|Chelsea's John Terry reacts after Arsenal had scored their fifth goal during their English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge in London, October 29, 2011. (REUTERS/Eddie Keogh)
It is a pretty and extremely plausible thought that Spain, one of the greatest teams in the history of international soccer, will complete a magnificent four-year-old cycle of success by retaining the European Championship title in Kiev on the first day of July.
The worry, though, is quite how much ugliness will precede such an historic feat.
It is concern that has grown steadily in recent days with the decision of a second family of a black player in the England squad to cancel their travel plans in the wake of warnings from the British Foreign Office that certain groups should be wary in the Ukraine, co-hosts with Poland and the location of the team’s three group games.
First the father of Arsenal star Theo Walcott announced that he would be watching his son on television rather than in the flesh.
“It appears just too risky,” he said after cancelling the bookings for himself and family members.
This was soon followed by a similar statement from the father of Walcott’s Arsenal teammate, the highly promising teenaged midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
“It’s a matter of concern. I think your safety is more important than a game of football. There have been reports over the last couple of weeks of racist taunts and threats. It’s just prudent to keep away,” Mark Chamberlain said.
The fear is that racial minorities — and gays — will be targeted by some of the more abrasive, and violent, elements in the streets and at the stadia.
Racism is not so much the elephant in the soccer room as an insidious, lurking menace. Eastern Europe down the years has been notorious for the “monkey” chants which greet the appearance of black players who regularly report incidents of racist abuse — and then are aghast at the piffling penalties inflicted by the football authorities.
One of the worst cases involved former England striker Emile Heskey, who ran a terrible gauntlet on a bitterly cold night in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.
Even, the Spanish authors of the latest most beautiful version of the world game have been touched by the problem. Their head coach, the conspicuously decent Marques Del Bosque — plain Senor Vicente Del Bosque of Salamanca before being ennobled for guiding his nation to their first World Cup success in South Africa in 2010 — was recently required to defend his midfield player Sergio Busquets of Barcelona.
Busquets denied that he had called Real Madrid full back Marcelo a monkey and Del Bosque said, “He would never use that word in a racist way. He is a good guy — the kind of player who would sacrifice himself for his colleagues.”
Unfortunately not everyone in the Spanish game has the kind of impeccable record owned by Del Bosque.
His predecessor, the crusty Luis Aragones — who led Spain to their first major tournament win in Vienna in the 2008 European Championships final against Germany — had to weather controversy after describing the then Arsenal and France luminary Thierry Henry a “black shit.”
Aragones was talking to Henry’s Arsenal teammate and member of the Spanish team, Juan Antonio Reyes, and his remarks were picked up by a television crew.
Many though that Aragones’ job might be in peril, but the Spanish soccer authorities only acted after being prodded by their government, who were at the time quite keen for Madrid to land the 2012 Olympics. The punishment was derisory, a fine that could be met by a day’s wages.
Around that time England played an exhibition game in Madrid and two of their black players, Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips received a torrent of abuse from the terraces of the Bernabeu stadium.
Whatever else they get wrong, the English FA take a rather stronger stand on the issue. Much of the last domestic season was dominated by the controversy surrounding allegations that Liverpool’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra — a charge that led to Suarez receiving an eight-match ban. The English FA have also stripped Chelsea’s John Terry of the England captaincy while he awaits trial for allegedly racially abusing Queen’s Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand.
The FA action provoked England coach Fabio Capelloís resignation — a development that meant that the national team only began its preparation for the coming Euro tournament under new coach Roy Hodgson a few days ago.
Spain are plainly miles ahead in the matter of honing tactics, if not in helping to clean up the ugliest aspect of a game they have done so much to beautify.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK