Soccer hooligans shame Poland
Shame. Shock. Disappointment.
Those are the emotions on the streets of Poland’s capital city on Wednesday, 24 hours after the worst outbreak of soccer violence at the European Championships in 32 years. This fighting was kindled by poor decisions and carried out by small group. Police did well to contain the trouble, but that does not absolve Poland or UEFA.
Police said that 184 people had been arrested in the aftermath of pitched battles in the city center and outside the National Stadium that left dozens injured. There were unconfirmed reports in the Russian press that one fan had died.
UEFA strongly condemned the violence on Wednesday night, issuing a statement that read in part: “groups of known troublemakers pelted the police with missiles and attacked fans irrespective of the team they were supporting. Those arrested and charged will have to be dealt with by the relevant authorities…UEFA is determined that the overwhelmingly peaceful and festive atmosphere that has so far pervaded at UEFA Euro 2012 will be continued right up to and including the final.”
It was an ugly scene: I stood at the edges as police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the trouble-makers. It was apparent that sets of hooligan groups were well-organized and had made extensive plans to battle. Coordinating their movements by cellphone, the self-described “ultras” arrived prepared for trouble: bandanas to protect against tear gas, empty bottles and stones at the ready, and a solid black dress code both to identify each other and to melt away after the attacks.
What authorities added to their arsenal was a place and a time. Poland’s sports minister, Joanna Mucha, told reporters today that she was “ashamed” and shocked by the violence. What was more shocking is that the city allowed Russian fans to march to the stadium across a river with only one entrance and egress. Fans were caught in a corridor.
And let’s be frank: the march was provocation, pure and simple. Russian fans chanted derogatory slogans towards the Polish fans and everyone in the city knew that violence would be the outcome. Enmities between the two countries are no secret, and those that allowed the march should have taken that into account. It looked like a dreadful decision, and it was.
The second question is why UEFA allowed this high-risk game to be staged at night after a long day of alcohol sales on a Polish holiday—ironically or intentionally, it was “Russia Day” a celebration of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was simply senseless: in other countries high-risk fixtures are staged in the morning and alcohol sales are sharply restricted. Neither was the case in Warsaw yesterday. Not only could fans arrive to the stadium 12 vodkas deep, they would leave in the dark.
Everyone knew violence was not only possible but probable. Yet instead of taking sensible decisions that would admittedly have inconvenienced some fans, both the city and UEFA forged ahead. Wednesday night, both are trying to claim the incidents were “isolated” and “shocking.” They were not: families and fans from around the world passed through clouds of tear gas, saw packets of fistfights and saw Poland’s sterling reputation stained. And for what? So fans in Europe could see the match after supper? That isn’t a good enough reason to put people and the Polish reputation at risk.
Eastern Europe does have a hooligan problem of organized gangs following along soccer teams. Though they identify themselves as “ultras,” they are not fans; they are criminals who use the sport to rally and to fight. They do not honor the teams they support just as street gangs do not honor the neighborhoods they say they protect. Both Russian and Polish hooligans were involved, and only a small handful of them actually intended to attend the game. They were there to drink and to brawl.
Yet the most chilling moment Tuesday night was not the sight of crowds running and fists flying: it was the matter-of-fact declaration by the ultras’ spokesman that the police actually would support them. This echoed statements I had heard made by many other Polish journalists, who suspect there are ties between the authorities and the gangs. If this is true, then it is soccer that must take the lead. UEFA must change scheduling, must demand tighter security and must levy penalties with teeth.
Poland now has to contend with another image crisis – and while some of the brickbats thrown at the nation have been fair, this one isn’t. These were not fans – but the sport and the country is tarred. The vast majority of Poles are sickened by the violence and the actions of a few – but the video tape showing men lunging at one another with fists and flares isn’t going to soon be forgotten.
Yet, there is hope. Wednesday, a post made the rounds on Facebook in Poland. It reads, in part: “we are all ashamed for [sic] few of those brainless idiots that unfortunately happen to be Polish as well.” It has been “liked” thousands of times.