This coming Friday, the 14th European Championships, arguably the second most prestigious international football competition behind the World Cup, will begin in Poland and the Ukraine. Held every four years (in the even numbered year between the World Cups), 16 from the original 53 qualifiers will battle it out over three weeks to be crowned European Champions. Sadly, Israel faltered at the qualifying hurdle (as they have in every one of their other Euro campaigns) coming a disappointing third in their group behind Greece and Croatia who both qualified for the tournament.
However, in the run up to the tournament, the Jewish People have frequently found themselves prominently placed in the headlines. The teams of England, Italy and the Netherlands are all based in the city of Krakow, just 60km from Auschwitz. Each of those countries, as well as the German national team, has decided to visit the site as part of their preparations for the tournament.
The English Football Association has announced their commitment to Holocaust education and fighting prejudice goes beyond a symbolic visit to the site of the extermination of 1.3 million human beings, 90% of whom were Jews. A visit from two English Holocaust survivors to Wembley Stadium to address the team after training last Friday before they leave for Poland reportedly had a profound impact on the players, preparing them for what they will see when they arrive at Auschwitz. Zigi Shipper, an 82 year old survivor of Auschwitz and Arsenal fan, together with Ben Helfgott, also 82 and a survivor of Buchenwald, who later went on to represent Britain at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games as a weightlifter, spoke to the England players about their personal experiences during the Holocaust.
The team will be guided around Auschwitz by none other than Avram Grant, the former Chelsea and Portsmouth coach, and Israel’s former national team coach. Grant is the child of a survivor and lost family in Auschwitz, and when he heard that the England team planned to visit Auschwitz he immediately called England’s newly appointed manager Roy Hodgson to volunteer to be their guide. “The players need to know what happened. We all need to remember” he told Hodgson. Avi Luzon, the president of Israel’s Football Association, sent a letter to his English counterpart expressing his “great respect and appreciation” of England’s intention to visit Auschwitz.
When England return from the tournament an educational DVD resource will be jointly produced by the FA and the Holocaust Educational trust featuring players discussing the importance of learning from this period of history and why combating prejudice today matters to them.
Ironic that this initiative should come from a tournament clouded in controversy surrounding accusations of racism rife in the football stadiums and the wider societies of both host countries of Euro 2012. On the 28th of May, the BBC broadcasted a Panorama television documentary entitled “Stadiums of Hate”. The program documented a broad array of racist behavior at football matches in both Poland and the Ukraine, including violence against black and Asian fans, anti-Semitic chanting and banners, the mimicking of monkey noises directed at black players on the pitch, and Nazi salutes given by thousands of fans on the terraces. The derogatory use of the term “Jew” to describe an opposing team or player, especially in Polish football, is commonplace. When hosting Hapoel Tel Aviv last September for a Europa League game, fans of Legia Warsaw displayed a jihad banner, and were heard chanting in a game two weeks later against their arch rivals Lodz “Hamas, Hamas, Jews off to the gas”.
England-only “safe zones” are to be set up during Euro 2012 amid fears that there will be racially motivated violence against England’s black and Asian fans, and the families of two black England players, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, have publically announced they will not be traveling amidst fears of racial abuse. In the documentary, former England player Sol Cambell responds to the footage of racial violence in the football stadiums with a stark warning to non-white England fans: don’t travel!
Meanwhile, the powerful pre-tournament visit of the German national team to Auschwitz has also been shrouded in controversy. The idea for the visit originated with the German Jewish community. Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called on the players to visit in order to “send a message to the whole world”. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former star German player and German coach was in total support: “The [national team] players are admired stars… if [they] go there and later talk about their experiences, it would have tremendous meaning.” But not everyone in Germany is in agreement. There are those that claim such a visit would put the players under an unnecessary mental stress, and that the players should not be given such a heavy responsibility to represent the German people at the Death Camp.
The German FA decided on a compromise. The visit would not be compulsory for the entire team but rather a small delegation would make the trip, including executive personnel, and three senior players. Graumann publically criticized the German Football Association for this decision, claiming a tremendous opportunity had been lost. “If the entire national team had come, one could have reached hundreds of thousands of young people – more than a thousand memorial speeches” could reach. Graumann pointed to the profound impact the entire England team’s visit is bound to have.
And of course he is right. Football’s appeal, across age cohorts, gender, social class, culture and geography, is universal. Footballers hold a power for good, and bad, as role models, in their behavior on and off the pitch. Those of us who have a true passion for the game will not allow others to complete that repulsive sentence “But surely it’s only a game…” In the words of the great Bill Shankly, Liverpool manager of the sixties and seventies, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Many a true word said in jest. Football is more important than life because it is a microcosm of life. Of all of our lives. The battle between the values that pull our lives this way and that can all be seen on and off the football pitch. And here we have a group of fine athletes from across the continent of Europe who have the chance to make a stand against racism and prejudice, with a small symbolic act of visiting the site of the genocide of 1.3 million people, exterminated simply because of their race, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or politics.
The survivor Zigi Shipper gets it. Describing his experience addressing the England squad he said: “I told them about babies being shot, about babies being put in gas chambers. The players really listened. You could have heard a pin drop. It was very powerful. I told the players: ‘You are role models, people listen to you. You must spread the message about the Holocaust’. Let’s hope they do.