The beautiful game?

A special report into racism and antisemitism in Polish and Ukrainian football

Next month Poland and the Ukraine co-host the 2012 European Championship finals. It is the premier football competition in Europe and UEFA is hoping that it will act as a catalyst to develop football in Eastern Europe. But with racism and antisemitism rife within Polish and Ukrainian football, Nick Lowles investigates whether Europe’s pre-eminent competition will be overshadowed by trouble or will the hosting of the tournament be used to rid the game of this problem.

Wisla Krakow display a violent banner at the start of their local derby against CracoviaWisla Krakow display a violent banner at the start of their local derby against Cracovia

There was still over four hours to kick-off but already the away supporters were out in force. Men with red and white striped shirts filled the main square in Krakow, enjoying the sun and chatting amicably. There was not a sip of alcohol in sight but rather a determination of what lay ahead.

All around the square riot police, backed by dogs and a water cannon, watched on.

At 3pm, with the game still many hours away, the Cracovia fans began to group together. The threat of violence meant that they had only been allocated 1,000 tickets and all of those lucky recipients appeared to be here.

Suddenly, out of the crowd, people emerged carrying large black binbags out of which they distributed free scarves to everyone. This would form part of their display within the ground. Their leader began to talk through a megaphone. The flares were light, bangers exploded and off they march, menacingly towards the ground of their fierce local rivals, Wisla Krakow.

There are few football derbies in the world which share the intensity, and indeed violence, of the Krakow derby. Hardly a game goes by between Wisla Krakow and their close neighbours Cracovia without football hooliganism and outbursts of racism and antisemitism.

Cracovia was founded in 1906 and before the Second World War was financed and supported by many local Jews. Of course that connection is long gone but it remains a reason for antisemitic abuse by the Wisla fans, whose hooligans are known as the Sharks. Wisla was historically linked to the Communist militia. This means, of course, there is a strong anti-Communist theme to the Cracovia hooligans, known simply as Anty Wisla, but they also identify themselves as Jude Gang – Jude being a Polish word for Jew.

The intensity of the hatred is such that the match is known as the ‘Holy War’.

The term ‘Holy War’ was originally used to describe the rivalry of Krakow’s Jewish teams, Makkabi and Jutrzenka. A defender from the latter club later joined Cracovia and during the derby game against Wisla he is supposed to have told his teammates, “Come on guys, let’s win this holy war.” The phrase quickly became adopted by the fans.

The rival gangs fight at football and in the community, with graffiti adorning tower blocks and street walls throughout the city to mark territory. People are regularly killed in fights between the two gangs, both of whom refuse to adopt the “Poznan agreement”, a no knives policy accepted by most other football hooligan groups in the country.

The two stadiums are divided by a 500 metre park but still the police wanted to bus the away fans in, but they refused and insisted on marching in from the city centre. They were held in a tight cordon outside the ground for over an hour before being allowed in shortly before kick-off.

And then the aggressive chants began.

Poland and Ukraine incident map (Research based on the 2011 report by Never Again)

Unpleasant chanting

Violence, racism and antisemitism is common place in Polish football. According to research gathered by HOPE not hate’s sister organisation in Poland, Never Again, there were at least 120 incidents of racism and antisemitism last year in the top two divisions. And that was just what was reported to them and it is often believed that open displays of racism and antisemitism are more common in the lower divisions.

Anders Breivik killed 77 people in a bombing a shooting spree in NorwayLegia Warsawa fans display a ‘Jihad’ banner to intimidate and abuse team Hapoel Tel Aviv players and dans during a Europa league game in September 2011

Many of these incidents are displays of White Power banners or racist chanting towards black players of opposing teams. But there have also been many more extreme incidents. At a Europa league game against the Israeli team Hapoel Tel Aviv on 29 September 2011, fans of Legia Warszawa, arguably the most racist and antisemitic in the country, displayed a huge Jihad banner behind the goal in what clearly had antisemitic overtones. This banner stretched the full length of one end of the ground and, with the accompanying cards which were held up by fans, involved thousands of people.

A couple of weeks later the same fans chanted “Hamas, Hamas, Jews off to the gas,” at Łódz fans. Lodz, a city whose population was a third Jewish before the war, often bears the brunt of antisemitic abuse. Legia Warszawa fans chanted “Your home is Auschwitz, whole Poland knows that the entire Jewish army is going to the gas chamber” at Łódz fans last season. Łódz fans have also faced antisemitic chanting from supporters of Slask Wrocław, Lech Poznan and OKS 1945 Olsztyn.

