Dec 30 2010

Czech & Slovak Football’s fight against Racism

When I first came to live in Olomouc in 1998, one of the first football matches I attended was Sigma (the local team) versus Viktoria Žižkov in the top division of the Czech league. The occasion was less notable for anything that happened on the field than for the concerted racial abuse, mostly in the form of monkey noises, aimed at Žižkov’s Zimbabwean player Kennedy Chihuri. It is difficult to define the emotions I felt on witnessing this. Disgust and embarrassment were certainly among them. So was shock. I thought I’d come to live in a university town, a place known for a metropolitan outlook and liberal values. While I hadn’t expected the football terraces to play host to symposiums on tolerance, it was definitely an unpleasant surprise to hear significant numbers of home fans – local people presumably – react so primitively to the presence of a black player in the opposing team.

At the time, Chihuri was the only black footballer in the Gambrinus Liga and I was soon to learn that he received appalling treatment wherever he played. Worse, he didn’t get much support from those in a position to offer it. I recall once watching Slavia Prague against Žižkov live on TV. As Chihuri went to take a corner in front of a section of Slavia fans, bananas were thrown from the stands in his direction. The commentator didn’t pretend not to notice this but his words  - ‚special greetings there from the Slavia fans to Chihuri‘ – and the tone in which he uttered them suggested not condemnation but mild amusement. The Czech football authorities, meanwhile, seemed all too happy to ignore such incidents, at least as long as they took place in domestic football and thus weren’t drawn to the attention of an international audience.

During that 1998/99 season, English language newspaper the Prague Post published an interview with Chihuri. I’d already seen him give the odd bit of post-match reaction on TV and knew that he was articulate and spoke decent Czech. In print, he came across as generous and intelligent. He didn’t lightly dismiss his experiences of racism but did insist that he was happy living in Prague and greatly valued the warm relationship he had with the Žižkov fans. He also expressed the hope that more foreign players, from Africa or elsewhere, would come to play in the Czech Republic. In time, of course, they did. Looking back now, I think of Chihuri as a Czech league version of Cyrille Regis or Viv Anderson ; someone who, in running an initial gauntlet of racial hostility, helped smooth the path for others. I haven’t been to a Czech game for years but do know that there are several black players at Gambrinus Liga clubs these days. And it’s probably safe to assume that football-related racism in the country, while still a problem, is not as overt or reflexive as it once was.

That, after all, seems to be true of Slovakia. A real watershed in this country was the Slovakia v England World Cup qualifying game in 2002 in Bratislava. On that occasion, Emile Heskey in particular was subjected to shocking abuse by Slovak fans. Leaving aside the hypocritical attitude towards those incidents in sections of the English media (racism towards Turks during an England v Turkey match at Sunderland in the same qualifying campaign was widely ignored), the Slovak football authorities, and perhaps even some fans too, were embarrassed by the amount of unfavourable publicity which resulted. Certainly, since I came to live in Žilina in 2003, while I’ve heard racist sentiments expressed at football matches, instances of the kind of sustained abuse aimed at Chihuri and Heskey have been rare (one such instance is detailed later). Official anti-racism campaigns, with slogans such as ‚Kick racism into touch‘ or ‚Show racism a red card‘, have been fairly common in Slovakia over the last few years. Though easy to dismiss as tokenism, they have probably helped, if only because, with constant repetition, a simple message generally gets through to the majority.

Nowadays of course, there are several black players in the Slovak league, many of whom considerably enhance the quality of the football played. Žilina’s Issiaka Bello and Trnava’s Koro Koné are good examples but perhaps most significant of all is Karim Guédé, currently of Slovan Bratislava. Born in Hamburg, but of Togolese origin, Guédé is favourite to become the Slovak national team’s first ever black footballer. He plays as a defensive midfielder and, with his skill and strength, looks to be the ideal candidate for that role in the national team when Miroslav Karhan decides to retire. Coach Vladimir Weiss, who managed Guédé at Artmedia Petržalka, has publically stated that he holds that view and hopes a citizenship application for the player can be speeded up.

Seeing Guédé play for Slovakia would be great but would not, by itself, convince me that the game in the country has overcome racism. In July of this year, at a match in Žilina between MŠK and Slovan, there was a rare, but no less depressing, reminder that the problem does still exist. Slovan fielded two black players ; Guédé and a youngster from the Ivory Coast named Mamadou Bagayoko. Bagayoko had an eventful game. Starting on the right of midfield, he gave his side an early lead. After 25 minutes, he was switched to left-back following the sending-off of Marián Had and was effective in neutralising Žilina’s right flank. Then, in the last minute, Bagayoko was involved in the incident which led, first to a red card for the home side’s Ivan Lietava, then to an unseemly scuffle between several players which carried on after the final whistle. Once the referee had calmed everything down and most of the players had begun to leave the field, the Ivorian, one of the last to depart, had monkey chants directed at him by a group of Žilina fans. I was as shocked to hear this as I’d been when it happened to Chihuri 12 years before. It doesn’t matter that Bagayoko would almost certainly have been ignored had it not been for the on-field controversy ; the chants were clearly racist in nature and came as a timely reminder that this is indeed an issue we must not yet allow ourselves think has gone away.

