A Holocaust survivor who addressed the England football squad about his time in Auschwitz has called for a clampdown on racism at Euro 2012, which is being staged in Poland and Ukraine.
Zigi Shipper, 82, joined Ben Helfgott, 81, at a session with the players and manager Roy Hodgson at The Grove in Hertfordshire.
An Arsenal supporter, Mr Shipper was particularly keen to meet Gunners star Theo Walcott, whose family have said they will not attend England’s Euro 2012 games for fear of racist attack.
“Racism in Eastern Europe is just unbelievable,” he said. “I am an Arsenal fan and I wanted especially to speak to Theo Walcott. I put my arm round him and we hugged. I said ‘You have no idea how sorry I am for your mum and dad. I cannot imagine how I would feel if one of my grandsons would be picked to represent his country and I could not go to see the boy play. I would have gone mad.’
“Isn’t it terrible that in 2012, you are frightened to go to a country because you happen to be black? It’s a tragedy. I asked the FA why they allow it. If racist incidents happen, they should leave the competition. It’s only a game. So what?”
He had wanted the squad to appreciate what it was like to be a victim of racism. “I told them what hate and racism can do to people. You have to keep reminding these footballers that they are models. Youngsters will listen more to them than to me.”
Mr Shipper said “you could hear a pin drop” during the talk. “They were so interested. You could see tears in their eyes. I did no preparation, I spoke to them exactly the same way as I would to other young people. It affects everybody.”
The England squad will visit Auschwitz during their stay in Poland, signing its museum’s guest book before lighting a candle of remembrance on the train tracks at Birkenau.
Skipper Steven Gerrard said the meeting with survivors, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, had been “very moving and inspirational.
“To come and share their experience with us shows great bravery and character. As a footballer, you realise how lucky and privileged you are to lead the lives we are leading today. Theirs is a very interesting story and one that we’re privileged to hear.”
A DVD being produced for schools will incorporate the players’ visit and the survivors’ talk.