WARSAW (Reuters) - When John Godson first arrived in Poland from Nigeria 20 years ago, he was spat on in the street and, like many African immigrants at the time, beaten up simply for being black.
Now a member of parliament, Godson says his fellow Poles have changed for the better and complains some media reports in the run-up to the Euro 2012 soccer championships, which start on Friday, may mislead visiting fans into fearing rampant racism.
He dismissed as “one-sided” a British TV film documenting racist and anti-Semitic abuse and violence at stadiums in co-hosts Poland and Ukraine which received far more coverage in Poland, most of it hostile or defensive, than it had in Britain.
“I was really saddened,” Godson told Reuters. “It ... does not reflect my own experience,” he added, arguing the BBC had failed to reflect progress against intolerance that Poland has made since it emerged in 1990 from a half century of repressive domination by first Nazi Germany and then Soviet Communists.
“It is not that people are racist, they simply have not been exposed to other cultures,” said Godson, a university teacher who is among just a couple of thousand Poles of African descent.
“As Poles get to know other people, this is getting steadily better, although we still have some way to go.”
Racist abuse by Polish crowds has been a concern for black players and for Euro 2012 tournament organizers. Michel Platini, head of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, said on Wednesday referees could halt matches if it occurred, though he questioned whether there was more racism in Poland than his native France.
Less familiar at west European stadiums are the anti-Semitic chanting and displays by far-right groups which organizations like the Warsaw-based East Europe Monitoring Centre say are also common in Poland and which Godson said needed tackling.
”Anti-Semitism is still a problem,“ he said. ”There are jokes about Jews. It not an institutionalized thing but it is something that is definitely present in our society.
“We have clearly not done enough in analyzing what we see happening in the stadiums.”
Home to more than three million Jews on the eve of World War Two and the Holocaust largely perpetrated on Polish soil, Poland now has a Jewish community numbering in the thousands. Both its postwar Communist rulers and Roman Catholic clergy who opposed them faced accusations of encouraging anti-Semitic sentiment.
Today, the word “Jew” is still heard as a term of abuse by non-Jewish Poles against each other, not only in stadiums.
The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, which has praised efforts by democratic Polish leaders, found in a survey this year of European countries that nearly half of Poles still held anti-Semitic views - fewer than in Hungary or Spain, but double or more the level it recorded in Germany, France or Britain.
The furious response from officials to last week’s BBC documentary about its soccer hooligans was indicative of how sensitive Poland is to any blemish on its image as a thriving, open society within the European Union, an image that hosting Euro 2012 is meant to enhance.
Anxious to protect the benefits in tourism, trade and international prestige that spending 20 billion euros ($25 billion) on stadiums, transport and other infrastructure might bring, Poland’s government is also anxious to clamp down not just on verbal abuse but violence around soccer.
A year ago, pitched battles that drew in not just fans and police but also players and journalists marred the national cup final and prompted Prime Minister Donald Tusk to promise a clampdown during his successful parliamentary election campaign.
Police have arrested suspected ringleaders among hard-core supporters groups and have invested in an already heavily armed riot squad. Ticket prices that are high by local standards may keep some Polish hooligans out of the stadiums. But the presence of rival foreign fans around the games could mean trouble.
Next week, the national team plays a first-round match against historic adversary Russia, a tie that Wojciech Wisniewski, a prominent member of the fan club for leading Polish team Legia Warsaw, sees as a flashpoint: “The Russians are loud, they are provocative,” he said. “It depends how the authorities approach it, but it is definitely a problem.”
Many see the roots of soccer violence and the xenophobia that goes with it in Poland’s relative poverty compared to its western EU neighbors. Despite resisting the global economic downturn better than most - it is the only EU state to record consistent growth since 2008 - Poland remains the bloc’s fifth poorest. Per capita annual income is less than 10,000 euros.
”In the West, the dominant reaction to the economic crisis is a turn to the left, as we are seeing for example in Greece,“ said Michal Bilewicz, who studies prejudice at Warsaw University. ”In Poland or Hungary, our way of dealing with material hardship is to blame someone ‘foreign’.
“For this reason the right is gaining support and the left is struggling to reach voters.”
Godson, however, points to reasons for hope in his election to parliament last year in Lodz - a city where most people rarely see a non-European face and where the intense rivalry between fans of the two main soccer clubs is famously marked by anti-Semitic taunts, even though few Jews now live there.
“Race was not an issue in my election,” Godson said.
“People voted for me because I was a good councilor and they could see that I had a strong community conscience and was prepared to help people,” he added.
“Poland is a very friendly, hospitable place. I feel more at home here than I do in the West.” ($1 = 0.8001 euros)
Additional reporting by Adrian Krajewski, Anna Rychert and Chris Borowski; Editing by Alastair Macdonald