Chaos: Fans of FC Dynamo Kiev clashed with riot police during mass fighting in the Olympiyski stadium in Kiev on Saturday
Ukraine‘s riot police are about as tough as they get.
Hundreds march in regimented lines through the gates of the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv, known locally as the Spider Arena as its pillars make it resemble an arachnid. In 13 days’ time it will be at the centre of attention of the footballing world when it begins to host Euro 2012 matches.
The England team will play all three of their group matches in Ukraine – with up to 6,000 fans expected to follow them.
Now I am about to find out why the Foreign Office’s Euro 2012 travel advice warns: ‘Those of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent and individuals from religious minorities should take extra care’ – and why last Friday the relatives of England star Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 18, followed national team-mate Theo Walcott’s family in deciding not to travel to Ukraine to watch England’s three group games. England will play two games in Donetsk and one in Kiev.
In the Kharkiv stadium, the elite police officers are all at least 6ft tall, their muscle matched by a personal armoury of automatic pistols, batons, CS tear-gas grenades, helmets and shields. The show of strength is in preparation for any trouble at a game between local team Metalist Kharkiv and visitors Shakhtar Donetsk. England will play France at Shakhtar Donetsk’s home ground on June 11.
Both teams have a following of hardcore, dedicated fans known as ‘Ultras’ – a name given to football fans who put on spectacular displays of support using homemade banners, flares and chanting.
But, more pertinently, I’ve been told that some nationalist organisations are tapping into the Right-wing ideology of some Ultra-hooligans, recruiting them as members and using them to perpetuate violence against foreigners.
At Kharkiv, one of those recruiters is 26-year-old Metalist supporter Vadym. We stand in the centre of the Ultra terrace where some ‘fans’ are wearing balaclavas and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘The Fight Club’.
Steering clear: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, left, of Arsenal decided not to travel to Ukraine to watch England’s three group games, while Ashley Young, right will be playing for England
When the Metalist team score, hundreds of Ultras, including Vadym, punch their chests, salute and shout ‘Sieg Heil!’ Of their Nazi ‘Hail Victory’ gesture, Vadym insists: ‘It’s just a bit of fun.’
Fighting breaks out right behind us. Soon the violence spreads across the entire terrace. Fireworks and burning red flares are used as missiles and produce a thick cloud of smoke across the stadium.
Riot police swarm into the crowd and force apart the fighting fans using batons and shields.
Then a group of Metalist Ultras head towards some of their fellow supporters in the family section. They are Asian. The Metalists drag them to the ground and pound them with kicks and punches.
The violence is relentless, but this time the police are nowhere to be seen. Fathers, mothers and their children are forced to flee as, one by one, another victim is set upon – I counted five. Bleeding and clearly in pain, the injured supporters manage to break free and stagger towards a group of stewards at the exit.
But as they do so, other Ultras jump in front of them to deliver one last punch and kick. In the safety of a medical room, normally reserved for injured footballers, doctors check their bleeding faces and bruised bodies. The victims reveal they are students from India. ‘We usually come to a match late and leave early to avoid being attacked,’ one of them says. ‘But this time they trapped us. We couldn’t get out.’
One of their friends is taken to a waiting ambulance and off to hospital with head injuries. The others are terrified of the prospect of making their way home.
‘The police are not helpful at all,’ explains another student with a bloodied nose. ‘They won’t protect us. We have been here for years and we are always attacked but the police do nothing.’
But Kharkiv’s deputy police commander says: ‘We are fully prepared for the Euro Championships to make sure every match passes off peacefully.’
Yet what are they doing to tackle racist hooliganism? ‘We have not had any such incidents in Ukraine and Kharkiv – there have been none. And I hope that during the Euro 2012 Championship we will not have any. In fact, Ukrainian fans are very friendly.’
Vadym belongs to a Right-wing organisation called The Patriot Of Ukraine, one of many nationalist movements in the country.His Metalist supporters’ bar, which also acts as a clubhouse for Patriot members, is tucked away in a market square underneath dozens of towering Soviet-era apartment blocks.
‘The supporters’ bar has to be well hidden,’ he explains as we weave our way around a maze of market stalls. ‘It’s here to stop the police finding it.’
Vadym is dressed in the official bright yellow and blue tracksuit of the Ukrainian national team – he explains it is ‘to express his patriotism’.
A BBC Panorma programme about football racism and hooligan culture in Ukraine filmed them exercising at a training camp in woods outside Kiev
There are no reliable estimates of how many members the Patriots have but they are well organised and have 18 branches across Ukraine. All the host cities of Euro 2012 have a branch. Leaders of the organisation hold weekly training camps in a secret location where new recruits are trained for combat ¿ some are football Ultras
Once in the supporters’ bar, the barman greets us with a Nazi salute. On the wall there is a huge mural of the Celtic cross, often adopted as a symbol of white supremacy. The rest of the tiny underground room is covered in a mounted collection of dozens of Metalist scarfs and flags, with white power symbols and Nazi swastikas sewn in.
A black scarf bears the team’s logo and the numbers 8-8. ‘The numbers 8-8 mean “Heil Hitler!” ’ says Vadym.
‘H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so when people see 8-8 they just think you are just a normal guy.’
