By Marcus Dysch
June 8, 2012
The England players who visit Auschwitz today are sure to have a moving experience.
Ever since former boss Fabio Capello decided to base the squad in Krakow for the Euro 2012 tournament, the FA has worked hard to ensure the right tone is set.
Their partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust is an impressive one. Today’s visit is not just a quick tourist stop-off for Roy Hodgson’s men; it is the first step in an educational programme that will benefit not only the players, but thousands of British schoolchildren.
When Holocaust survivors Zigi Shipper and Ben Helfgott visited the England training camp last week they had a clear impact. Goalkeeper Joe Hart has spoken of how he learnt in depth about the horrors of the Shoah for the first time. Wayne Rooney was the first to put his hand up and volunteer to join today’s trip.
The effect of meeting such remarkable men as Zigi and Ben is clear and is well established through HET’s work in schools around the country.
While some have criticised the FA’s decision – suggesting a visit to the death camp is simply England attempting to ‘do the right thing’ – it is clear that in this context, the FA have got it right.
Some worry about the effect that seeing the gas chambers and train tracks will have on footballers who need to adopt the right mind-set for next week’s opening game with France.
It is, of course, impossible to know how it will affect each of them. Avram Grant told a remarkable story last week of how, early in his managerial career, he took his Israeli club side to Auschwitz ahead of a European game against a Polish side. The visit had a bonding effect on his players and they duly hammered the Polish team and knocked them out of the competition.
It might be too much to expect a similar impact on Rooney and his colleagues, but it seems inconceivable that the England squad could spend two to three weeks in Krakow and not visit this site of such historical importance.
When the Dutch and Italian squads went to Auschwitz last week their players were, understandably, moved. Who can imagine the effect on the players after they sat with Italian Holocaust survivors on the train tracks and saw the tattoos the Nazis had inked onto their arms?
But of course there are pitfalls – Germany were criticised for sending only three senior players from their Euro 2012 squad alongside managers and officials when they made their own pilgrimage a week ago. Former striker Oliver Bierhoff then slipped up when he spoke of how the rest of the squad would have a “fireside chat” about what the delegation had seen. His choice of phrase was unfortunate rather than intentionally crass, but still.
Don’t expect a similar slip-up from England’s players today. There has been some concern over how many of the squad will go, what they should wear, how it should be reported and so on. But faced with potentially tricky decisions, David Bernstein and his FA colleagues have got this spot on.
When the players feature in the educational DVD which will follow, schoolchildren will sit up and listen. As thoroughly impressive and moving as heroes such as Mr Shipper and Mr Helfgott are, seeing Hart or Theo Walcott talk about their experience at Auschwitz will grip children and ensure that they know more about the Shoah than they did before. Then they will never forget.
It is essential that the baton of history is passed on to a new generation – and having famous role models with millions of fans and followers around the world is a smart way to do it.
It’s a very wise move by the FA and HET and one which we should all applaud.
Against the backdrop of a tournament which seems set to be dogged by racism and abuse – the Dutch squad have already reported monkey chants targeted at their players at the training ground - England football fans should, for once, be proud of the FA for making the right decision.
JC editor Stephen Pollard will be accompanying the England squad on its Auschwitz tour. Read his report here at www.thejc.com later today.