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Europe soccer tournament overshadowed by racism claims, boycott

Pawel Ulatowski / Reuters

Netherlands soccer players attend a training session during the Euro 2012 at Wisla stadium in Krakow on Wednesday.

Europe's biggest soccer tournament is being overshadowed by a boycott by Western European officials over alleged human rights abuses, and by widespread concerns about racist taunts by home crowds in Ukraine and Poland, co-hosts of the event.

On Friday, just hours before the first game of the Euro 2012 tournament, European soccer governing body UEFA said in a statement that it had been informed of "isolated incidents of racist chanting" at the Netherlands team training session earlier in the week, further tarnishing the tournament.

Dutch players heard monkey chants from some people among a crowd of 25,000 at a training session at Wisla Krakow's stadium in Poland on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Netherlands team said.

ProSoccerTalk: The teams competing in the European Championships

The training session came only hours after the team -- for decades a reflection of the multicultural makeup of the nation -- had made solemn and emotional visits to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps close to Krakow. 

"Some players did hear some monkey noises. That is why they moved to the other side of the pitch," the team spokeswoman said Friday.

A recent British television documentary, entitled "Stadiums of Hate," fueled concerns about fans' behavior at club matches. The program was shown in Poland earlier this week and the issue dominated questions at the first news conference of UEFA President Michel Platini at the tournament.

Platini promised that referees will stop matches if players suffer racist abuse. But he also warned players they would be shown a yellow card if they acted alone by walking off the field.

Euro 2012 scoreboard

"UEFA has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to discriminatory behavior and has given the power to referees to stop matches in case of any repeated racist behavior," UEFA said Friday. 

Concerns over 'rule of law' in Ukraine
The controversy over racism during the tournament came as the U.K. joined a growing boycott by Western European officials over the jailing of leading Ukrainian opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko, which many believe was politically motivated.

The British Foreign Office confirmed to msnbc.com on Friday that there would be no official British presence at England's three group-stage games, making it the latest in a string of countries to say it would not attend the tournament in protest of Ukraine's treatment of Tymoshenko.

"No ministers will be attending group games at Euro 2012. We are keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament under review in the light of ministers' busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Several other European nations have already announced they will not be sending official representatives to the games, including France and Germany, which both also cited Ukraine's treatment of Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year jail term on charges of abuse of office, condemned as politically motivated by the West. Allegations she was beaten by prison officials prompted top EU officials to announce a boycott of championship games hosted in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yanukovich still hopes the tournament will show the world how far Ukraine has come since it broke free of the Soviet Union in 1991 but the risk of it backfiring after a deluge of bad publicity is increasing. 

ProSoccerTalk: Racism, politics at Euro 2012; problems that won't go away

"Europe 2012 has provided a unique opportunity to present our country to the world and to achieve European standards, not only in organizing the tournament but in the life of our citizens," said Deputy Prime Minister Borys Kolesnikov.

"If Ukraine does not cope well with the organization of the tournament and show it's a hospitable host, it will reflect on its reputation," said Kolesnikov, who was in charge of preparations for the finals.

The month-long tournament was starting in Poland on Friday and the final will be held in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on July 1. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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