With so much else going on, the European Championship finals – Euro2012 – have somewhat snuck up on us. We’ve only just got our chart up, although the wee chicklet determined weeks ago that we’d be supporting Spain. The boy is good at backing winners.
Of course, we have had a daily call-off from the England camp, with the angst perceptible among commentators. It must be a sign of my age, for they have players turning out in their country’s colours I have never heard of. Ireland, meanwhile, have gone about their preparations fairly quietly and – unlike them – with a degree of rather chilling efficiency.
The burdz tips are to be avoided at all costs – I’m rubbish, as anyone who has ever read my electoral predictions can aver – but there’s a lot of chatter about dark horses Russia and France. Whatever, we’ll be glued to it all, right from the kick off tonight. We’ll even tune in for the near neighbours and giving them a cheer.
And that’s despite the politics whirling around this finals, thanks to the co-hosts Ukraine.
There’s a whiff of hypocrisy from these shores about Ukraine’s fitness or otherwise to host the European Championships. There’s also the usual thing of a bored media whipping up a storm beforehand, though you’d think they might have learned their lesson over the World Cup Finals in South Africa.
Ukraine has a problem with race, as documented in several newspapers and also on BBC’s Panorama recently. Xenophobia and prejudice are commonplace and epitomised by the political rise of far right parties. But then, I’m not sure a nation which somehow manages to postpone a court case involving one of its star players accused of racial abuse to allow him to participate in this footballing jamboree has much wiggle room here. Especially not when there is scarcely a storm of protest – a few complaints certainly – over his inclusion in the England squad in the first place.
Then there’s the curious case of Rio Ferdinand. Passed over originally for inclusion in the squad, the rate of call-offs through injury might suggest a last minute change of heart. But no matter how flimsy England’s defensive line-up now looks, it appears there is no room for the central defender, despite his having had a great season. What he lacks in pace, he makes up for in experience and presence, quantities that often prove invaluable in such tournaments. As Ian Smart suggested in a tweet, there’s some suggestion of similarity with the case of Basil d’Oliveira here.
Roy Hodgson has been pretty tight-lipped about it all, but a look at his chosen squad suggests he’s gone for youth and seems to be building for the future (albeit with a few crocks left over from the supposedly golden generation). Which just about explains the exclusion of Ferdinand.
Meanwhile, black players in the squad are not taking their families with them and Sol Campbell is urging black fans not to travel. Yet, the Ukraine is not the only European country to have dirty laundry where racism is concerned: there have been well documented cases of abuse on and off the field in Spain and Italy. The common denominator is that for all its handwringing and vacuous soundbites, UEFA does nothing.
Now it seems that UK Ministers won’t be going to Ukraine for the group stages. Personally, I’m glad to hear it: we pay them to run the country, not to go off and watch football games. Frankly, if they want to go to Euro2012 they should buy a ticket and pay their way like the rest of us have to.
On a diplomatic level, the boycott is ostensibly because of poor human rights practices and the imprisonment of former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, she of the extraordinary hairstyle and prime mover of the Orange revolution. Not that human rights stops our Ministers courting despotic regimes elsewhere, when it suits them, you understand.
Yet, here we are in the UK, welcoming the Olympic torch around these isles with madding crowds, with the memory of the last Games in Beijing becoming ever more distant. London also has a less than exemplary record on race and human rights issues. Stop n search, Mark Duggan, kettling, Jean Charles de Menezes all suggest we have a few issues of our own to resolve before we can claim the higher ground.
None of which excuses the appalling racism and human rights practices in Ukraine at all: one small glimmer has been the focus on the terrible situation of Ukraine’s street children. But what might foreign journalists find if they manage to escape their minders and are prepared to look beyond the stadia and venues this summer?
We’re not as bad as Ukraine, and Ukraine is not as bad as others, not that there is nor should be a hierarchy on such issues. When it suits them, folk like to separate politics from sport, and to trot out the weary line about sport opening doors and shining a light.
Those of us queasy about such countries’ records could boycott all such sporting fests on principle. But I tried that and failed. Miserably.
So like everyone else, over the next two weeks, we in the eyrie will be watching and cheering, hoping that the football lives up to the billing and trying not to let guilt overwhelm us.