WHAT AN UNPLEASANT event the October 12 European Championship football qualifier between England and Slovakia turned out to be. The match took a back seat to racism and shootings from the Slovak side, and boorishness and ridicule from the English. A bad taste, to say the least.
As politically and morally charged as sports matches have become, they're usually more fun than this last dismal meet. But it's not hard to figure out what went wrong, and even easier to offer a few suggestions for the next time Slovakia hosts an international football match.
First, the country has to do something about its private security services, which in many cases are simply money-laundering and extortion outfits for their owners.
Most Slovak pubs in larger cities are required by local Mafia bosses to pay protection money, which is laundered through security services that assign a few armed, steroid-charged meatheads to each establishment. Small wonder that when English fans got out of control in Bratislava's Kelt at closing time the night before the game, the security goons lost their small heads and ended up firing at least 16 bullets to clear the pub, hitting one fan in the neck and another in the thigh. Nothing will change until police are given more backup in fighting local Mafia chiefs, most of whose identities and activities are clear even to foreign journalists with a basic knowledge of Slovak and access to the Internet-based business register.
On the other hand, many people who visited downtown Bratislava pubs in the days leading up to the match can attest to the brutish behaviour of some England fans, who at Kelt on the night in question refused to leave at closing time and started pouring their own draft. The night before, a window in the same pub had been broken by rowdy English fans, a rare occurrence in Slovakia's staid pub culture. England football fans who were outraged at the shootings might ask themselves how English patrons would feel if crowds of drunk Slovaks refused to abide by the 'time, gents' call in a London pub and started pushing the staff around.
Slovakia also clearly has to pay more attention to racism, and to what the international community feels about the issue, rather than regarding 'hu-hu-hu' monkey taunts from some Slovak fans every time black English players touched the ball as somehow the norm. Many foreigners who live in this country have noticed how the IQ of otherwise intelligent and cosmopolitan Slovaks will fall several magnitudes whenever talk turns to the Roma or the Hungarian ethnic minorities. While the government did create a racism task force in 2000 in response to neo-Nazi activity, it has not yet begun to tackle casual, everyday Slovak racism. The only way to stamp it out is to make it socially uncomfortable to shout 'hu-hu-hu' at people whose skin is a different colour, but that may take years of concerted education. Banning Slovak fans from future UEFA events would be a good start.
On the other hand, it would help if Western countries remembered their own recent battles with racism, and could be more gracious when facing incidents of this sort. Thousands of ordinary Slovaks were horrified at the bigoted behaviour of Slovak fans, and while their shame wouldn't have been less had the English reaction been more generous, their shame may at least not have been mingled with resentment.
After all the unpleasantness, it would have helped if the English had remembered to be humble in victory and the Slovaks gracious in defeat, both on the field and off. It would have helped, for example, if England captain David Beckham had not criticised the muddy pitch at Slovan stadium as the worst he had played on since his amateur days. "In England fields can be rained on for two weeks non-stop but remain firm and high-quality. I don't remember when I played on a field this bad," he said after the match.
True, David, but Slovak teams can't pay football players what Manchester pays you, just as Slovak schools and hospitals can't give local people a fraction of the care English people regard as their right. In mocking Slovakia's football fields you are also sneering at people's economic hardship.
It also would have helped if Slovak state officials had responded to the racist chants, calling a press conference and expressing the nation's evident dismay with the behaviour of its worst elements. Instead, we had a senior Slovak football official saying the English media's focus on racism was a camouflage for the poor performance of the England team. Ahhhh, so if England had won 6-0 the monkey chants would have been ignored?
In football, as in many walks of life, Slovak and European citizens will soon be closer than ever before. New European Union members such as Slovakia will need help and understanding from older democracies, rather than dismissal as racist and criminal backwaters. The former will also have to try a bit harder to understand what is required, rather than defending their traditions of bigotry.
As anyone who has ever had a younger brother knows, the way to encourage a sibling is not to ridicule his faults but to make him believe he can achieve what you have. Even if he knows he can't run as fast as you yet, he will love you for maintaining the illusion that he can - and never forget it if you rub your superiority in his face.
21. Oct 2002 at 0:00