He continues: ‘We want Ukraine to be one elite race, one nation, one fatherland.’
He reaches for his mobile phone and shows a video of himself at a Patriot training camp using what looks like a pistol and fighting with his bare fists. He says the training is preparation for a civil war to rid the country of immigrants and overthrow the Ukrainian government.
In the capital Kiev, a dated Soviet-built ground nestling in a hill in the city’s main park is hosting Arsenal Kiev against visitors FC Karpaty Lviv. Hundreds of away fans have travelled here from Lviv, another Euro 2012 host city and a Patriot stronghold.
The Karpaty Ultras terrace is decorated with huge images of nationalist heroes from the Second World War, including one accused of being a Nazi collaborator. As the Karpaty Lviv team take to the pitch, their supporters punch their chests with their right fist and stretch out their arms to issue a Nazi-style salute for their team.
There are no reliable estimates of how many members the Patriots have but they are well organised and have 18 branches across Ukraine. All the host cities of Euro 2012 have a branch
Recently, Ukrainian clubs have brought in foreign players but it and this hasn’t gone down well with some fans. Arsenal Kiev have two black players.
Almost every time they take the ball they are taunted with monkey sounds from the Lviv Ultras. Stewards and police surround the terrace to kettle the fans in a bid to stop any outbreaks of fighting, but they don’t appear to do anything to stop the blatant racism.
There are no reliable estimates of how many members the Patriots have but they are well organised and have 18 branches across Ukraine. All the host cities of Euro 2012 have a branch.
Leaders of the organisation hold weekly training camps in a secret location where new recruits are trained for combat – some are football Ultras.
Some burly, shaven-headed men drive me out of the capital so I can see the Patriots train. When our vehicle reaches the end of the road, we continue on foot into a forest and come across a group of a dozen youths dressed in camouflaged uniforms, black army boots and balaclavas.
What follows is a display of fitness with rigorous military-style exercises and running.
To be a Patriot, Ukraine’s hooligans must give up drinking, smoking and drugs. They are shown how to startle, trap and pull an ‘immigrant target’ to the floor and then launch an all-out assault as their victim lies helpless on the ground.
They practise until they have mastered their ambush. Then, without a break, they are handed wooden knives and taught how to master the art of attacking and defending with a blade.
Four hours of training ends with an ugly display of what they are capable of. They are split into pairs and instructed to fight. They keep punching and kicking their opponent until one of them surrenders and falls to the ground.
It is the potential for this kind of organised racist violence that has led Football Against Racism In Europe (FARE) – which is funded by European football’s governing body UEFA – to create dozens of safe areas known as ‘inclusivity zones’ in host cities across Ukraine and co-host country Poland, where there are also concerns about racism in football.
The England team will be staying in Krakow, Poland’s former capital – a stunning city which attracts millions of tourists every year. But step out of the historic centre and the city reveals its ugly side. It is impossible to miss the Star of David sprayed on to walls as part of a tit-for-tat graffiti war.
Once in the supporters’ bar, the barman greets us with a Nazi salute. On the wall there is a huge mural of the Celtic cross, often adopted as a symbol of white supremacy. The rest of the tiny underground room is covered in a mounted collection of dozens of Metalist scarfs and flags, with white power symbols and Nazi swastikas sewn in
This is a country where football fans use the word Jew as an insult. In a match at Krakow, both sets of Ultras are caged like animals in their terraces behind metal fencing. The Ultras supporting the team of Wisla are taunting their local rivals calling them Jewish ‘******’ Many wear T-shirts with anti-Semitic slogans.
Another fan is wearing a custom-made T-shirt with the slogan ‘National Army Against The Jews’. By half-time tempers boil over. Unable to fight each other, both sets of fans turn on the stewards and the police.
UEFA claims to have zero tolerance of racism. So why did it take Euro 2012 to two countries with some of the most racist football fans in Europe?
UEFA president Michel Platini declined to comment.
Instead UEFA said in a statement: ‘UEFA’s zero tolerance approach is still valid on and off the pitch and ultimately the referee has the power to stop or abandon a match should racist incidents occur.’
It pointed out that the incidents I had seen were at domestic matches and were the responsibility of the national football authorities. And it added: ‘Euro 2012 brings the spotlight on the host countries and clearly creates an opportunity to address such societal issues.’
But Nick Lowles, from UK-based anti-racist group Hope Not Hate, who also travelled to Poland, is not reassured.
He said: ‘My concern is what happens outside the stadiums, in the evenings between games.
‘The positive thing about English football is the increasing number of black and Asian fans who have been travelling to support England – and I am concerned that they will be targeted by racists and fascists and anti-Semites in Poland and in the Ukraine.’
Chris Rogers’s Panorama: Euro 2012: Stadiums Of Hate is broadcast tomorrow on BBC1 at 8.30pm.
- safe areas known as “inclusivity zones” established in town centres, bars, restaurants for non-white England football fans visiting Ukraine (innerstandingisness.wordpress.com)
- it’s official: Africans and Asians should expect to be racially abused at European Championship this summer (innerstandingisness.wordpress.com)
- Theo Walcott’s Family Will Not Go To Euro 2012 Over Racist Fears (innerstandingisness.wordpress.com)