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Initiatives Try to Fight Racism in World of European Soccer

January 23, 2004
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A celebrity soccer match may seem an odd way to commemorate the Holocaust.

But in a country where militant soccer fans are infamous for using racist and anti-Semitic slurs against their opponents, the Match for Memory is seen as an important and high-profile means of fighting hate.

“It is a great event that can seize the attention of the younger generations,” a spokesman said.

Like a number of other European countries, Italy marks Tuesday, Jan. 27, as a national Holocaust Remembrance Day. The commemoration, now in its fourth year, includes scores of ceremonial, educational and cultural events in towns and cities up and down the peninsula.

Foremost among them this year is the Match for Memory — a soccer contest between two teams of VIPs held in Rome’s Olympic Stadium. The game will be nationally broadcast live on prime-time television.

The match is sponsored by the Italian Jewish community with the backing of Rome’s mayor and other government and political authorities, and the competing teams feature politicians, sportsmen, artists, entertainers and journalists. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel will be the guest of honor, with senior government officials also in the stands.

In addition, organizers of the match said soccer players in professional league matches on Sunday had agreed to take the field wearing signs on their uniform shirts advertising the Memory Match with the slogan, “So as not to forget.”

Racism and anti-Semitism among soccer fans have long been a stubborn — and embarrassing — feature of soccer matches in a number of European countries.

“Unfortunately, at all levels of the game, from amateur to international, there are incidents of racism,” said a statement from the group known as Football Against Racism in Europe.

Black players often have been targets, with militants sometimes making “monkey noises” or throwing bananas onto the pitch when black players take the field.

Rival fans also often brand their opponents “Jews” who should be “sent to Auschwitz.”

About half of the cases of anti-Semitism reported in Holland in 2002, for example, were related to soccer games where fans unfurled anti-Semitic banners or shouted slogans such as “Hamas, Hamas, hang the Jews in the gas.”

Governments, nonprofit groups, and national and international soccer organizations, including Europe’s governing soccer body, the Union of European Football Associations, have attempted to crack down, with only limited success.

The anti-racism group recently urged assistant referees with the union to monitor the grandstands for abuse.

“Racism is a social problem that spills over into football. You are in an ideal position to help UEFA in the process of dealing with this problem,” Piara Powar of the anti-racism group told the assistants at a seminar. “You are close to the fans on many occasions, and you’ll sometimes hear remarks that are being made behind you. You can identify problems that perhaps a referee or match observer won’t be able to see or understand.”

In 2002, as part of an Action Week of Football Against Racism in Europe, a petition against racism in Polish soccer stadiums signed by 27,000 people was presented to the president of the Polish Football Association.

It noted anti-Semitic abuse, neo-fascist symbols and frequent hostility to black players. Signatures were collected at stadiums and schools all over Poland by a group called Polish Humanitarian Action and the independent anti-racist association Never Again.

In Italy, where Jewish leaders long pressed the authorities for action, the ministers of interior and sports ruled three years ago that soccer matches could be halted if fans displayed racist banners.

This month’s Match for Memory is not the first time that Italian Jews have sought to combat racism in the stadium itself.

In a 2000 initiative called “I am not a racist,” the Napoli Junior soccer team cooperated with the Naples Jewish community and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities to erect four big anti-racist photographic panels outside the San Paolo stadium.

One showed the famous photograph of the child in the Warsaw Ghetto with his hands raised, and the caption, “In the Nazi-Fascist extermination camps 1.5 million children were tortured, killed and burned. 1.5 million children equals 30 stadiums full of children.”

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