Racism in Poland: What you didn’t see on the BBC

It took me a while to finally see the report on racism in Polish football by the BBC’s Mihir Bose that most of my friends have been talking about for last few days. After five years of attending every Polish football match I come across, I was shocked to see a report that depicted racism as so prevalent. Is that really the case?

Seing Nazi symbols inside Polish stadiums always scares me. Why would anyone in Poland praise the people who, if succeeded, would gladly wipe the country and it’s people out? My first-hand experience is that this is very uncommon, although I can’t deny the problem exists.

During my five years on Wisla Krakow’s fanatic terraces, I’ve twice heard such disgraceful chants sung by a couple of isolated individuals. One is “Our role model is Rudolf Hess” and another “We have a hero — Adolf Hitler”, which sadly rhyme in Polish, making it even more grotesque. I did not hear these during games, but somewhere near the stadium. That would be it for any nazi connections. I’ve also seen a few photos in the press showing small banners with similar content, mostly during lower division games, where security is far from perfect and clubs are happy if anyone comes to the stadium at all.

Racism in general is, unfortunately, more common. Throwing bananas onto the pitch still happens occasionally — I recall a few cases during the last decade. Monkey chants also happen from time to time. These are, of course, deeply deplorable acts and need to be eradicated. The question, though, is whether racism is as wildly prevalent in Polish football as the BBC report ended up concluding, with the studio panel suggesting 20% of fans are racist.

Polish fans

Legia Warsaw

The central evidence related to racism in Bose’s report came from Legia Warsaw. The club’s chairman stated that 15-20% of Legia fans were racists, a remarkable figure if true. What you might not know is that Legia’s board are in deep conflict with the supporters’ association and the ultras group. Their war dates back to the Vilnius pitch invasion in 2007, which was also reported on Pitch Invasion. After this crucial game, Legia started banning fans from the stadium. Among 21 bans given directly after the disorder, only 14 were to those who took part in it. Others, as the club informed supporters, were given to people who “had been notoriously violating the stadium regulations”. These were to Legia’s ultras group “Nieznani Sprawcy” (Unknown Perps) responsible for flares and flags inside the stadium: nothing to do with racism. Some of their displays have also been shown here on Pitch Invasion previously.

This is the reason why the fans were protesting at the game shown on the report, and since they’re doing surprisingly well — managing to have most football fans nationwide on their side even some media support — it’s very convenient for the Legia chairman to paint them as racists en masse. But there was little evidence produced to support this assertion.

After the BBC report, the Polish newspaper Super Express accused Legia’s authorities of having no proof for their allegations, as did another of Poland’s biggest newspapers, Dziennik, which expressed doubts that the Legia chairman knew what he was talking about. Supporters have seen little evidence that Legia are really interested in tackling the problem.

The studio discussion after Bose’s report also blurred the issue. Scenes of chanting in the stadium, led by a capo, were portrayed as shocking. Yet this was not racist chanting. Players claim they love it when the stadium roars and almost 6,000 fans from “Żyleta” (“Razor Blade”- the terrace mentioned in the report as one not to go to) chant in unison. In the video shown, there are no Nazi/fascist/racist chants and, according to Super Express, Legia fans cannot recall last time when anything like that took place. It seems the BBC studio panel mistook a capo leading chants — something seen around the world in many leagues including MLS, but not in England — for some kind of fascist movement.

On the one hand it’s rather sad that the reporter only listened to the club chairman’s side of the story. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame him for only hearing one side. Supporters do not have much sympathy for journalists, who put them under constant attack, thus making it unsurprising the ultras did not wish to meet the BBC reporter.

Polish fans

The Background to Football Hooliganism

The BBC report also failed to examine the connection of racism and hooliganism in football to broader societal issues. This does not excuse any remaining racism on the terraces, but the solutions to the problem goes deeper than the panel suggested. Poland is a formerly homogeneous society undergoing a considerable change in terms of diversity. This is not a problem football can solve as easily as the panel seemed to think.

When compared to England, the BBC report failed to explore the legacy of 50 years of communism. One huge obstacle this period has left in Poland is a lack of trust for public institutions. Under the communist regime, the government was the enemy and police a tool used to smother any signs of inappropriate activities. At that time, football stadia were one of the few places with a relative freedom of speech. Football violence seemed honorable when opposed to the aggression of the police. This is still the case today. The rival fans of Cracovia and Wisla have united only a few times in history — once after the Pope’s death, for common mourning, and at other times, against the police. If there is any enemy worse than most bitter football rivals for fans, it’s the police. When a football supporter is attacked or robbed, the police are still the last institution he would turn to.

This makes addressing the issue of inappropriate behavior very hard. The police are still not gaining any respect, as even the Polish Ombudsman says that abuse of authority and unprovoked violence by police officers goes on today.

The Polish football association (PZPN) isn’t doing much better. Match delegates tend to have problems in the interpretation of symbols in some flags and banners and sometimes their decisions turn regular fans against them, not just the hardcore ones.

Laws similar to those applied by Margaret Thatcher are currently being introduced, like high fines, stadium bans and 24 hour courts for hooligans. The question is, will this really help if the whole system isn’t working right?

As the report also said, there has been improvement on the terraces over the years in any case. This week, when my fellow football fan saw the report, she told me: “Oh dear, I forgot these guys exist. The reporter was pretty lucky to find one that would prove his theory.” Nowadays, racism and nazi connections are not approved by most football fans. As the Polish sociologist and fan culture expert Jerzy Dudala said, this is more about showing off than about really knowing and understanding the meaning of certain symbols. Education is certainly needed to help eradicate all remaining racist behavior, even more than indiscriminate draconian action.

Euro 2012

As they discussed Euro 2012, I wondered why the report was mixing up league football with national teams. Poland has literally two kinds of audiences. The atmosphere at Poland’s games is hard to compare with league football. Each time a big tournament comes round, the media worldwide scare half of the globe with talk of Polish hooligans and afterwards it seems like the threat had been exaggerated in the first place. Did any violence or racism erupt at Poland – Costa Rica game during the last World Cup? There was nothing unusual, and all the media covering this event praised the atmosphere created by over 30,000 Poles.

The past few years have seen huge changes in Polish football. New stadiums are rising, standards of safety and comfort at football grounds are improving and so is the behavior of football fans. A protest of Polish ultras that might have evolved into a riot a few years back was now even backed by the media and resulted in a debate over what should and shoudn’t be allowed at football grounds. Whilst more progress need to be made, scaremongering reports with little informed opinion in them do not particularly help.

Photo credits: mbozkera and barket nowicki on Flickr

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