Ahead of the upcoming European Champions in Poland and the Ukraine the British media seem to be intent on making England fans afraid to attend with the recent campaign of negative publicity aimed at both host nations. This seems to be particularly targeting ultras groups. These groups have been painted as a threat in terms of both the potential for hooliganism as well as being a danger to non-white fans who it is claimed should fear becoming victims of racist attacks. Fans have even been warned not to risk travelling because their life could be at risk.
I spent roughly one month in Poland during the last year (multiple visits), mostly in Southern and Western Poland. I have visited key cities such as Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow and met supporters from these towns. All of that time was during the football season where I attended numerous games from less important weekday games with special discounted ticket rates at one end of the scale to the Polish Cup Final at the other end. During my time in Poland I watched games in ultras sectors as well as family enclosures and travelled to games on trains that are organised by ultras groups. This meant interacting with these people and learning about their lifestyle, values, culture and other factors required to understand them.
My aim from this piece is to inform people about what an ultra is and to explain their role in Polish football. I also want people to understand the recent history of Poland and how it relates to football and society in general. I am going to refrain from being judgmental or telling other people what to think. My aim is purely to offer information and to hopefully allow you to have a better understanding of what these groups do and how Polish football has recently changed. Seeing as there are very few ultras groups in British football (Celtic and Crystal Palace are probably the two largest) and it’s not a culture that most are in the UK are exposed to so I am going to start with the very basics….
What is an ultra? Ultras groups first appeared in Europe in the 1950s. Hajduk Split’s Torcida is the first group of this kind. The culture came to Europe after the 1950 World Cup where Europe fans were impressed by the passion of Brazilian supporters clubs who were known as Torcidas. After starting in what was Yugoslavia this culture of support then spread to Italy and then further afield before becoming common across Europe. Since these early days groups in most countries have established different styles of support or are known for different aspects of their support. For example currently Greek ultras are known for their use of flares/pyrotechnics while Poles are known for their huge choreographies. The one thing that these groups across the continent have in common is their general values related to football.
The most important aspect of being an ultra is that you should stand, sing and support your team for ninety minutes regardless of the score. You are also expected to go to as many games as possible for your team home and away. Your club and group should be your main priority in life and you will do anything possible to get to games. On top of attending matches ultras will typically contribute towards their groups on days where there is no football. The huge banners that are often seen displayed take hours or sometimes days to make. The groups pay to make these themselves (the largest of these often cost thousands of pounds to make) and will spend their own time carefully drawing and painting them.
With the game of football changing so much during the last decade ultras groups have also evolved. One of the main focuses for these groups now is that they are very much against the idea of modern football. By modern football they are referring to what the English Premiership in particular has become. The idea of having an all-seater stadium where ticket prices are extortionately high, where fans are expected to sit down and watch the game without blocking steps or standing for long periods, where bringing in flares and other items that ultras deem necessary can lead to spending time in jail. Ultras groups are fighting to resist their countries following the English model where working class people are priced out of attending games and where the audiences are typically middle class people in replica shirts.
In Poland the ultras see the terraces are the only place where they’re free to speak their mind and they want to protect this and not be forced out. In Poland ultras groups have an amazing history of doing great things to help their country and they still see themselves as being in this position of power although now a lot of people would challenge whether they have the level of influence that they once did. With Europe having changed so much a lot of people believe that football support should change too.
The most famous political impact that Polish ultras had was during the Communist period. The terraces were the only place where people could congregate in such huge numbers and express opinions that went against the agenda of the ruling Communist government. Fans would sing songs such as “A Na Drzewach Zamiast Liści, Będą Wisieć Komuniści…” which means something like “from the trees instead of leaves will hang Communists”. After making these political statements in the stadium fans would then march together after games and protest.
