Thursday 26 April 2012

Polish Football Long Before Euro 2012

Published by in 2005 ahead of a World Cup qualifier between England and Poland. No longer on website, so resurrecting it here. 

Seeing Daruisz Kubicki, the former Aston Villa and Sunderland right-back, rush out from the Polonia Warszawa dugout to bark instructions at his players takes some getting used to. This time last year, after all, he was doing the same on the other side of the city at Legia Warszawa, the club he started at before his long sojourn as a player in England. Legia sacked him as manager after being knocked out of the early stages of the UEFA Cup.    
On September 23 he was back at Legia’s stadium to watch his new side being beaten in a dull 1-0 win for the home team in the first of the season’s Varsovian derbies. Whether bored or entertained Polish fans always find plenty to chant about and on this occasion Kubicki’s name resounded around the ground from the larynxes of Legia and Polonia devotees alike. 

In England turncoats get far shorter shrift but the Poles allow a fondness of memory to get the better of them. For Kubicki was a passionate manager at Legia, just as he is at Polonia, and Polish fans are wont to reward that with a nostalgic paean, even in a local derby.

 Any supporter worthy of the name is loyal but with the Poles, given their ‘Solidarity’ legacy and all, brotherly love is fierce and violently so. The hardcore followers, being hooligans, of course fight one another, but they reserve most of their hostility for the police. In a land of constant high unemployment the football stadium and its environs have become the battlegrounds on which the forgotten of the Polish economic miracle can vent their bitterness. It is the main reason attendances are so pitifully low. The aggro can also ignite in the unlikeliest of places; at fourth division grounds for example. 

On September 11 scuffling broke out during the match between Siarki Tarnobrzeg and Stali Mielec and 13 people were arrested, thus depleting the already very meager crowd. But it was on the away fans’ journey home that things got really unpleasant. A police escort accompanied the away supporters’ two or so coaches toward the tiny southern town of Mielec and as they were heading home, a fan on a motorbike fell under the wheels of one of the buses. He died in hospital.

The Stali Mielec fans went ballistic, blaming the 25 year old’s death on the police, who, they said, had opened the door of a police wagon to impede him, which led to him losing his balance and falling under the bus. A full-scale riot broke out in Mielec and fully-tooled up police went in to quell it. They had sixty fans lying in handcuffs with their faces on the pavement within a few hours. 

Football hooliganism-cum-social protest (of sorts) is a strange mix for anyone used to the English way of doing things. The birthplace of soccer violence tends to be a lot more self-interested and far less focused after all; a good ruck has been the main criterion to date, never mind with whom. The ‘louts’ in Poland, however, take themselves incredibly seriously, though they are prone to contradiction. When Pope John Paul II died in April supporters organized both masses and demonstrations to honour him, in which the fiercest of rivals promised to bury their differences forever. I saw Legia Warszawa and Polonia Warszawa fans employ the tunes of the most hallowed of football chants to sing in praise of the ex-pontiff. The following week the recently reformed Polish hooligan was again skirmishing with his fellow man, and the police as well. Those wearing the colours of Cracovia Krakow, the Pope’s favorite team, were among the most belligerent. 

 This ‘crisis of identity’ should encourage England as they prepare to defeat Poland on October 12. For it affects the national side to the core. Whenever they have a good run like recently the media cannot help wondering whether the team can match the achievements of Lato, Denya and Tomaszewski in the 70s. But this only serves to remind everyone what a tall order it would be.  It has been 32 years since that match in 1973, when Poland pulled off their remarkable draw, with goalkeeper Tomaszewski parrying the home team’s every onslaught, that a Polish first-eleven has come away with a point won on English soil. Some commentators here cling to the ‘omen’ that that result sent the Poles to a finals in Germany (albeit the western part at the time), just the prize the two countries will be fighting over this time round as well. But hope often breeds failure in Poland.

They are a bit like the Scotland of the seventies, a decade, ironically, when Poland were overachieving, in that a run of good form makes everyone think they are on the march to glory. This invariably turns out to be tragically misplaced. The more pessimistic need only cast their minds back to 2002 when a rampant qualifying campaign gave way to Poland’s abject failure at the tournament itself. England won’t be the only ones confronting their demons on Tuesday.

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