Since the start of the tournament last Friday lots of people’s perceptions of Poland and the Ukraine appear to have changed. Before the tournament many people were afraid of visiting the two host nations due to sensationalist propaganda in the British media. We were told that both countries had massive hooligan problems and racism was a massive issue in both nations. Apparently this was going to be a violent and dangerous tournament where fans could possibly return home in body-bags, especially those of non-white ethnicity. So far only minor incidents have occurred and most appear to have been caused by Russian visitors rather than fans from the host nations. Feedback from fans has however been extremely positive. I’ve read/heard numerous people stating how this tournament has the potential to be the most exciting in a long time based on what we’ve seen so far. Tomorrow the second round of group stage games will begin. One match in particular catches the eye, not just for its on-field importance, but also for the potential off-field problems many expect to see.
This evening Russia are due to play against Poland in Warsaw……
Poland has had an extremely tough recent history. It was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939 and was occupied by the Nazis until 1945 when World War II ended. Rather than this being a reason to celebrate it turned into a long-lasting nightmare. The Soviet Union took control of Poland and stayed in control for nearly half a decade until 1989. One of the first things the Soviets did was take a large amount of Polish territory and claim it as part of the USSR. The Soviets also oppressed the Poles. They had to live without freedom or free speech, struggled to find food and lived in poverty. The people were unable to protest out of fear and intellectuals or others who could’ve potentially been a threat to the regime were sent away to work in places where their influence was limited. Some were murdered or sent to labour/death camps in places such as Siberia. It is estimated that a million Eastern Europeans (excluding those from the USSR where the estimate is put at 20m) were murdered by the Soviet controlled Communist regimes.
In 1989 Poland for the first time since 1939 became a republic. The Communists were finally defeated and after half a century the Polish people finally had their freedom back. Lech Walesa was appointed their first President and was seen as a national hero for his role in the revolution as a trade unionist in Gdansk. That was only twenty two years ago and in this time the infrastructure, quality of life, wealth, freedom and other key aspects that define quality of life have improved greatly. Poland is now an EU member state and one of the most developed members of the former Eastern Bloc. Quality of life has improved immeasurably and continues to improve. Being given the hosting rights for the Euros is a sign of how far this great nation has come.
While older people still remember what it was like to live in such a terrible society as Communism most youngsters have grown up in a prosperous, developing nation. They do however understand their history and are fiercely patriotic in part due to the painful recent history of their nation. It is something that bonds people and fuels their desire to make sure nothing so awful happens again. The Polish government have gone as far as to make flying Communist flags or celebrating Communism a crime. It is listed alongside Nazism as a banned political ideology and one that cannot be displayed in public. The displaying of these banned political symbols has not been a problem. It would be nearly impossible to find a Polish Communist supporter while even the extreme right in Poland reject Nazism due to the amount of their people murdered during occupation.
Sadly during the Euros the Russian fans have not been as respectful towards these Anti-Communist rules. Numerous USSR and CCCP flags were carried by their fans during their first game in Poland and also on the streets. They also took part in the majority of violent acts in the tournament so far. During their first game in Wroclaw a large number of Russian fans violently attacked unarmed Polish stewards. Russians also fought with locals in the fan zone in the city. On top of this there have been fights between Russian and Ukrainian fans in the other co-host nation. The largest reported problems outside of Poland were in the city of Lvov. While these incidents have been unpleasant another larger one will take place today.
Today is Russia Day. Russia Day is the celebration of democratic reforms that saw Russian become a free state. It’s a national holiday and one where people like to celebrate their nationality. The Russian far right particularly like this day as it gives them the opportunity to march and celebrate their nationalism. A large amount of Russian football supporters also support far right movements. The display of the Russian Imperial Flag in football stadiums they visit confirms and celebrates their allegiance to the right wing. Because they are outside of Russia on this national day of celebration they have decided to have their march in Warsaw. They have formally applied for (and had approved) and licence to march in central Warsaw which will end with them reaching the National Stadium in Warsaw.
Many Poles have questioned why this march is allowed to take place in their capital city and have seen the march as a provocative act. While Russia is a different state to the USSR many Poles associate Russians with the Communists who oppressed them for so long. They see a march by these people in their own capital city as being a huge insult to the suffering and history of their nation. The fact that Russian fans have flown Communist flags already in Poland during the tournament has increased the anger. The violent behaviour of Russian fans in Wroclaw towards Poles is another face that has increased anger amongst the locals. The Polish media have also stroked the flames of this fire by comparing today’s match to the victorious 1920 battle where the Poles beat the Bolshevik army which is known as the “Miracle on the Vistula”.
Initially only local hooligans and members of the Polish far right were planning to attend a counter-protest in Warsaw. However due to the events in Wroclaw hooligans and nationalists from all over Poland will now be converging on Warsaw. Regular people who are usually not aligned with football Ultras groups, hooligan gangs or the far right are also likely to be there to protest. The planned course of action for the hooligans has been referring to as “Bolshevik Beating” by the organisers. The aim is to stop the Russia Day parade from taking place.
Security manager Ewa Gawor has claimed that the march by the Russians will purely be a celebration of football and the game and will have no political context. Polish FA Head Grzegorz Lato has also played down fears. He has described them as “apolitical” and has accused the media of trying to create an atmosphere that doesn’t exist. He believes that “it is a sport spectacle” and nothing more. With the security organisation and FA trying their best to play down fears you can’t help but believe that their words will fall upon deaf ears. With both sides organising their actions already it will be nearly impossible to change the plans of their side or to dissuade them. The best we can hope for is that the heavy police presence and police actions can stop any large scale violence from occurring. It is however very unlikely that they will succeed.
The march however is not the only potential problem that we face. Due to the game being part of the Euros rather than a regular qualifying or friendly match fans will not be segregated in the stadium. It is extremely unlikely that any of the more violent or hardcore Polish fans will attend the game. As I previously wrote in my pre-tournament explanation Polish Ultras groups are all boycotting the tournament and have continued with their “Fuck Euro” campaign since the tournament begun. There is however a chance that they will be outside the stadium looking for Russians breaking off from the march who are entering the stadium. There is also a chance that regular fans will become emotional or angry if there is violence outside the stadium before the game. In the Russian fans behave the way they did in the stadium in Wroclaw it is likely that there will be some violent incidents. Rioting however is extremely unlikely.
I really hope that tomorrow’s incidents are not as bad as many fear. At this stage sadly I can only expect the worst. From talking to some contacts I have in Legia Warsaw’s firm it appears as though violence is inevitable. I can only hope that the events will not overshadow what has so far been one of the best international tournaments in recent memory. I hope that people can appreciate that this march and reactions to it are not related to football. While the football has brought the fans to Warsaw, nationalism from both sides and the marches related to this ideology are separate. It is a political event and not a sporting event. I also hope that the police can stay calm and not cause any trouble due to excessive force, which can often lead to problems escalating. So far the people of Poland and the Ukraine have made a mockery of Panorama and the accusations levelled at them from the British press. I can only pray that people will see Poland in the same positive light after tomorrow’s events. Hopefully we will witness an exciting match and football can once again unite people peacefully.