Prague, Czech Republic – Central and Eastern European societies have a reputation as countries in which more or less overt racism is tolerated. With all its excesses, football is evidently not exempt from this bad image, as exemplified by the heavy punishment imposed by UEFA on Czech defender Ondrej Kudela, often misunderstood in Prague. But is the criticism justified?
Ondrej Kudela may take the secret with him to his grave. Considering the Czech international defender was careful to place his hands in front of his mouth when he approached his opponent, no one but him will probably ever know what he really said to Glen Kamara in Glasgow on March 18, during the Europa League round of 16 between the Rangers and Slavia Prague.
Did he actually whisper in his ear “You are a f***ing monkey, you know you are”, as the black Finnish defender claims? Or did he “settle”, in the heat of the moment, for a more conventional – on the football pitch – “you are a f***ing guy”, according to the version he tried to put forward in his defence to the UEFA disciplinary committee, the association that organises and manages European competitions between clubs and national teams?
UEFA did not have a definitive answer to this question either, but did issue a clear-cut opinion on the matter, as its control, ethics and discipline body sanctioned Kudela with a 10-match suspension on the grounds of “racist behaviour”. The player, whose appeal was rejected but who continues to deny the allegations, now intends to take the case to the International Court of Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Czech Republic now head into the European Championship, which opened in Rome last week, without their best stopper and with their defence axis the area in which they find themselves the most vulnerable.
Even before observers and fans learned – usually with shock – of the severity of the penalty – very rare at this level of the competition – the affair caused a stir in the Czech Republic. It was at the centre of many discussions and was the subject of all possible interpretations in the weeks that followed a match that, beyond Slavia’s qualification, will remain engraved in the memories of those who followed it live, mainly because of the aggressive behaviour of the Scottish club’s players, on the whole “footballistically” inferior and frustrated at the idea of being eliminated by a modest club from the east. Physical violence that saw Slavia goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar (also absent from this Euro when he could have claimed a starting place in the Czech goal) stretchered off the pitch with a serious head injury, preceding Kudela’s verbal reaction to Kamara’s evidently unsportsmanlike behaviour.
All Czech media were interested in a scandal that quickly went beyond the football field and turned into a more general debate on a latent problem in the Czech Republic and Central and Eastern Europe: racism. Even the respectable weekly Respekt, which is usually not very sports-oriented, devoted the front page of one of its April issues to the controversy, asking “the killer question”: “Who is (the) racist here? And, above all, “Why does the world think Czechs are racist? “
Are Czechs racist?
In the eyes of Western European countries – self-righteous and preachy, some critics in Prague would retort – the question isn’t even worth asking, as the answer seems obvious: Like their Hungarian, Polish and Slovak counterparts, were Czech politicians not among the main opponents within the European Union to the distribution of refugees between member countries at the height of the migration crisis a few years ago? Besides, how many of these migrants have they since then taken in? And then again, everyone “in the East” is more or less racist, aren’t they? Even more so when it comes to football.
In the autumn of 2019, the Czech Republic ended their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in Sofia with a match against Bulgaria in a closed-door Vasil-Levski stadium, following racist incidents that had occurred a few weeks earlier at the same venue during the reception of England. Due to the “Nazi chants and salutes” by some of the Bulgarian crowd, who also verbally attacked the black players of the Three Lions team, UEFA had already opened a procedure for “racist behaviour”, which forced the referee to interrupt the match twice.
It is true that the stadiums in ‘Eastern European countries’ are also among the last in Europe where monkey cries by fans against African players or players of African descent can still be part of the ambient “folklore” at football matches. However, the example of the interruption of the Cadiz-Valencia match in the Spanish Liga last April, after French player Mouctar Diakhaby complained of racist insults on the pitch, as well as the xenophobic outbursts that have been polluting the Italian Calcio for years, also show that stupidity is not a specificity of the “other side” – meaning the “wrong” side – of the Iron Curtain.
Just as the Slavia players stood in solidarity with their teammate Kudela, who was serving his first match suspension in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final against Arsenal in London, the Czech players will not be kneeling before the start of their Euro games. They won’t be the only ones who will have to justify themselves and explain that, even without making “this symbolic gesture that appeared abroad” – according to a Czech expert – during the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States, their commitment to the fight against racism should not be questioned.
The Scots, who were their first opponents in Glasgow on Monday, and the Croats announced that they intend to do the same and abstain, believing that politics has no place in sport. On June 9, in a warm-up match in Budapest, Hungarian fans, later supported by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, had booed the Irish team, whose players had complied with a practice that has become common on European pitches in recent months.
The Poles also remained standing when they played England at Wembley on March 31 in the World Cup qualifiers, providing a stark contrast to their opponents. “I am absolutely against such action, we have no reason to follow it,” said the legendary Zbigniew Boniek, current head of the Polish Football Association. This is just populism, because nothing follows. Some footballers are kneeling, but if you asked them why, they wouldn’t even know.” Just over two months later, at the same venue, a section of the English public proved the illustrious Polish leader right by whistling at their own players again as they knelt before the start of the warm-up matches against Austria and Romania. And while nine Romanian representatives followed their English opponents, two others chose to stand, including Nicolae Stanciu, Ondrej Kudela’s teammate at Slavia…
In Prague, some commentators were quick to point out that while Slavia was currently going through its most successful period since the Second World War and had become one of the best clubs in Central and Eastern European football, unable to compete financially – and therefore athletically – with Western Europe, it owed much of its success to its African players. Alongside the numerous Czech, Slovak and Romanian internationals, the three-time defending Czech champion’s team is also made up of Senegalese, Ivorian, Nigerian and Liberian talent.
A multicultural team, therefore, as the club’s directors often like to point out, in which the functions of captain and leader are performed by this ” f***ing guy” Ondrej Kudela, whom the British media, like UEFA, were quick to pillory. Unlike the majority opinion in the Czech Republic, which prefers to give the player with a clean record the benefit of the doubt. In other words, two visions of a story that no one will ever know the end of. Who’s racist here?
Article written by Guillaume Narguet and originally published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.