James Lawton: Racism, fear and loathing in glorious Kiev ahead of Euro 2012

Metal fences and police in riot gear fill the streets of Ukraine's ancient capital on the eve of a supposed football festival

Kiev

Even on a day of oppressive heat and traffic gridlock it is impossible not to be touched by the beauties and grandeur of this troubled but still ravishing place. As they play the second biggest international football tournament over the next few weeks, with the final of Euro 2012 here in Kiev on 1 July, it is hard to imagine a more inspiring setting for the crowning of European champions than this 1,500-year-old city built on a hilltop designed for the sturdiest defence.

The blue walls and golden dome of the medieval monastery of St Michael look as if they have been freshly painted against the background of an almost cloudless sky and if you tire of such man-made spectacle there is the Dnieper River, a wide natural wonder as it flows below so many soaring tributes to a nation's warriors and poets and the idea, if not the perfect execution, of freedom.

It is, however, a great and sobering shame about the big cage that has gone up on Kreshchatyk Boulevard.

The street, destroyed by the Red Army retreating before the Wehrmacht in 1941, runs into Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – but for the next few weeks it will be at the very heartbeat of another kind of drama.

Maybe there is something banal, when you think of all the desperate battles of the past, about the new designation of Kreshchatyk as No 1 Fan Zone of a football competition but this hardly deflects from the sense of rising tension when you walk down into swelling knots of police and security troops and a lattice-work of barriers defining the no-go areas.

The cage which has closed off the hub of the city underground system has a particularly sombre look.

"It is not what you expect to see at a time of celebration," says one citizen, "but we have to be honest, there is a problem. We have been portrayed as racists, and this is terrible for our image as we try to get closer to the rest of Europe.

"If the government wasn't worried about this before, and the police weren't doing much to stamp out hooliganism at the matches, anyone can see it is not the case now."

This not the daily briefing from the office of President Viktor Yanukovych, who insists that the furore whipped up by the BBC Panorama "Stadiums of Hate" edition exaggerated grossly the problem of the Nazi-saluting thugs who routinely attack ethnic minorities, carry bananas to games for throwing purposes and make monkey chants at the first appearance of a black player.

There was, however, not much complacency on Kreshchatyk yesterday. Police were on every corner, eyeing the first customers as they took in the lay of the terrain.

The evidence of police vigilance, so absent when Panorama gained its stomach-churning footage of young, Ukraine-based Asian fans being charged and systematically beaten – and which provoked former England defender Sol Campbell into his warning to supporters to stay home rather than risk returning in coffins – is the clearest evidence that at a very late hour Ukraine is confronting some of the darker aspects of its past and, at least potentially, its present.

Flying into Kiev, via Amsterdam, it was interesting to note that nearly half the plane was filled by a detachment of crack Dutch riot police. One of them said: "We will be monitoring the Dutch fans because there is always the chance of trouble at such a big tournament – but yes, of course, there are other factors this time."

Some here are not quite as reluctant as President Yanukovych to admit that what was supposed to be a shining gift from Uefa president Michel Platini, who helped steer the tournament to joint hosts Ukraine and Poland, has a potential for national disaster – or at the very least a significant setback in the attempts of both nations to improve their profiles in Europe.

Even last year's drop in racist crimes is given a damning slant by Charles Astante-Yeboa of Kiev's African Centre. He says it is a result of an increase in precautionary measures rather than in any dip in hostility towards non-white immigrants. "The situation has not improved," he added. "People are avoiding places where attacks happened." Some of the worst of them, he reports, occurred in the area of an old market near the Shulyavka metro station, where several Nigerian street vendors were murdered.

Yana Salahova, of the International Organisation for Migration, comments dryly: "We do not have a culture of reporting crimes." Another problem, he told the English-language Kiev Post, was that the police simply do not take such cases seriously. They just fall off the margins of political or public concern – at least until now.

Some claim Poland has even deeper problems in relation to systematic, racist-based football hooliganism, citing, for example, the banner unfurled by Legia Warsaw fans during a European tie with Hapoel Tel Aviv. "Jihad – Legia" it proclaimed.

Such are the sickening possibilities now exercising the Ukraine and Polish authorities with new levels of urgency. Their greatest hope is that the worst of the behaviour will stay within the confines of club football in both countries. They might even plead for a little understanding from those who had to fight so long in England, and the Netherlands, to stifle and drive away the worst of the behaviour of their fans, not least in foreign grounds.

The English brand was, of course, relentlessly exported – most sickeningly perhaps, in the 1998 World Cup in France, when for several days the worst of the English fans laid siege to the old port district of Marseille before a game with Tunisia. There seemed no end to the problem then, with an exasperated Football Association secretary Graham Kelly replying darkly to the leading question which asked whether the only solution might be summary execution. He said it had to be a possibility.

Twenty-four years earlier in Rotterdam, the Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson took to the public address system at half-time when rioting Spurs fans created incidents which led to 200 casualties. "You people," shouted Nicholson, "make me ashamed to be an Englishman."

This particular beast has, of course, vanished or at least lain dormant for some time now, but on the streets of Kiev yesterday there was at least an unwelcome hint of déjà vu.

It came with the high police presence, the sense of a city on its guard, and you could not help remembering how many times you had been here before. How many times you worried that something which was supposed to be a great festival of sport would be ambushed and defaced.

It happened in so many places and now there is the fear that it will take another form, one surfacing from some of the worst legacies of modern history.

That concern was palpable enough in the sunshine and amid the breath-taking statuary, including those of the Archangel Michael and the old Cossack warrior Bogdan Khmelnitsky. It came with every passing police van and each new piece of cage-work. Then the sun went in and a thunderstorm broke across the city. At least it brought some freshness to the air.

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