Nov.4 Kiev — Instead of being one of the biggest sports events of the year in troubled Ukraine, Dynamo Kiev’s game against Chelsea in the Champions League turned into a public display of the country’s struggle to contain violent racists.
Echoing past decades of European football violence, at least eight people were brutally beaten at the game, including a 21-year-old African student.
While clashes between rival fans are comparatively common at Ukrainian league games, racist attacks on such a large scale are rare. This comes at a time when the country’s small black population is under pressure.
«Around the 25th minute, I started to take photographs on my phone,» the student told The Associated Press. «When I picked up the phone to look at the photographs I’d taken, I was hit. I fell down some stairs and felt almost as if I had lost consciousness.»
The Congolese student, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, spent almost a week in hospital with a head wound and injuries to his nose which required surgery. A keen football fan who attended games in his previous home in a provincial Ukrainian city, he now says he cannot face going to the stadium again.
«For me, if I go to a game another time, it would be as if I didn’t get the hint,» he says.
UEFA sent its security chief Mark Timmer to Kiev on Monday, where he criticized Ukrainian officials over the behavior of security personnel at the game and the federation’s outdated safety procedures, according to an account of the meeting posted by the Ukrainian Football Federation, whose executive director Volodymyr Heninson said the case was Ukrainian football’s «last yellow card» before serious sanctions.
It is far from Ukraine’s first case of football racism. In March, UEFA punished Dynamo with a fine and partial stadium closure over racist fan behavior in a game against Everton, while FIFA punished the Ukrainian national team in 2013 over racist chanting at a World Cup qualifier against San Marino.»
When Ukraine hosted the 2012 European championship with Poland, fears of racist attacks largely failed to materialize, but now, with Ukraine in political and economic turmoil, far-right hooligan groups are gaining prominence.
Over the course of approximately 15 minutes in the first half of Dynamo Kiev’s Champions League game against Chelsea on October 20, hooligans launched a wave of attacks in one corner of the Olympic stadium.
Most of the victims were black, while three were white, some attacked after trying to protect black victims. There is no evidence that the victims had been supporting Chelsea.
Their attackers hunted in packs, sending some members around to cut off their victims’ escape route, says Mykhaylo Smolovoy, a Ukrainian fan who witnessed the attacks.
«It reminded me of when you watch Discovery sometimes, or National Geographic, and tigers are chasing a gazelle,» he told the Associated Press. During one beating, he said he heard shouts of «white power.»
In one incident, captured on video by Ukrainian TV, a group of around five young men appear to launch a vicious beating on an unidentified white man, one stabbing repeatedly downwards with a wooden crutch. As this goes on, one of the attackers spots a young black man several rows away and leaves the fray to chase after him.
Anti-discrimination group Fare, which sends observers to monitor racism at major European games, captured video of four black men being chased through the crowd. They try to escape but some are caught and beaten, as are white men who try to assist them. Stadium security does not intervene.
Such videos have become evidence in an investigation by European football’s governing body, which could force Dynamo to play future home games in an empty stadium or deduct points from the team.
The club has been charged with fan racism and crowd disturbances, offenses which typically lead to a UEFA judgment within days, but in a rare step, UEFA appointed an inspector for a more detailed investigation.
All of the assaults took place in areas close to the stadium’s sector 21, which was occupied by members of the Rodychi group of hardcore Dynamo fans, who sit separately from other «ultras» fan groups after rumors of a dispute between them.
Rodychi — the name can be translated as «the family» or «the tribe» — maintains an active presence on social media pages featuring nationalist symbols, martial arts videos and a statement of support for two men suspected of murdering a pro-Russian journalist in Kiev. There are also statements suggesting some members have received military training and fought on the Ukrainian government side of the conflict against Russian-backed rebels.
A statement published on Rodychi’s pages denies the group was involved in the attacks during the Chelsea game and says it does not believe there was any racist motivation. «It’s a shame there has been a rush to blame racism from Dynamo fans for this drunken chaos, which happens every time at European cup games,» the statement says.
After video of the attacks first appeared, Dynamo’s vice-president Alexei Semenenko suggested to Ukrainian media that the attacks were an attempt to smear Dynamo, with black fans brought to the stadium to provoke Dynamo supporters. After the UEFA investigation began, Sememenko and Dynamo did not respond to requests for comments.
Ukraine has only a small black population, many of them students attracted by the relatively low cost of higher education. They face a struggle to integrate due to language barriers, and there are signs that hostility from nationalists is increasing at a time of conflict in Ukraine.
«This year, we have more dangerous signs,» said Yana Salakhova of the Kiev-based Diversity Initiative, which helps migrants. «In general, in Ukraine now we have more conflict and violence. Some groups see it as an instrument to pursue their issues.»
Kiev police are carrying out a criminal inquiry into the stadium attacks under the criminal offense of hooliganism, which carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.