Never shut up!

Sitting in his flat, in a humdrum suburb of Bucharest, the quiet voice of Valeriu Niciolae is almost drowned out by the noise of the traffic outside. But the story he has to tell has a loud and powerful impact, nonetheless.

"I'm a gypsy," he said. "When I was at high school here in Romania I had a horrie teacher. This guy made me stand in the front of the basketball team and he said to everyone else, come and smell what a stinking gypsy smells like."

The shaven headed, 37-year-old campaigner allows himself a sad smile.

"As a Roma, I am used to this. When I was eight years old, we moved somewhere different and I didn't even know the word gypsy. But then I got the first prize at my new school and everyone was jealous: they turned on me and called me 'smelly gypsy' or 'dirty crow'."

Many of the estimated one million Roma in Romania (and at least six million who are half-Roma) can tell plenty of similar stories. Anti-gypsy prejudice is a problem right across Eastern Europe.

The difference with Niciolae's situation is that he is highly intelligent, quietly self confident, and possessed of a definite moral authority: and he is also, as he puts it, "a gypsy who won't shut up," especially when he feels he is being discriminated against.

When he was 19, he went to Britain to learn English. He was so poor he could barely afford to eat but he loved the freedom and tolerance of London. From there he went to Loyola University in Chicago, where he was taught by the great thinker, Edward Said.

'The last acceptable discrimination in Europe'
"Said told me that anti-gypsy prejudice is the last acceptable discrimination in Europe. Because we Roma do not have a country, we have no one to stand up for us, the way Hungary defends the Hungarian minority here in Romania. We Roma have been sold and bought like cattle for 500 years. Our language is still repressed."

His eyes are alive with determination. It's no surprise that to learn that when Niciolae came back to Romania, after his education, he chose to fight prejudice against his people. What is maybe surprising is that he chose to do this through football.

"It all started when I took some photos at a match between Dinamo Bucharest and Rapid, a few years ago. There was a 60-metre-wide banner, raised by 2,000 people, and it said 'Die Gypsies'. Can you imagine that? Over 2,000 people holding a banner saying: 'Die Gypsies'?"

Most editors would kill for such an incendiary story. Yet not one Romanian newspaper would publish Niciolae's pictures. Editors were equally disinterested in Niciolae's eye-witness reports of the racism at the game.

Niciolae sighs. "The editors were outraged, but not by the racism. They seemed insulted by my report. They said: 'This cannot be right, we Romanians are kind people. We are not racists.'"

Stymied by this denial, Niciolae took his case further afield. In 2004 he was invited to a conference by the European Commission, where he did a presentation on anti-Roma racism in Romanian football. The EC was shocked, and invited Niciolae to attend the kick-off at a very important game, a Champions League face-off between Arsenal and Bayern Munich. Niciolae was advised to wear a suit: he turned up in great big sweatshirt with Stop Racism stamped across the front.

He was getting more attention. But things came to a real head when he went to a Steua Bucharest match in 2005.

The final straw
"I heard all these monkey chants, more anti-gypsy stuff. So I made a report to UEFA and it finally threw the fat on the fire. Steua got a huge fine from the European authorities, and their pitch was suspended. That is almost unheard of."

Niciolae himself suffered serious backlash from the UEFA action. The Bucharest press called him Enemy No1. He was labelled a traitor, some claimed that he had destroyed the country's image. He got thousands of death threats, he got emails saying 'Antonescu [a pro-German leader of Romania during the second world war] should have gassed you all.'"

Even though he still gets threats today, Niciolae was able to withstand the backlash. What got him through the worst was the knowledge that he was actually making a real difference.

"To be honest," he continues, "I thought it would take at least a year for the situation to change and improve, for people to open their eyes. But happily I was wrong. I went to see a Steua versus Rapid match the very next month and, suddenly, it was all different. The chants started again and this time the press heard them! It was like they had been in denial, but I had forced them to accept reality. Now the racism was visible and audible and there was a big reaction - we got newspaper reports, TV coverage, the lot."

"This opened up the entire question to the football federation, soon after that, the government got involved, ministers came to see us. We had made the issue come alive."

It's a powerful and affirmative tale, but Niciolae is not content with talking about it: he wants to show us his group, the European Roma Grassroots Organisation, at work. Today they have arranged for a pro-celebrity football match involving Roma and other minorities, on the outskirts of town. We all jump in a little car and drive through the dilapidated streets of Bucharest to a noisy if ramshackle sports stadium, besieged by TV crews and journalists, ministers and officials, and lots of excited kids, many of them Roma.

The kerfuffle is especially intense when Banel Nicolita takes the pitch. He's a gypsy and a genuine star, a winger for Steua Bucharest and the Romanian national squad. When Nicolita appears in the indoor arena, the noise reaches a crescendo. Along with the efforts of people like Niciolae, it is the very visible success of people like Nicolita which is changing attitudes to Roma in Romania.

"We still have a long way to go," admits Niciolae, as he watches the kids mob the smiling figure of Nicolita. "The other day I had a brick chucked through my car window. Because I am a gypsy, no other reason. And yet - I am optimistic. Believe it or not we have come such a long way already. I think it just goes to show, one man can really make a difference. Just as long as you don't shut up!"