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Can European soccer stamp out racism?

By Greg Duke, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • England captain John Terry faces police probe after claims of racially abusing an opoponent
  • It is the latest in a series of racist incidents in European soccer this year
  • Never Again and UEFA working together to raise awareness prior to Euro 2012 finals
  • African star Samuel Eto'o has twice threatened to walk off the pitch after racist abuse

(CNN) -- The ugly cloud of racism appears to be hanging like a shadow over European football this year.

Along with the most recent John Terry-Anton Ferdinand incident, which is being investigated by police, and Patrice Evra's claims against Luis Suarez in another player-on-player matter, there are also several occasions where abuse has come from the fans.

England's Ashley Young was targeted by Bulgaria supporters in September, while Brazil's Roberto Carlos walked off during a Russian league match after a banana was thrown at him.

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Monkey chants and Nazi salutes appear a throwback to a different age. However, the actions of a minority in Sofia earlier this month showed that, for some countries, attitudes that seem out-of-step in today's multicultural world are still prevalent.

Bulgaria's German coach Lothar Matthaus, who has since been sacked, was so embarrassed by the fans' behavior that he publicly apologized after the match.

With the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine on the horizon, a campaign to ensure that such behavior is stamped out in stadiums is gathering pace.

Rafal Pankowski heads Poland-based organization Never Again, which works closely with European football's governing body UEFA and Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE). Their collective aim is to challenge racism in Eastern European soccer, with particular emphasis on next year's co-hosted tournament.

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"Unfortunately it seems racism is deeply rooted in the culture of soccer, especially in Eastern Europe," Pankowski told CNN. "Of course it's a broader problem, affecting countries such as Spain and Italy, but it is a real issue in Eastern Europe.

"We appreciate the steps and initiatives that UEFA are taking, but we are still a very long way from eradicating the problem and it's just not something that can be eliminated overnight."

Earlier this year, Never Again published a report called "Hateful" which documented the number of racist incidents in Poland and Ukraine.

It detailed 195 individual incidents of racist and discriminatory behavior in an 18-month period from September 2009 to March 2011, a figure that underlines the amount of work that still needs to be done.

"There is goodwill at the top of UEFA to deal with the issue, but their genuine commitment does not translate to national football federation level and this is where more awareness raising needs to be done," Pankowski said.

Racism is deeply rooted in the culture of soccer, especially in Eastern Europe
--Rafal Pankowski of Never Again
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"That's why it was a positive step when Matthaus spoke out about the fans' behavior. More often than not, officials downplay the issue, pretend it doesn't exist or deny it."

Pankowski believes that, to solve what he considers mainly a social problem, people must be made aware that racist behavior is taking place.

"Monitoring incidents when they happen, and dealing with them, is a big step forward. Our report showed the extent of the problem but we are using Euro 2012 as an opportunity to promote awareness that racism is bad for football and bad for society as a whole," he said.

"We also give advice and training to clubs on how to deal with the issue. We provide them with a CD that contains information on racist symbols and educates them on what behavior to look out for."

There have been many high-profile incidents of racist behavior towards players in recent seasons, with African star Samuel Eto'o targeted on several occasions.

In 2006, while playing for Barcelona, the Cameroon striker was so incensed by chants from Zaragoza fans that he walked off the pitch.

Then in 2010, while with Italian side Inter Milan, play was halted for three minutes after Eto'o was abused by supporters of Sardinia-based Cagliari.

Brazilian legend Carlos has twice suffered racial abuse this year while playing for Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala -- on one occasion asking to be substituted, nearly in tears, after picking up a banana that was thrown at him from the stands.

Paul Davis, who played for English club Arsenal for 15 years until 1995, told CNN that modern black players can make a difference by reacting in such a way.

The supporters' attitude to black players in Russia is appalling, it's totally abysmal
--Keir Radnedge of World Soccer

"The players now have so much power, if a black player walked off the pitch the repercussions would be tremendous. It would change the game for the better," said the 49-year-old, who represented England at under-21 level.

"Back when I played, it was inconceivable for a player to walk off the pitch for being racially abused by the fans. But it's good to highlight the problem and let people know how strongly you feel about it. And hopefully slowly there will be some change."

Racism seems particularly endemic in Russian soccer, an experience that Keir Radnedge of World Soccer magazine knows only too well.

"The supporters' attitude to black players in Russia is appalling, it's totally abysmal," Radnedge told CNN.

"Not only is there racism towards black players in Russia, but there is an inter-racial side to things, where players or fans from countries that formed part of the former Soviet Union get targeted as well."

With that in mind, Eto'o's recent shock switch to the same Anzhi side that Carlos plays for appears to be a strange move, although Radnedge believes his high-profile arrival might help in the battle against racism.

"There is no doubt Eto'o has gone there for the money, but the Russian authorities are very aware of the work they need to do on this issue leading up to the 2018 World Cup finals," Radnedge said.

"They are always having discussions with various organizations, but they haven't cracked the problem yet by a long way.

"There have been recent highlighted cases of racism and I'm sure many more we never hear about, but Eto'o's arrival will be seen as a significant propaganda boost for the Russians and I think that can only be a good thing."

You cannot attract a superstar like Eto'o to your country, abuse him, and expect people to turn the other way when it happens
--Piara Powar of FARE

Piara Powar, whose FARE organization is at the forefront of the fight against racist behavior in soccer grounds, also believes the Eto'o transfer can have a positive effect, as long as the powers-that-be recognize the need for a radical change in attitudes.

"Over the last decade there has been an emergence of black footballers playing in Russia, and many of them have reported hostility towards them in a way that players in Western Europe 25 years ago will recognize," Powar told CNN.

"If things are going badly for their team, players have endured very basic racial abuse in the form of monkey chanting, or banana throwing."

He added: "With the World Cup on the horizon, the world will be watching Russia and the Russian authorities closely -- because you cannot attract a superstar like Eto'o to your country, abuse him, and expect people to turn the other way when it happens.

"On the other hand, Eto'o has taken the step to move to Russian football, and I think it can act as a catalyst for progression there."

With Eastern Europe staging two major tournaments in the next seven years, it is hoped that organizations like FARE and Never Again manage to get their message across successfully, so the next generation of Ashley Youngs can be appreciated for their skill rather than derided for their skin color.