Not that the fans of ŁKS Łódz are immune from antisemitism themselves. At a game last March, hundreds of ŁKS Łódz fans danced to antisemitic chanting. Last June they displayed an antisemitic banner and in September ŁKS Łódz directed antisemitic abuse at Ruch Chorzów fans.

Last May, Resovia fans displayed a banner at the home game against their local rivals Stal depicting a Jewish man in an Auschwitz uniform with a no entry sign across his face and the slogan Death to those with curved noses.

The most infamous antisemitic incident was the huge banner depicting a caricature of a Jewish face with a separate banner, stretching across the back of the stand, reading Death to the Big Nose.

Racism, antisemitism and violence are often intertwined and together they create a very intimidating atmosphere inside the ground. “A lot of ordinary people have been discouraged from going to football matches because of the unpleasant culture,” says Rafal Pankowski, one of the leaders of Never Again, HOPE not hate’s sister organisation in Poland.

And it is not just the fans who are racist. Jan Tomaszewski will be known to some England fans as the man who thwarted England reaching the 1974 World Cup finals. The former Polish international goalkeeper, Tomaszewski has turned to politics and a right-wing version too. He has been an outspoken critic of immigration and foreigners playing in and for Poland.

“This hotchpotch lacks only a cannibal from Africa, who once ate a Polish missionary”, Tomaszewski said last August. “This is not a Polish team. There are Columbian and German stray dogs.”

In another outburst, he said: “Well, let’s face it – it’s shit what we have and we are as primitive as the Negroes.” He also said: “This shirt (of the Polish team) is now being profaned, sold, given away to traitors. The traitors of the German nation.”

On both occasions he refused to apologise.

Players, managers and even a referee have been accused of racism. In 2008 ŁKS Łódz player Arkadiusz wore a shirt which read Death to the Widzew-Jewish whore after a match. He later claimed that the shirt had been given to him by a fan and he had not read it before putting it on.

Paltry fines

Officially, the football authorities take a harsh view of racism and antisemitism but others are less convinced. The Death to the Big Nose banner led to a paltry 5,000 Zloty (£1,000) fine for the club. The fans seemed unconcerned and the banner was back a few games later.

Wisla Krakow display a violent banner at the start of their local derby against Cracovia(top left) Resovia Rzeszow fans display an antisemitic banner during a match against local rivals Stala Rzeszow. (top right) Lviv soccer fans at a game vs. Donetsk. The banner reads “Bandera – our hero” Photo: Pavlo Friend. (bottom) Rakow Czestochowa fans give nazi salutes during a home match against Elana Torun

In most instances little is done against the hooligans and the ultra groups. Only last month it was revealed that antisemitic t-shirts were being sold outside the ŁKS Łódz ground. In fact, at the Krakow derby, a fan with media accreditation stood up and gave a minute-long nazi salute without any complaints from those around. Antisemitic t-shirts were being worn by home supporters, which they said were bought from the fan club shop which is housed inside the ground.

The situation appears to be worse in the Ukraine, if not somewhat more complex. In addition to displays of racism and antisemitism, Ukrainian football plays host to more general Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. Supporters of clubs in the western part of the country tend espouse Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, while those in the east tend to display Russian nationalist symbols.

Arsenal Kyiv is one club whose supporters are proudly anti-racist but with their ultra group numbering no more than 100 they are vastly outnumbered by all their opponents and targeted for violence.

The Lviv teams are probably the worst, with open displays of support for Stefan Bandera, the pre-war leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an ultra-right nationalist party which collaborated with the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War. The support for the Banderites amongst the fans even persuaded Karpaty Lviv to change the colour of their away strip to the red and black of the OUN.

Further east, the problem is from more traditional neo-Nazi groups.

A catalyst for change

Euro 2012 appears to have been a catalyst for a more pro-active stance from the football authorities. Determined to portray their country in a more positive light, the Polish authorities have begun to crack down on some of the more extreme displays of racism and antisemitism. Over the last few months there have been fewer banners displayed within stadiums and the clubs and officials have been more proactive to remove them when they have appeared.

The Polish FA, supported by the personal intervention of the Prime Minister, has brought in Never Again to help change the climate.

The European Championships provide a great opportunity to deal with some of the more unpleasant aspects of Polish football, says Rafal Pankowski. “This is an opportunity for us to get our anti-racist message across,” he told HOPE not hate. “Not just to football fans but to the wider population at large.”

