England fans in Ukraine will send blogs and images to ITV News everyday throughout the team's participation in the Euro 2012 Championships. Here, Mark Perryman, a member of the LondonEnglandFans supporters' group, talks about the perceived racism fears facing players and fans.
Over the past week or so, the coverage of Euro 2012 hosts Ukraine and Poland has been overwhelmingly negative. Much of the reporting has been sensationalist, going so far in one instance warning that England fans who travel to the Ukraine would be risking their lives.
First some background. Ahead of the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000, the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup there was an entirely different build-up.
This was almost entirely concerned with the risk that us England fans posed to the tournament in terms of hooliganism. Much of this was overstated, the actions of a minority allowed to paint a picture of the majority.
However at the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004 and the World Cup two years later, there was virtually no trouble involving England fans. Instead we were widely reported as joining in the party, travelling in huge numbers and singled out for praise because of the fan-friendly initiatives we were involved in.
Ahead of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, the agenda suddenly changed. The build-up became all about the risks we faced instead of the supposed risk we posed. Bloodcurdling tales of the likelihood of robbery, carjacking and worse.
This was despite South Africa having recently hosted the rugby and cricket world cups with next to no incidents of this sort, nor for the 35,000 who followed the 2009 British Lions tour to South Africa either.
The reality? After an extremely well-policed tournament, virtually no incidents of those sort took place. In fact South Africa had the lowest crime rate of any World Cup and fans, despite England’s pitiful performance on the pitch, came home with tales of a trip of a lifetime.
All the horror predictions had been proved to be grossly incorrect.
Now we face something similar with Ukraine. Not a single report I’ve read has mentioned England played in Ukraine in October 2009 with no racist incidents. I can remember chatting at the end of the game with fellow England fan, Yassir Sidique, about what a great trip this had been.
Nor have any of these reports mentioned the fact that in recent seasons Arsenal, Spurs, Man City, Everton and Fulham have all played in Ukraine in European club competitions. Unlike the England game I wasn’t at these matches, but as far as I know no racist incidents were reported.
The group I am involved with, LondonEnglandFans, has since January been holding fan forums with Ukrainians. The issues of racism and hooliganism have come up, of course. But we’ve had the good sense to put this in context.
Last Thursday at our final forum we were joined by Ukrainian football writer Yuri Bender, the Ukrainian Media Service's Bohdan Tsioupine and Ukrainian journalist Svitlana Pyrlako. We wanted to hear their side of the story and their reaction to the coverage.
Unsurprisingly they were very angry with the way their country is being misrepresented. They didn’t pretend racism didn’t exist in Ukraine, or that hooliganism can be a significant problem in football over there either. But is this any way to portray their nation and culture?
They were visibly surprised when we made it very clear that as England fans we rejected the coverage. The forum was filmed by two of Ukraine’s main TV stations; we hope our message will reach many in Ukraine too.
When we met the Ukrainians we made it clear that we are absolutely opposed to racism. If abuse or worse is directed at our players or fans, we will be the first to complain. They understood this and agreed.
At the same time as England fans we have worked toward a situation where we are treated on the basis of our own behaviour not on the basis of a reputation that others have stuck on us. It is all we can ask for, and the same principle should be fairly applied to others.
And we finished the forum with two practical initiatives too. Ukrainian Oleysa Kromeychuk patiently taught us some useful Ukrainian phrases. The useful ones: hello, please, how much is a pint of beer, what is the way to the stadium and the very popular ‘No, I don’t need a Ukrainian Bride.’
We’d done something similar before summer tournaments in Japan, Portugal and Germany. The effort of learning a few such phrases pays off a hundred-fold with the goodwill it produces from our hosts. And finally, thanks to the British Ukrainian Society, free Ukrainian beer - the most effective tool in public diplomacy yet to be invented.
- Mark Perryman is a member of the LondonEnglandFans supporters' group and the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation. His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.