James BaxterComment

SLOVAKIA AND RACISM

James BaxterComment

In any country, the media has an important role to play in stamping out racism.  In Slovakia, things clearly need to change.

With just seconds remaining of their top-of the-table Slovak league clash with Slovan Bratislava on 3rd April, MŠK Žilina were already 2-0 up and on easy street. Then, Issiaka Bello made one more run through the Slovan defence. As goalkeeper Matúš Putnocký advanced, Bello gently clipped the ball over him. The sight of it rolling slowly but inexorably towards the net should have been pure pleasure for the senses, like the last, lingering sip of a fine single-malt. In fact, there were other feelings too, principally a sense of justice being delivered. Bello, who originates from Benin, had spent much of the second-half on the receiving end of racist abuse from the Slovan fans. Five times the monkey chants broke out. Five times the stadium announcer appealed for them to stop. On the fifth occasion, he added that the referee had the power to call an early halt to proceedings.

I am a Žilina season-ticket holder and I don’t much care for Slovan Bratislava, but the point of this is not to make out that one club is somehow more righteous than another. In fact, the Bello incidents are the third direct experience of football-related racism I’ve had in nearly nine years of living in Slovakia – and the first two involved Žilina fans. In May 2004, I travelled the short distance to Dubnica for an end of season title-decider on the Žilina supporters’ bus. On the outskirts of Dubnica, we passed a playground near some blocks of flats. A group of Roma children were playing there, their mothers close by. As if on cue, many of the Žilina fans started banging on the windows, making obscene gestures and jeering. It goes without saying that this incident made the result of a football match seem pitiably insignificant, but, for me at least, it had an importance beyond football too. It was the greatest evidence I thus far had that the insistence of many educated Slovaks that the Roma exaggerate the discrimination against them is nothing but a shameful lie.

For several years, though, the presence of well-respected black players at most Slovak clubs meant that you didn’t hear racist chants or comments in the stands (at least I didn’t) but then, in July 2010, Slovan visited Žilina and fielded Mamadou Bagayoko, a youngster from the Ivory Coast. In a rather fractious encounter, which finished 2-2, Bagayoko had an outstanding game. He was quick, he was tireless he switched positions, and he scored a brilliantly- taken goal. He was also involved in a last-minute incident that led, first to the sending-off of a Žilina player, then to an unseemly scuffle after the final-whistle. Bagayoko would have expected, perhaps even relished, a few pantomime-style jeers from the home fans as he finally walked off. Depressingly, however, there were monkey noises mixed in with those jeers. Interestingly, Bagayoko was also playing when it was Bello on the receiving end. At one point, I noticed him put an arm round his opponent in what I can only assume was a gesture of moral support.

So no, it’s not only Slovan with a racism problem. I do believe, however, that they may currently be in the most danger of it worsening. Nationalism is a part of Slovan’s history. In contrast with some older Slovak clubs, such as Tatran Prešov and Petržalka (later Artmedia Bratislava), who were founded as PE associations by local Hungarians, Slovan have their roots in the immediate post-World War I era, when the Slovaks were joining with the Czechs and freeing themselves from Hungarian influence. This history has been misappropriated by some fans and there has been serious violence at matches against clubs from areas of Slovakia with significant Hungarian populations, such as DAC Dunajská Streda. Also, people who attended Slovan games in the 1990s, the difficult years following the fall of communism, speak of pro-Hitler chants and open displays of Nazi symbolism from a section of their support.

As with Slovak football in general, there have been signs in more recent years that such tendencies are lessening. The presence, and acceptance by fans, of black players like Bagayoko and Karim Guédé (now of Freiburg) in the Slovan team has undoubtedly helped in this regard. Yet the Bello incidents at Žilina were by no means the first to involve Slovan fans this season. A ‘significant number’ (unofficial accounts say it was more than 40) of Slovak nationals in Rome for the club’s Europa League qualifier with AS Roma were banned from all cultural events in Italy for displaying the swastika. Later, during the group stages of the same competition, Paris St Germain player Siaka Tiéné was racially abused by a section of the Slovan support. Or rather, according to four independent witnesses, he was. For whatever reason (perhaps their delegate was enjoying some hospitality behind sound-proof glass), UEFA took no action over the incident.

It would be just a little unfair to say that Slovan themselves are doing nothing. One of their initiatives this spring has been to introduce a family-zone at home matches. A combined adult and child ticket costs just 3 Euros, and pre-match entertainment is laid on. Their players have also been active in various anti-racism campaigns within Slovakia. What the club haven’t done, however, is confront the racists directly, or even acknowledge that incidents have taken place. You won’t find any mention of the abuse directed at Tiéné or Bello on their official website, for example.

The Slovak media has also maintained a shameful silence. The website of daily newspaper Pravda actually links to a video of the highlights of the Žilina-Slovan game, where one of the PA requests for the racist chanting to stop is clearly audible. No mention of the chants is made in the accompanying match report, though the fact that, towards the end of the match, Slovan fans turned their backs on the pitch and sang ‘we can’t watch this’ IS referred to. Šport, meanwhile, take the view that the first-minute sending-off of a Košice defender at Banská Bystrica was the worst incident to take place in the latest round of matches – but completely ignore what happened to Bello.

This all means that we have to rely on Slovakia’s notoriously accident-prone football association (the SFZ) to ensure that action is taken. I would not normally be over-confident about this, though it has been confirmed to me that the stadium announcer in Žilina had official approval to make the requests he did, and to raise the prospect of the game being halted. This logically means that the referee’s report of the game will include mention of the racist chanting and that Slovan will probably be bracing themselves for a fine. Just don’t expect the Slovak media to give their punishment much coverage..    

You can read more from James here.

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