Europe

Has a football scandal exposed endemic racism in the Czech Republic?

Last week, Czech champions Slavia Prague qualified for the quarter-finals of the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier tournament, after beating Scottish side Glasgow Rangers.

But near the end of a heated game, in which several of Slavia’s players were on the end of dangerous tackles by Rangers players, Prague’s Ondrej Kudela was seen cupping his hand and whispering something into the ear of Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara, a Finnish national of Sierra Leonean descent.

Kamara reacted angrily and complained to the referee, while a Rangers teammate can be heard shouting that Ondrej called him a “monkey”. Kamara later alleged that he was called a “f**king monkey”. Kudela denied this, asserting that he only called his opponent a “f**king guy”.

Slavia Prague stuck by their player and denied the allegations, and said they also filed a police complaint against Kamara for allegedly punching Kudela after the game had ended. Because the game was played in Glasgow, Scottish police are currently investigating the alleged racist incident.

“We believe everything will be investigated and we will respect the decision. If the outcome warrants it, we will act,” Slavia Prague said in a statement on Monday. “We hope that the situation will not escalate further and we will know the outcome of the investigation soon.”

The day after the game, a group of Slavia “ultras” posted a photo on social media holding up a banner that read: “Kamara: Just a N*****”. Slavia’s administration quickly issued a statement abhorring the hooligans’ message. Club chairman Jaroslav Tvrdik called it “absolutely disgusting, embarrassing, racist.” But it only added to calls for Slavia Prague to be kicked out of the Europa League because of the alleged racist incident, with the hashtag “#banslavia” trending on social networks.

How was the row reported in the Czech Republic?

According to Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague, coverage by the Czech media has focused on the word “alleged”, while bemoaning the fact not enough attention has been paid to the violent conduct of Rangers players throughout the game.

The prevailing interpretation amongst the Czech media, Dvorakova said, is that the brutal play of Rangers provoked the Czech player into lashing out at Kudela but his words “probably were not racist”. The incident, however, hasn’t sparked a “deep discussion” about racism in Czech society, she added.

Czech football’s long-running problems with racism have dented the sport’s image in the country.

At the beginning of the 2019/20 season, Slavia Prague were forced by the Czech Football Association to close one stand of their stadium as punishment for their fans throwing bananas at a player from city rivals Sparta Prague.

Months later, Sparta Prague themselves were fined $160,000 (€135,000) after their fans made monkey chants against a black player of Viktoria Plzen, after which several Sparta players boycotted the team’s traditional post-match celebrations with the crowd.

Also last June, Sigma Olomouc, another premier division Czech team, were fined by the Czech FA after their fans racially abused Viktoria Plzen striker Jean-David Beauguel, who told the media after the incident that racism directed at black players in the Czech Republic has become “normal”.

Football matches in the Czech Republic were sparsely attended when spectators were allowed to watch matches in the stadium. Slavia Prague, the country’s richest and the usual champions each year, had an average attendance of 10,851 in the 2019-20 season despite its Sinobo Stadium holding up to almost 20,000. Most clubs had around 20-30% attendance.

In part, this is due to widespread hostility towards corruption in the game. Vice president of the Czech FA, Roman Berbr, was amongst dozens of officials arrested last October as part of a police investigation into match-fixing. But many fans stay away from games because of the “ultra” hooligan groups, most of which have ties to the country’s far-right groups, says Michal, a supporter of Sigma Olomouc who didn’t want his surname mentioned for fear of abuse on social media.

Does the Czech Republic have a racism problem?

Miroslav Mares, an expert on extremism at Brno’s Masaryk University, said that racism in the Czech Republic hasn’t worsened in recent years but remains “relatively high.” A Pew Research Centre survey from 2019 found that 64% of Czechs have unfavourable views of Muslims, the third-highest in Europe, and 66% held unfavourable views of the Roma, arguably the most discriminated racial groups in the country.

The Czech Republic has not followed neighbouring Slovakia in physically building walls in some towns to separate Roma communities from the rest of the population, nor the Bulgarian government which proposed a law in 2018 to created forced “labour education schools” for Roma children as well as “reservations” for the Roma which could be used as “tourist attractions”.

But an EU study from 2016 found that 10% of Romani students in the Czech Republic attend segregated schools, where their only classmates are also Romani, and 51% of Romani aged 16-24 neither in employment nor education. Czech politicians are still debating whether to compensate hundreds of Romani women who were unknowingly sterilised under the old socialist system, though the practice continued after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the government only formally apologised in 2009.

Dvorakova, of the Czech Technical University, noted that in the fairly homogeneous Czech Republic many people rarely meet someone from another race, with an exception being the Vietnamese, one of the country’s largest migrant groups, who are “mostly accepted” in Czech society. She added that the views of certain politicians mean that many in society don’t take verbal racist attacks seriously nor “suppose them to be important”.

Anti-Roma rhetoric extends to BLM

The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) is the third-largest opposition party in parliament. Czech President Milos Zeman, an illiberal populist, sparked controversy last year after stating that “the slogan Black Lives Matter is racist” but he is better known for his diatribes against the country’s Roma population,

Zeman has said that 90% of Romani – who make up less than 1% of the Czech population, according to the last census – are “inadaptable citizens”. Just before the 2018 presidential election, which he won, Zeman lauded the way the communist-era government forced Roma to perform menial tasks and imprisoned them if they refused. If a Romani didn’t work, he said, “they slapped him around. It’s a very humane method that worked most of the time”.

“The problem is that many Czechs with real racist views do not accept that they are racists,” said Mares, of Brno’s Masaryk University.

But whether the alleged racist abuse during the Slavia-Rangers game last week should have any bearing on the country as a whole has been another talking point of the Czech media.

Pots, kettles, and the UK media

Parts of the media have decried British newspapers for allegedly depicting racism as a specific, Eastern European phenomenon, while not acknowledging the UK’s own problems with racism in football over the past 12 months. Some commentaries have asserted there is a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern societies in how racism is accepted or not accepted, Dvorakova said.

An article on Monday in Dnes, one of the country’s largest newspapers, argued Rangers could not stand being beaten by a team “from the East” while lambasting the fact that the alleged racist incident dominated the headlines rather than praise for a Czech side progressing through the Europa League.

With the Scottish police and UEFA, Europe’s governing body for football, now investigating the alleged racist incident, it is not yet known whether any action will be taken against Slavia Prague, which was drawn to play England’s Arsenal in the next round of the competition.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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