The issue of racism in eastern Europe threatens to cast a shadow over next year's European Championships. Backpage Football looks at how the issue is being dealt with in the Czech Republic.
Throughout central and eastern Europe, dark-skinned players are subjected to racist abuse from home and away fans, and sometimes even their own club officials. This is nothing new. Archaic racial prejudice is just one corollary of five decades of curbed immigration and integration.
During the 90s, racial discrimination was firmly ensconced on the terraces of the Gambrinus League, the top level of football in the Czech Republic. Today, the culture of tolerating racism in Czech football appears to be on the wane.
Radio Prague spoke with Slavia Prague spokesman Ondřej Zlamal who said, “Football is a game, and it’s just a mirror of the society. I don’t think that the roots of racism and this kind of racist behaviour lie in football.
“I think the Czech Football Federation has been doing a very good job so far monitoring, warning the clubs, but they could be stricter”.
He might have a point. Prague’s changing complexion could well be contributing to the positive cultural shift in Czech football. Black faces are not the extraordinary sight they once were in what is the former eastern bloc’s most cosmopolitan capital.
However, this newfound multiculturalism is not replicated across the country. Much of the persistent racism against black players is concentrated in Czech’s provincial cities.
Clubs such as Baník Ostrava and Sigma Olomouc have suffered sporadic racial incidents but recent additions of talented black players to their squads have helped to quell any disquiet.
The Czech FA appears to be taking the issue seriously and has launched a number of high-profile campaigns since the millennium, while Sparta Prague and other leading Czech clubs have invested sizeable resources to combat the issue at matches and in their local communities.
Kennedy Chihuri, a Zimbabwean who was among the Gambrinus League’s first black players in 1996, bore the brunt of Czech ultras’ hostility during his eight years and 200 appearances for Viktoria Žižkov.
The league owes much to Chihuri’s nerve and resilience, as it is he and a few courageous others that paved the way for the dozens of younger black players who now enjoy careers in the Czech leagues.
Ignorant monkey chants are now a rare occurrence inside grounds, and what palpable racism remains usually originates from a lone, anonymous voice in the crowd. Encouragingly, fellow spectators now openly challenge these outbursts.
This is not to say racism is close to being eradicated from Czech football, but it has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. The Gambrinus League now compares favourably with other countries in the region, and the environment inside grounds is noticeably improving.
'Times have changed'
During autumn 2010, Sparta Prague boasted an all-African strike pairing, both of whom were popular at Letná. When told of Chihuri’s experiences, Cameroonian Leonard Kweuke and Ivory Coast international Bony Wilfried expressed disbelief.
Speaking to Czech news agency iDnes, Kweuke remarked, “Maybe the times have definitely changed.” Wilfried admitted, “If it happened to me, I would not stay here.” (Wilfried was sold to Vitesse Arnhem at the end of January).
An important litmus test will arrive the day a black Czech is called up to the national side. Given the support black players now receive from their home fans, one would hope a black Czech would be shown the same respect in the nation’s colours.
It might also do wonders for race relations across the country, as Nigerian-born striker Emmanuel Olisadebe did in helping Poland qualify for World Cup 2002.
Shifting cultural attitudes is seldom achieved overnight and although progress has been made it appears little is being done about the issues of anti-Semitism and prejudice against Roma in the Czech game.
In England it took decades, and yet recent revelations in the Sky studios exposed the bigotry that remains in spite of the progress made in fighting racism.
Czech football still harbours an insalubrious element. Sanctimonious commentators across Britain and western Europe are quick to criticise central and eastern European countries on this issue but it is equally important to recognise progress when it is made.
Compared to only fifteen years ago the Gambrinus League has improved markedly. There remains plenty of work ahead, but at last Czech football is heading in the right direction.