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Seeking standard bearers
9:38am Saturday 2nd June 2012 in TKO Tony Kelly
FLAGS – don’t ya just love ’em. They are everywhere at present, attended by miles of bunting and all manner of items bedecked in every conceivable hue of red, white and blue. Is there something going on, I ask?
Well, after this protracted holiday weekend in celebration of someone who has spent 60 years in a job no more taxing than the occasional slow wave of an arm while being chauffeured, piloted, cruised or escorted about the nation, the empire, indeed, the globe, flag-waving will take on a far more sinister turn.
After all the highs and lows of the domestic campaign – hail York City, oh aye and Man City too – and the Continental club campaign – oh yeah, Chelsea pah – football bounces back with the Euro 2012 Championships jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
There’ll be no flagging in passion, but more worryingly there will likely be little flagging in the terrace hatred that is a less than infrequent factor among crowds in those two countries.
Racism is at the root of the trouble, flashpoints of which were graphically shown in this week’s edition of the BBC’s Panorama programme.
Right-wing morons giving the ubiquitous Nazi salutes were nauseating enough, but to then see hell-bent thugs turn on any of their own fans who were black or Asian was a fearful reminder that Europe’s ruling body UEFA should not escape blame.
UEFA, for all apparently good intentions, should never have sanctioned the tournament in these countries.
As the shocking scenes of terrace mayhem and violence unfolded, esteemed former England international Sol Campbell – no stranger to abuse in England, let alone when representing his country so illustriously on foreign fields – advised any black or Asian England fans to simply not travel to next week’s Euro Championships, which kicks off on Friday with the clash between Poland and Greece.
His foreboding forecast was that such supporters could return home in a coffin.
Even before Campbell’s warning, relatives of current England players Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had opted to follow advice not to attend the tournament.
How sad is that. Constantly we are reminded how representing your country is the pinnacle of sporting achievement. It is an even more pertinent honour when those international appearances are at either the Euros or the World Cup.
Yet close family members of both Arsenal stars – Oxlade-Chamberlain gracing his first major tournament no less – will not be able to see them play in the flesh.
Predictably, state and police authorities in both countries have gushed that racism and hooliganism are not as acute problems as portrayed by Panorama. But they would say that wouldn’t they?
Those who blithely tow the party line also explained, with some justification it has to be said, that racism is not confined to within their domain.
At the same time, UEFA parrot the tract that by according the championships to both countries they are extending football’s boundaries.
Sadly, racism has not been wiped out, even sadder is the feeling it may never be eradicated. But whereas there has been success in tackling the issue within these and other shores, the problem is endemic in many former eastern bloc countries.
And it is not something that has suddenly crept up on UEFA, say, during the run-up to next Friday night’s kick-off in the National Stadium in the Warsaw capital of Poland.
Manchester City’s maverick Italian striker Mario Balotelli has said he would walk off the pitch if he is racially abused.
To some, not least his critics, that is just sheer bravado. But aware how Balotelli has already proved a law unto himself, I would counter it is a brave statement to make and would be even braver if he were to carry out his threat.
Similarly if any targeted England players were to refuse to play any more part in a match when they came under abuse, I would wholeheartedly back their courageous stance.
It is only by such drastic action that the issue will be genuinely tackled.
So far, UEFA’s doling out of heavier fines for offences far less serious than proven cases of racism, means any official hand-wringing is merely a hollow gesture.
The fear over the next few weeks is that black banners of mourning may yet flutter overhead.