Growing up as a soccer-loving schoolboy in Nigeria, Emmanuel Olisadebe was unaware of racism until he signed a professional contract in Poland. The country’s co-hosting of the European Championship serves as a reminder.
Olisadebe, 34, arrived in Warsaw as an unproven talent from Nigeria’s youth squad. He was fast-tracked for citizenship to become the first black player to represent Poland and scored eight goals to help it qualify for the 2002 World Cup, the team’s first global championship appearance in 16 years.
Before being lauded for his goalscoring, Olisadebe said he was regularly abused by fans and even teammates because of his skin color. The issue is back on the agenda as Poland co-hosts Euro 2012 with Ukraine. Netherlands captain Mark Van Bommel said that black players were subjected to racial taunts at the team’s June 6 open training session in Krakow, prompting tournament organizer UEFA to call on local authorities to increase police presence at such events to prevent a repeat.
“We don’t have this education about such things, not too many of us are aware of racism in general,” Olisadebe said in an interview in Warsaw. “So when you come here and see different people you believe they love you in the way you love them. But as time goes on you realize it’s different.”
According to players’ union FIFPro, Russian supporters aimed racist insults at Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie, the team’s only black player, during the June 8 game between the Czechs and Russia in Wroclaw. Two days later in Gdansk, Italy striker Mario Balotelli was abused by fans of the Spanish national team, the Daily Mirror reported.
European soccer ruling body UEFA said in an e-mail it is investigating whether there was alleged racing chanting at the games after receiving “new independent information.”
“Everybody is upset about individual cases,” Beata Stelmach, Poland’s deputy foreign affairs minister, said in an interview. “There are only a few people. But having this opportunity that we have an international event, we should talk about this problem worldwide.”
Poland’s population of 38 million is 94 percent ethnically Polish, according to its central statistics office. The majority of the rest are German, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Lithuanian. While Olisadebe was among the country’s black soccer pioneers, 130 Africans are now contracted to Polish professional teams, said Piara Powar, executive director of the Football Against Racism in Europe network.
Bananas From Stands
Olisadebe married a Polish woman during his four-year spell with Polonia Warsaw. He joined Greek club Panathinaikos in 2001 and remains in Greece playing for Veria, which last season won promotion to the country’s elite league.
Memories of bananas raining down on him from the stands and monkey noises being directed his way still linger, he said.
“At first you feel it’s sad, really sad,” Olisadebe said. “Sad like, ‘why do they feel they are different from me?’ It’s not only that you feel ‘I’m different from you’, but you feel ‘I’m less than you.’ It’s difficult to explain in words.”
Justin Nnorom, another Nigerian player who moved to Poland at the same time as Olisadebe, said family and friends in Africa had no idea where the duo were moving.
“We’d tell people we’re coming to Poland. ‘Holland?’ they’d say,” Nnorom, 35, said in an interview. “Both of us coming to Poland, and Emmanuel playing for the national team -- now when you say Poland nobody is surprised.”
After Olisadebe helped Polonia Warsaw win its second league championship, then-national team coach Jerzy Engel pushed for the striker to be granted Polish citizenship.
The move wasn’t universally welcomed, said Olisadebe, with some fans and fellow players opposed to having a Nigeria-born player in their ranks. The protests subsided when Olisadebe started scoring, including the second goal in a 3-0 home victory over Norway that secured Poland’s spot at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
“That helped us,” Olisadebe said. “They were like ‘let this one go through.’ It’s all been love since then.”
While a May 28 British Broadcasting Corp. documentary showed racism and anti-Semitic behavior by fans in some stadiums in Poland and Ukraine, Olisadebe said the situation has improved from his playing days and he wouldn’t discourage Africans from joining Polish teams.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said. “They’ll abuse you, but at the end of the day you know what you want and you work towards it. There are other obstacles along the way other than racism. Racism is just one part of it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Tariq Panja in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at email@example.com