Spend any time in the center of a Polish city on a football match day, and you are bound to hear chanting from a distance. Follow that chanting and you will see a group of supporters, predominantly dressed in their team’s colors, marching along in a pack. They are drunk, they are loud, and even frightening to the locals. At a glance, it seems highly unlikely that they are congregated for a sporting event at all, but rather for the mere spectacle of congregating.
These Polish Ultras, so long at the periphery of the global football world, are now pushed into the forefront. With four shiny new stadiums in its four most prominent tourist destinations, the European – and global – footballing spotlight will shine on Poland this June for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. Suddenly, the Polish (and similarly Ukrainian) footballing cultures have been catapulted to center stage. With this heightened focus, comes concern. As the first footballing tournament held in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism, there is a clash of the mainstream with the more violent and radical elements of Polish football.
The issues have emerged in the English speaking press as primarily the threat racial abuse and violence. Family members of black players for England have said they are likely to avoid traveling to Poland or Ukraine out of fear of racism. “There are reports over the last couple of weeks of racist taunts and threats, it’s just prudent for myself to keep away from it.” said the father of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Theo Walcott’s family has also said it would stay home. These concerns are validated by official reports. Amnesty International UK has given a warning to fans of the reality in Poland: “The harsh reality is that racism remains commonplace in Poland and there are numerous reports of xenophobia on the terraces and in the stands of Polish football grounds. For any fan choosing to travel to the country, they should be fully aware that their experience may well be far different from their experience here in the UK.”
FIFPro, the world player’s union, also shares the concerns of not only the players being racially abused, but also the visiting fans. Theo van Seggelen, secretary-general of FIFPro said that he believes EURO 2012 “will not be remembered for the atmosphere,” suggesting it will be remembered for what goes wrong. FIFPro’s research into racism and violence in Eastern Europe, published in February, found that over 10% of professional players had been victims of violence, and 9.6% of players in the region claiming to have been racially abused. With Euro 2012, and a large number of visiting fans, the likelihood of incidents inside of a stadium are decreased. But with that, comes a fear as to what will happen outside of the stadiums.
Many of the reports and comments are seemingly condescending and stereotypical towards Poland. It is easy to project a couple of news stories onto an entire population. BBC and other news sources have been active in portraying the numerous faults of Eastern European football in the lead up to these European Championships. The reports are somewhat harsh and over-broad in their comments and condemnation of Poland and Ukraine’s ability to hold an event, yet also speak to a truth that is even recognized by the Polish citizens. The reality of racism is not difficult to spot and must be considered a legitimate concern. Consider a banner from September, 2011, in a Europa League match between Legia Warszawa and Hapoel Tel Aviv (from Israel). Covering up an entire stand, it was intentionally offensive, written in Arabic style lettering: “Jihad Legia”. The connotations are obvious and disgusting, the meaning unmistakable.
There is certainly a dark side to the Ultras of Poland. Polish stadiums are not known to be safe among the local citizens. Fans are known to revel in fighting and fires. “Pseudo-fan” is a term used by one Polish citizen to describe the perception of the Ultras. The Ultra movement is something that extends beyond merely watching a sporting event, it is an all encompassing action in which pitch invasion and fire shows are considered to be amongst the minor disturbances.
There are legitimate concerns that the Polish Ultras will respond to the Euros in a stronger force than usual. In what seems contradictory, the Polish Ultras unabashedly hate the 2012 Euros that their own nation co-hosts. The numerous signs, t-shirts, and flags with the phrase “F*** Euro” found among Polish Ultras and in Polish stadiums are clear. To the Ultras, the Euros are a suppression of their culture; an invasion on their territory. Prior to the Euros being awarded to Poland, there was no crackdown on pyrotechnics and the rampant fighting. But in an attempt to modernize the Polish game to comply with UEFA rules in anticipation of the tournament, authorities enacted stricter penalties and increased enforcement towards unruly fans.
Polish Ultras are angry against, what in their view, is an intrusion on their own ground. Further, they believe they are being scapegoated for political gain. Politicians have linked Ultras to criminal activities, ranging from drugs, to prostitution, and the Mafia. Police have become tougher on Ultras entering stadiums. The media, which prior to 2007 often praised the Ultras, has now aligned with the mainstream condemnation of the Ultra’s activity. Some fans are not allowed into the stadium, and this has made Ultras upset. The Ultras, who have owned Polish football for years, are under attack because of Euro 2012, a tournament to which a large majority of Ultras cannot even afford the tickets.
Polish football is struggling, indicated by poor performances in Europe (ranked 20th in UEFA league coefficient) and poor play on the domestic pitch. Attendance for Polish games are low. European and Ekstraklasa (domestic league) games have been at about half attendance of less. Many Ultras this season have protested against the government crackdowns by not showing up to games. The protests have created a real solidarity between Ultras in Poland, but also highlights the disconnect between the clean-up movement and the Ultras themselves. The Ultras do not accept the need to improve the security situation in games. While it must be conceded that the attempted cleanup likely was not undertaken in the most efficient or politically neutral manner, it was nevertheless necessary. Unfortunately, it has created a backlash, and this backlash has resonated in the Western media.
Anytime there is a clash of culture and economics and upheaval, conflict will ensue. The Euros are no different. Brand new top of the line stadiums do not solve problems that are deep rooted in issues far greater than football. The Ultra movement in Poland is something deeper and greater than just football. It is rooted in economics and politics; these conflicts have existed for many years prior to 2012. But because of the crackdown, Polish Ultras likely will plan to get revenge and embarrass the local government. The political issues leading to Ultra movement and crackdown are complex, yet there is no mistaking the real concern that the Ultras will take the fight to the streets. As they will not likely be in the stadiums, the streets will be the only place to showcase their passionate anger.
Despite the concerns with Ultras, there is the chance that the media has been too harsh on Poland. Poland has countless charms, and to miss them, and the main footballing event of 2012 because of a minority is a tragedy. Undoubtedly the Polish government and police will be on high alert and in full force after years of preparation to now be on the world stage. After all, Poland has spent 20 billion Euros on the upcoming tournament, and will surely seize its moment to shine. All four cities in Poland are popular tourist destinations, which are continually hosting visitors from around the world without issue.
The political concerns for Euro 2012 exists in Ukraine as well, with both fears of racism and protests for the government’s political actions. With Russia set to host both the Olympics and World Cup in the near future, these issues will surely arise again and be at the front of the Western European media. A better understanding of the forces at work, rather than broad stereotyping and protesting can help further the growth of the host nations while being a rewarding experience for all participants – visitors, teams, locals, and even the angry Ultras. In the meantime, we can hope that the police forces are ready to handle the minority of footballing fans who intend to use the Euro stage to cause trouble.