Lech Wałęsa who would later become the first President of Poland is probably the most successful and famous case of a member of the Ultras movement succeeding politically. He was a trade union leader and member of the Lechia Gdansk ultras. He was arrested numerous times for his political actions during the Communist period but eventually succeeded and became a national hero. Current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was also active in Gdansk during this period as part of the student activist movement. This recent history of power and political success is arguably part of the reason for why Ultras groups today still see themselves as victims, politically important and necessary within Polish football and society on the whole.
Nowadays the political situation in Poland is far more stable yet the Ultras have continued to protest. Up until just over a year ago the terraces were somewhat of a law-less free-for-all with regards to fans bringing banners or messages to games and the lack of control in their behaviour. Stadiums were typically in bad condition and security was somewhat lacking. In 2011 this all changed however. At the Cup Final between Lech Poznan and Legia Warsaw there were riots between fans and the police and it was seen as a national embarrassment. The situation was so bad that even the government got involved in cleaning it up. This meant that at the end of last season away fans were typically banned from games and security inside stadiums went from almost non-existent to what some would describe as being overzealous. Fans were ejected from games for things such as swearing or standing, which was previously almost unheard of.
The banning of away fans from certain games and increased security continued into the beginning of the 2011/12 season. Security began checking messages on banners and refused entry to those which went against club rules. They also searched fans far more carefully in order to find pyrotechnics and other banned items. This became particularly common in the modern stadiums which will be used during the Euros. Legia Warsaw’s Ultras in particular have had major problems with having items confiscated and fans banned from games under the new security rules. Ultras groups from various clubs began working together to make sure that they could attend games in each other’s stadiums by putting aside rivalries or problems and often sharing terraces. An example of this was when Ruch Chorzow played away in Wroclaw and shared the Slask Ultras sector within the stadium even though the two clubs are rivals and would usually be abusing each other rather than standing in the same area.
The conflict between Ultras groups and the Polish FA/government has escalated this season with there being numerous protests by the Ultras against these bodies. They have labelled the association and government as Communists and see these actions as infringing on their freedom of speech and expression. On the other hand the governing bodies see it as a necessary move to clean up the stadiums ahead of the Euros and to create a more friendly and family-orientated atmosphere. The main difference between now and the late 1980s is that the Ultras no longer have the sympathy of the whole nation. Their cause is not seen as being particularly important by most ordinary people while others view them as a nuisance and would like them removed all-together.
With the Euros being the biggest event that Poland has ever hosted outsiders may see these disagreements and conflicts as being a potentially major problem ahead of the tournament. That would however be an incorrect assumption. As I mentioned near the start of the piece Ultras are against modern football. This means that they are against the Euros. There has been a major campaign taking place within most of these groups ahead of the tournament with the main slogan being “Fuck Euro”. As this suggests these types of fans will not be attending games at the tournament and will therefore not cause any problems inside the stadium. The only potential problem that could occur would be if they were to protest outside of the stadium although this would not affect international fans and visitors. Warsaw would probably be the most likely location for this type of protest to take place due to their fans having the most problems with these changes and also the size of their support. At this stage I have however heard nothing concrete about a protest being organised and therefore assumed that there will not be one.
With Ultras boycotting the Euros and hooligans not interested in attending games visiting fans should expect a match day atmosphere similar to what they’d experience in any other nation hosting this type of tournament. The brand new stadiums are up to the same standards as those found in the UK or Germany and the security levels will be even higher and stricter. Fans therefore can expect an enjoyable family experience with no fears for their personal safety. Due to high ticket prices (by local standards) it will be mainly a middle class event and the atmosphere will reflect this.
Seeing as the Ultras are boycotting attending games others may have concerns that they will instead attack visiting fans on the streets. This again will almost certainly not be a problem. First of all most Ultras are not interested in fighting. This is a common misconception that the British media seem to have. In Poland there are three main types of supporters who attend games. There is the regular fan that sits in the family sector and watches the game, there’s Ultras and then there are hooligans. Hooligans may dress like Ultras and stand with them in the singing sector but they are not the same as them. Wearing the same t-shirts as normal people and singing with them allows them to blend in more however than if they turned up dress differently to everyone else in the stadium like we used to see in England.