Still, some perspective is helpful. Racism in England is also taking time to overcome. The late 1970s, it is generally agreed, were the years when the problem was at its most serious and players like Regis and Anderson are credited with being among those who endured the worst of it.Yet I well recall going to watch Everton in the 1988/89 season, and hearing half of the fans in the home end chanting, with apparent pride, ‘Everton are white’. Turkey’s players and fans were abused at the World Cup qualifier in 2003 and there are still reports of racist incidents, some of them anti-Semitic in nature, in English football today. If English football can claim, despite all this, that it has made progress in fighting racism (and, all things being relative, I believe it can), then so can Czech and Slovak football. The Bagayoko incident shows it has not been uninterrupted progress. It would also be right to point out that extreme nationalism in the form of anti-Hungarian sentiment afflicts the game in Slovakia and is probably worth a separate article all of its own. For now, though, I like to think that, if England came to play in Slovakia again, their black players wouldn’t have to put up with what Heskey endured 8 years ago. Whether the English media, so often prone to both self-congratulation and condemnation of others, would be prepared to acknowledge that is another question.

James Baxter

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Czech & Slovak Football’s fight against Racism”

  1.   Michal Petrakon 30 Dec 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Great article, James. I think we will fight racism in Czech football for a long time yet. Slight improvement can be seen in that some fans nowadays publicly detest those making “monkey noises”.
    Just one correction: Chihuri is Zimbabwean.

  2.   James Baxteron 30 Dec 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks Michal. You’re right of course. I explained to Dan that, after some thought, I felt confident enough that he was Nigerian not to check it. The moral, obviously, is to check such things next time. It’s odd, though, as I have so many memories of him otherwise. Anyway, perhaps Dan will make the appropriate change.

  3.   Michal Petrakon 30 Dec 2010 at 6:54 pm

    That is a slight error – the topic has been similar to all African players regardless whether they are Nigerian or Zimbabwean. There is never enough of these articles… I covered the same – experiences of African players in the Czech league – several years ago, spoke with Chihuri, Ekwueme brothers (Olomouc), Adauto (Slavia), Fabio Gomes (Pribram) and they all saw it as a big problem. It’s getting slightly better now when the most radical fans have quality black players in their teams – like Bony or Kweuke in Sparta or Neves in Ostrava. I hope this trend lasts even when they are gone…

  4.   britskibelasion 30 Dec 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Great article James. I’ve not been observing the game in this region for long enough, but I am pleased to hear that things are improving. Obviously players like Bello, Bagayoko, Koné and Guédé significantly enhance the quality on show in Slovakia and hopefully more similar players will follow hoping to get their foot in the European football door.

    A couple of years ago I went down to the DAC stadium to have a look around and happened to see the team training. I was amazed to see the number of young Cameroonians, also in their ‘B’ squad. Just goes to show that even the Slovak football league must be a major draw for these guys. Interesting stuff.

  5.   James Baxteron 30 Dec 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Very similar here with Guede and Bagayoko at Slovan, Koro Kone at Trnava and Bello at Zilina. All very fine players whose achievements will hopefully extend beyond the field of play to changing the perceptions of some of those who follow their clubs.

    Fighting racism is indeed a slow process and not a seamless one. There’ll be more setbacks yet for sure. But what you say about some fans in the CR openly detesting the racist chants is encouraging and a sign of a community that’s coming to understand that, as the old saying goes, ‘evil flourishes when good people do nothing’.

    Are those old articles of yours online anywhere? Would be good to read if so. I can just about (slowly) read in Czech.

  6.   britskibelasion 30 Dec 2010 at 7:59 pm

    If they’re not online, I’d happily post them on here!

  7.   James Baxteron 30 Dec 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Dan, wouldn’t it be good if one or two turned out to be as good as Kweuke? As good a player as I’ve seen in the Corgon Liga for sure. There was a problem at DAC last year, though, as it was discovered that one or two of their African players didn’t have legal documentation. Hopefully that won’t happen again.

  8.   britskibelasion 30 Dec 2010 at 8:35 pm

    haha I’m not surprised, would love to get the full story on that one .. where they came from, who ‘scouted’ them, what conditions they had when they were there etc etc etc .. I guess that will remain a Dunajska Streda mystery!

  9.   Michal Petrakon 30 Dec 2010 at 10:53 pm

    James: The article is not online, I could scan and send them to you by email. Dan should have my address needed for submitting comments, so write me.

  10.   Ian Cusackon 31 Dec 2010 at 1:17 am

    Brilliant article James.

    Having left Slovakia in 2001, my experiences of this subject are somewhat out of date. Perhaps it is nostalgia, perhaps it is age, but I don’t recall Tranava’s Souleyman Fall, who must have played their 7 seasons, been subjected to much racist abuse, though Puchov’s alias Lembakoali who went to Inter did suffer great abuse. I think I touch on this several times in my articles that Dan is scanning in at the moment.

  11.   James Baxteron 31 Dec 2010 at 10:55 am

    Ian, Thanks, the issue is very much there in those articles of yours as are some interesting points on the Slovakia/Hungary question. They’re very insightful articles for sure and played a part in pushing me to write this piece.

    I’ve always found racism here an important question but was nervous about taking it on, partly because of that nostalgia/age problem you mention, so it’s been good to exchange a few insights from across the borders and eras.

  12.   Sigmaon 10 Jan 2011 at 2:24 pm

    I remember watching Sigma Olomouc play in 2002 against Liberec at home. One of the Ekwueme brothers was brought on, and immediate monkey noises were made by a small group of people (around 20). They turned their back on the pitch, and eventually walked out of the stadium.

    This is something that will always stick with me. It was disgusting.

  13. [...] when England visited back in 2002 and Dan Richardson has written at length about the situation here.  Having now read the UEFA match report is it surprising to see it wasn’t mentioned at all? [...]

  14. [...] when England visited back in 2002 and James Baxter has written at length about the situation here. Having now read the UEFA match report is it surprising to see it wasn’t mentioned at all? [...]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply