17 Jun 2012

Match of the Day – Ukrainian style

Keme Nzerem appears on Ukraine’s top TV show “Great Football” where the post match analysis ranges from Greece’s unlikely victory over Russia – to the beginning of a national discussion about racism.

It’s been one of the more unusual 24 hours at the office. Not that any day covering football’s European Championship in Poland and Ukraine has been normal.

One o’clock in the morning, sandwiched on a sofa between a pneumatic blonde – Kiev’s answer to Lady Gaga – and a welter of football anoraks, on “Great Football” – Ukraine’s top rated TV show, and (quite watchable, I must add) answer to Blighty’s very own Match of the Day.

We’d called the producers earlier in the day with a simple request: Might we possibly pop along for a few minutes to film behind the scenes, and interview the hosts?

“But of course!” came the answer. And by way of returning the favour, would you mind hanging out for a bit and taking part in the studio discussion?

This was evidently my chance to make it big in Ukraine. Why not?

Did I really think Ukraine had a problem with racism?

Now one can’t get far in Kiev without seeing the vast posters advertising this show – a late night blizzard of post match analysis, buxom women, viewers emails, and, it turned out, hot button social commentary.

The issues flew around like vodka in bolshevik shebeen.

What did I think of the scenes of Russian and Polish hoodlums knocking lumps out of each other in Warsaw last week?

Could Greece – the former European Champions now teetering on the brink of financial ruin – really shock the mighty Russians and qualify for the quarter finals?

And then the topic that has been stalking this tournament ever since UEFA decided to host it here.

Italy's Balotelli reacts during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match against Croatia at the city stadium in Poznan (Reuters)

Did I really think Ukraine had a problem with racism?

Well yes, it does – but it’s not quite as bad as you might think – because we all do. Not just Ukraine.

One of my counterparts on Ukraine’s MOTD sofa – a well known Russian football journalist – said fans only threw bananas at Mario Balotelli (pictured right) – an Italian of African descent – to get a rise out of him. A provocation they knew would wind him up and thus undermine his form.

Seen through the strictest of footballing prisms this is just an extension of the 12th man principle. That a team needs its fans as much as the fans need the team.

But since when did football exist in some kind of social vacuum?

“Would fans ever hurl a banana at a white player?”, I asked my colleague. Well no, he concurred.

His point though, was that such symbols shouldn’t be considered racist. It was just part of the jib of the game.

But who now hasn’t seen the footage of Asian students being hatefully attacked in a Ukranian football stadium?

Refusing to acknowledge the link between language and violence ignores a deeper truth that defines life well beyond the pitch. That for every thrown banana, people of colour fear the thing that will fly next is a fist. Or a jackboot.

UEFA have now charged and / or are currently investigating Spanish, Croatian and Russian fans for abusing black players in the opening games of Euro 2012.

All of these games took place, incidentally, in Polish, not Ukranian venues. Unsurprisingly this point was not lost on the (mainly Ukranian) panel. The suggestion being this was proof recent publicity around the supposedly racist Ukranians was simply not true.

And so the debate went on. Now don’t get depressed.

Because no sooner had the studio lights dimmed, did the hosts urgently enquire whether I was ok. They were worried that I’d rather been put on the spot – asked out of the blue to discuss such an “awkward” topic. They hoped that I hadn’t been insulted, and that I didn’t feel ill of their nation that they defended their reputation with such vim.

In actual fact the “awkward” wasn’t about me at all – it was about them. A new show, with a new format, straying dangerously away from the usual football fare of groin strains, false 9’s and 4 – 4 – 2. All this chat about racism was clearly a dangerous and seditious social experiment.

Far from it. This was great news.

Because Ukraine is now talking about its racism problem.

Britain has been talking about it’s racism problem for decades, and we are still far from ‘kicking it out’, whatever handy moniker we might choose to apply to football’s official anti racism campaign. I don’t need to mention Liverpool’s sorry Suarez affair, or John Terry’s looming appointment in court.

There’s always gonna be prejudice of various kinds towards various kinds of people – that is just how we humans learn, organise and understand our ever changing world.

That of course is not to dignify or justify it.

But talking about racism need not be awkward – as long as everyone is invited to share in the conversation.

Be they footballers, fans, or (slightly confused) visiting foreign journalists attempting to make sense of a high spirited studio debate, being held simultaneously in Polish, Russian, Ukranian and English.

This morning we flew back to Donetsk, where England play Ukraine on Tuesday night for a potential spot in the quarter finals. Will the local fans behave? Will, indeed, the England fans behave? Watch this space.

Donetsk, for me, is a fitting place for England’s group stage decider. The first time I heard of this peculiarly charming mining town was during the 2002 world cup, when a young footballer called Julius Aghahowa would wow the world with his outlandish goal celebrations. Multiple back flips – sometimes as many as 7 or 8.

Aghawoa, like my father, is Nigerian. Aghahowa was, at the time, playing for the local team here – Shaktar Donetsk.

At his peak he could probably have chosen to play anywhere, I’d always wondered why he decided to come here.

Follow Keme Nzerem on Twitter: @nzerem