While Polish hooligans may appear to be uncivilized thugs to most observers they actually have a very strict code of conduct with rules that they agree to adhere to. The first and most important rule for any foreign fans to understand is that the hooligans are not interested in fighting with you. Polish hooligans train in the gym and attend MMA or boxing classes and are very big, tough and hard. They have no interest in beating up regular people who would offer no resistance. They like to test themselves against either each other or otherwise against similar people from foreign nations. Typically this will mean making contact with the group they wish to fight and then pre-agreeing on the number of people fighting on each side, a location away from the stadium (and most importantly police) and the rules by which they will play. In Poland the rules are that no weapons should be used and that if somebody is in a position where they are on the ground and unable to defend themselves they are left alone. In league games they have been known to fight inside the stadium however since the new venues have been opened there have not been any problems. Trouble only tends to occur (and it’s extremely that it does) in older stadiums where divides between groups are not as strong and where policing is more challenging.
The other threat that the media have highlighted is that of racism. The recent BBC Panorama pictured Poland is a country of anti-Semites who enjoy spray-painting graffiti of white power symbols, Nazi symbols and anti-Jewish imagery all over their cities. It also showed fans taking racist or anti-Semitic banners to games. The examples shown were extreme cases and do not reflect Polish society or even Polish football fans on the whole. There is racist and anti-Semitic graffiti for sure, however it is extremely rare. If you look hard enough for something you will always find examples. Most graffiti that you will see around Polish towns and cities are murals painting by fans that display their love and devotion towards to their own teams rather than hatred towards other people. Most banners people take to games are in support of their clubs. It is extremely rare to see anything racist in a stadium. I imagine this is why Panorama had to resort to showing footage from two years ago that took place at a Third Division East match to shock people.
The average Polish football fan is the just like a regular person in any European society. They are students, doctors, lawyers, construction workers, miners, factory workers, retail employees, office workers or any other normal type of person you could think of. Just like within any work place, college or town there are people of varying political beliefs. The terraces are probably more right wing than other places, however they are not filled with extremists as the media would have you believe. Ultras groups tend to have a nationalist learning, but on the whole they are apolitical and concentrate mostly on supporting their team and insulting the opposition.
Poles are probably more proud of their nationality than those of most nations. They have had an extremely tough recent history. Poland was invaded by the Nazis during world war two. Towns and cities were bombed and people were executed or incarcerated for being different or for having political opinions that went against the Nazi occupiers. When the Nazis were defeated the Communists then took control of their country and continued the process of eliminating anyone who they saw as a threat. Intellectuals in particular were transported to labour camps or removed from their homes and jobs and put into positions where they’d lose their power. Poland also lost territory with the now Ukrainian city of Lvov and the surrounding region being a key example of this. Because of these actions of previous invaders Polish people are maybe more cautious of outside influences and have stronger beliefs in developing a strong and great nation for themselves after losing control for such long periods. I think understanding at least a little basic history will help outsiders understand why people are maybe more nationalist than in other countries which have had an easier and more pleasant recent past as Western European nations have.
The average Pole does not have a problem with foreign people visiting their country. They also do not dislike people of different races and religions. You should not see their nationalism as a threat to your safety as a potential visitor because it will not be a problem. While ethnic minorities are rare in Poland there are foreign communities that are visible such as African students and foreign athletes. Michael Ansley an African American former NBA player who has lived in Poland for over a decade recently leapt to Poland’s defence. He described Poland as “a country that welcomes everybody” which is definitely accurate in my experiences. As he said “it’s only when you are out of line” you will suffer problems.
I implore you to come, behave and enjoy yourself. See for yourself what a beautiful and friendly country Poland really is! The only people who have anything to fear in Poland are those who are looking to cause trouble. The locals and police do not take kindly to people who are disrespectful or who behave unlawfully. Now you’ve read this you can go out, buy a few Lechs, a kielbasa and a shirt and sing your heart out for your country. I hope you enjoy the show!