Lviv turns the page on past conflicts

Lviv turns the page on past conflicts

Published Jun. 13, 2012 1:18 p.m. ET

When Wlodzimierz Chomicki fired the ball into the net on July 14, 1894, to hand the home team from Lwow victory over the visiting Krakow side, he scored the first recorded goal in Polish football.

Over a century later in 1999, 16-year-old Chomicki's goal was awarded another honor - the first recorded goal in Ukrainian football, scored in what is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the west of the country.

Europe's shifting borders have certainly made Lviv, or Lwow in Polish, an appropriate choice to stage matches at Euro 2012 which is being co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland.

The Arena Lviv will be the venue for three games, including Denmark versus Portugal in Group B on Wednesday.


Located about 50 kilometers from the Poland-Ukraine border, the city has over the centuries shifted in ethnic, cultural and political make-up, mixing Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and other identities.

It has also been at the center of brutal conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians - bloodshed that this tournament will help consign to the distant past. It's not by chance that Euro 2012's motto is ''Creating History Together.''

When Chomicki scored his goal, Lviv was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was annexed in 1772 after centuries of Polish rule by the Austrian Habsburgs, who knew the city by its German name, Lemberg.

The city was invaded by the Russian army in World War I, who called it Lvov, and then retaken by Austria-Hungary.

As the Habsburg's empire collapsed, Ukrainians declared independence in 1918, naming Lviv capital of the West Ukrainian Republic. A struggle for the city and surrounding regions broke out between Ukrainians, who had traditionally worked the land in villages, and Poles, who for centuries had been seen as hated landlords. The majority of Lviv's population was Polish, and they soon retook the city.

Bad blood remained. Ukrainian nationalists carried out terrorist attacks against Poles - seen as the enemy of independence - and Ukrainians who ''collaborated'' with the Polish state.

''This was a very tough period,'' says Yaroslav Grytsak, a historian who has researched Ukrainian-Polish relations, ''and it exploded during World War II when it practically reached genocide.''

In 1939, a new enemy arrived when the Red Army returned as Poland was split between the Nazis and Soviets. When the Nazis turned on their erstwhile allies in 1941, their invasion was briefly greeted by some as a chance to form an independent Ukrainian state, before they realized the Nazis were against this.

Some armed Ukrainian nationalists decided at the time that, as well as fighting the Nazis and the Soviets, they should remove Poles from the territory of what they hoped would be the basis of a future Ukrainian state in the two regions around Lviv. Tens of thousands of Poles were brutally murdered. Thousands of Ukrainians were killed in revenge attacks. At the same time, the Jewish population of Lviv, which made up over one-quarter of the 300,000 inhabitants, was all but wiped out.

After the Soviets reoccupied Lviv and the surrounding territories in 1944, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Poland. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were forcibly sent in the opposite direction.

Having lost swathes of its Jewish and Polish inhabitants, Lviv became a Ukrainian city as Ukrainians replaced them. Lviv became part of the Soviet Union and a bastion of Ukrainian nationalist culture.

Since Ukraine declared independence in 1991, the countries have reconciled. Poles gave up any claims to Lviv and Ukraine's Western territories and focused on joining the European Union. Poland was the first country to recognize Ukraine's independence, and is now at the forefront of attempts to bring its neighbor into the EU.

''Intellectuals and politicians decided that it couldn't continue in this way. That it was a war that was causing great damage to both sides. They understood the importance of Polish-Ukrainian relations for this part of Europe,'' says Grytsak. ''It is one of the most successful things to happen since the fall of communism.''

Analysts say that Poland sees Ukraine as a buffer against the appetite of their giant neighbor Russia to control both countries, which Moscow for centuries has considered part of its sphere of influence.

''We had lots of historical clashes with the Poles,'' says Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytskiy. ''But at the start of the 21st century that is now in the past, because we have the same interests, as we are Russia's neighbors. This makes Ukraine a natural ally'' for Poland.

When in 2007 the two countries were awarded the chance to co-host Euro 2012, it was a crowning moment for Poland-Ukraine relations. Some regional tensions, however, are still high in Lviv, where Chomicki scored his goal. Local media reported that Russian and Ukrainian soccer fans scuffled there early on Saturday morning.