Never Again has produced an anti-racist toolkit for clubs and has already trained 7,000 stewards to identify and deal with racism and antisemitism. Pankowski is quick to point out that while the impetus for this was Euro 2012 the legacy of this work will continue after the Championships.

Last autumn Never Again held its biggest anti-racist action week to date, with activities at most grounds around the country. Footballers spoke out against racism, leaflets were distributed and work done in local schools and communities.

Wisla Krakow display a violent banner at the start of their local derby against CracoviaAnti-racism action organised by FARE's partner organisation Never Again in Poland, at this Ekstraklasa match between Lech Poznan and Korona Kielce. Photo: FARE network

Some clubs have been reluctant to acknowledge a problem. “A few clubs have even claimed we have exaggerated or even invented the problem,” he says. However, improvements are being seen, even at Legia Warszawa whose fans have perhaps the worst reputation. “We have been getting some positive reaction from some Legia fans.”

Precautions are being taken for the 2012 European Championships themselves. Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), of which Never Again is an affiliate, is planning to have anti-racist monitors at every game. More locally, Never Again will be holding positive fan activities in local communities to help generate a more positive atmosphere.

In reality there are unlikely to be overt racism or antisemitism within grounds. The ultra groups will not have the dominance within stadiums, even at Poland matches, and the police are likely to be uncompromising in their approach knowing that the world’s attention will be on them.

The more difficult question is whether this reduction in overt racism will continue after the Championships finish. The clubs and Polish FA might not put as much emphasis on this issue afterwards and stewards might not be as willing to intervene without pressure from above.

Rafal Pankowski is keen to remind us that the racism in football is simply a reflection of a more general problem within society and that it cannot be solved by football alone.

Certainly there was no disguising the intimidatory atmosphere at the Krakow derby. The match began with the home Wisla Krakow fans displaying a huge banner behind the goal depicting a Wisla Shark stirring a boiling cauldron which clearly contained the body of a rival Cracovia fan.

It might just have been a coincidence, but the Cracovia fan slumped over the side of the cauldron appeared to have a black head.

The Cracovia fans responded to their team going one-nil down, a goal which condemned them to relegation, by ripping up seats and attacking police in an attempt to get at rival fans. There must have been at least 100 bangers and rockets going off during the game and the police responded to the violence by a very liberal use of tear gas.

Last year a Cracovia fan was literally butchered to death after being chased through the streets by rival Wisla hooligans. He was the latest to die in violent clashes involving machetes, axes and knives. As violence ensued during their latest encounter, Wisla fans taunted their opponents about this death. Later that night, after everyone else was probably home in bed, the two rival gangs clashed in a wood outside the city.

Hope for future

The team at Never Again are excited about the forthcoming European Championships but they are realistic about the problems they face. “We hope the change will continue” says Rafal. “I think the direction is good.

“It is up to us to make sure the change is for the long term.”

 Posted: Saturday, 2 June 2012 | There are 3 comments


Comment 1 | From: Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera | Date: 6 June 2012, 17:54

If the English FA were truly champions of anti-discriminatory behaviour I would have hoped that they would have voted with their feet and not attended Euro 2012, rather than be seen as complicit in supporting the Far-Right's abhorrent exhibition of racist bravado by their attendance. As for the English squad attending Auschwitz, this has potential benefits if the team are afforded the appropriate time and support to truly understand the enormity of what they will see and experience. I have been involved in both taking people to Auschwitz, as well as using Holocaust material within hate Crime Courses within the Police Service, and I am aware of some of the obstacles to learning that exist, as well as how easily the experience is just too much for many people, and as a result they switch off. The English FA needs in my opinion to do far more than it currently is to tackle the scourge of racism that actually appears to be increasing on the terraces.

Comment 2 | From: LondonStatto | Date: 8 June 2012, 13:25

"If the English (sic) FA were truly champions of anti-discriminatory behaviour I would have hoped that they would have voted with their feet and not attended Euro 2012" Insane.

Comment 3 | From: Page Mackinley | Date: 8 June 2012, 14:23

The weird thing about racists is that they think they're sane. Think about it. What kind of person gets up, goes about their day, grabs a coffee, goes to work - or not -- hating, seething, boiling, full of hate? Hating anyone or anything that doesn't look like them, sound like them, or 'feel' like them? How is that sane? What can that possbly add to anyone's life - or that of others? When I - and each and every one of us - gets to the end of our lives and has to think about what we did, what we gave and what we meant; I sincerely hope the irrational hatred of another living, feeling, human being is NOWHERE on my bucket list.

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