBC television documentary broadcast last month showed football fans in the two countries making Nazi salutes, taunting black players with monkey chants, and beating Asian students.
The concerns over potential racism-related violence also prompted former England captain Sol Campbell, who is black, to warn fans to “stay home, watch it on TV… don’t even risk it”.
The host countries said the claims did not give a true picture of the situation on the ground, with Poland’s organisers even extending a personal invitation to Campbell.
Dutch legend Ruud Gullit said Friday in Warsaw he hoped the racist chanting was a one-off “incident” and urged the hosts to tackle the problem.
“The world is watching, you have the possibility to tackle this — take this opportunity!” he said.
Much of the spotlight ahead of the opening kick has also focused on Ukraine’s treatment of its former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been jailed for seven years on charges the European Union says are politically motivated.
Britain on Wednesday announced it would not be sending any ministers to group-stage games because of concerns at the “selective justice” meted out to Tymoshenko.
Ukraine’s ambassador to London Volodymyr Khandogiy on Friday slammed the move, telling BBC radio he both regretted and failed to comprehend the reasoning behind it as “sport and politics, they don’t mix.”
The Tymoshenko affair has also strained relations between Ukraine and the European Union — European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has said he will not attend games in Ukraine, as has EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski has called boycott threats “completely inappropriate.”
UEFA chief Michel Platini lashed back, sternly invoking the sporting body’s neutrality and saying: “We don’t play politics.”
Pope Benedict XVI chipped in with hopes for a sporting atmosphere ahead of Friday’s opener, saying football was like a school that taught people about respect for one another and how to make sacrifices for the good of the rest of the team.
The German-born pontiff, whose Polish predecessor John Paul II was a well-regarded goalkeeper in his youth — at times on a Jewish team — added that football was also about fraternity and love.
— Fans pour in —
But neither the controversies nor torrential downpours managed to dampen the enthusiasm of Polish fans, with thousands flooding into a mammoth fanzone in central Warsaw Friday ahead of kick off.
“This may be the only event on this scale here in our life time, it can’t be missed,” Tomasz Woldan, a 33-year-old IT specialist, decked out in Poland’s red-and-white, told AFP.
“Warsaw Welcomes You” read a cheery sign draped over Warsaw’s gargantuan, Soviet-era Palace of Culture. Europe’s largest fanzone with a 100,000-person capacity sprawled in its shadow, complete with a stage, massive TV screens and medical aid points.
Sports Minister Joanna Much has said Poland is prepared to grapple with the challenges posed by hosting between the 700,000 and one million fans who are expected to flood into the country during the championships.
To deal with possible threats, Poland has an array of measures ranging from testicle-biting dogs to anti-hooligan squads armed with truck-mounted water cannon and high-tech sonic guns capable of inducing involuntary urination, local media have reported.
Poland’s president and prime minister were due to attend Friday’s inaugural match along with scores of other top government officials.
The Kremlin however said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would be no shows at the other Friday gtame, Russia’s face-off with the Czech Republic in Wroclaw, southern Poland, denying earlier Polish media reports they would attend.