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


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

  1. SpanglyPrincess

    Thanks, Michal, for a thoughtful piece. I haven’t seen the original BBC piece but “mainstream UK media grossly misrepresent ultras and politics” is not a surprising state of affairs to me.

    How far, if at all, do political movements operate within the context of ultras groups – not necessarily nazis, but of any persuasion? In Italy there is an element of deliberate recruitment of ultras as political supporters, is there any parallel in Poland?

  2. alistair

    right…i was in krakow for the derby and i can’t recall being more concerned for my own safety at another sporting event and true to your point it was hard to discern whether it was the yobos or the police poised the great threat.

    that being said, seems like poland and the ukraine are racing against the clock to get the prep going for 2012. some of the road work is coming along, slowly albeit it but construction on the stadia appears to be in something of a state. as of my last trip there this past summer, krakow lacked a UEFA certified stadium. not certain the public transportation system has or will have the capacity to handle the strain that the masses of supporters will place on it either.

    in general, i found the country absolutely all right. the people are kind and helpful, most can communicate fairly well in english (they are very pro america and heard johnny cash and rem everywhere), and the soups and stews are brilliant. not a place for the diet conscious though.

    bit unfair really to single out poland as quite a few of the new european states have similar problems namely, croatia, serbia, czech republic / slovakia and russia.

  3. Michal

    Alistair- derby games are surely not the best choice for someone unprepaired for what goes on at these and in Polish stadiums in general. I asked some foreigners who have been to a Polish game for the first time. Most of them were very unsure what was going on and what might happen.
    And cannot blame you or anyone who feels unsafe. There’s quite some difference between going to games of Premiership, Primera Division or Allsvenskan (to name a few) and going to any game in the Polish first division. But it’s really the first impression only in most cases.

    Spangly Princess- I may say without slightest doubt that no left wing party would ever succeed in gaining support inside Polish stadia. Most supporters in general are on the right side of the political scene, but I wouldn’t risk saying there is a direct corelation between ultras and political groups. However, this is only my view and I’m not an “insider” for this matter.

  4. ursus arctos

    Michal, dziekuje bardzo for a very interesting article.

    Given how many other aspects of Polish culture in the post-Communist era have been heavily influenced by American and (to a lesser extent) British models, it is interesting to me to see that when it comes to ultras, the model seems very much to be an Italian one. Might you have some ideas as to why that is the case? The number of Poles living and visiting Italy certainly increased dramatically under Woytla’s papacy, but I would doubt that explains what happens in football grounds. Is there a Boniek effect of some sort? Have Serie A matches been regularly available on Polish television for a long time?

  5. Michal

    Ursus Arctos, dziekuje bardzo for taking a moment to read it.

    I think the case is pretty simple. England after Taylor’s report and Poland after communism are 2 different worlds. When it comes to infrastructure, stadium safety, political engagement and general social conditions we are a lot closer to Italians (or were, today’s Polish emigration to Britain is changing the situation rapidly). And I think this is just the soil for ultras.
    I don’t think it’s because of the Pope or Boniek. We also don’t see Serie A or… any league (even Polish) on free tv and few people can afford to pay for digital or satelite tv.

    Plus, Polish ultras is quite young- dates back to 2001 if I recall well. Back then England already wasn’t a good inspiration and USA is trying to develop it’s ultras right now, so we might be pretty close in the end.

  6. ursus arctos

    That’s a very interesting take, and sounds completely plausible. There are significant aspects of the Japanese ultra scene that are direct and very conscious attempts to copy the Italian “model” (and have their roots in the extensive coverage that Italian football got in Japan when Nakata and others played here), but that certainly is not the only way to get there.

  7. 1890

    Hello

    As far as I know Italy is the inspiration for the entire ultra movement in Europe. From its establishement in the mid 70′s as the structured setup we are familiar with, it took nearly a decade to come out of it, with the first places to turn to it outside its borders being very close to the Italian sphere of influence (Commando Ultras in Marseille in 84 and Ragazzi della Nord also in 84 in Lugano at the ice hockey club being two of the most famous examples) and it was not before the early 90′s that the spread went further “inland” with groups being born in France and Switzerland (in the French and Italian speaking part, Section Grenat of Servette Geneva becoming an the first major ultra group in 94). Nothern European countries were generally quite reluctant to abandon the looser English model but nowadays Germany has some really excellent “curvas”, shared between the older fan type (jeans jackets with patches and scarves on the arms…) and the modern ultra.

  8. ursus arctos

    Salut, mon pote.

    Did the Boulougne Boys at PSG form after ’84? I thought that they were already there when I first went to the Parc in late ’83, though it is perfectly possible that I am conflating that experience with my much more frequent visits later in the decade. As it happens, I have an article from So Foot that no doubt answers the question, but I can’t find it right now, and know that you know the answer at least as well as the author of the article in question.

    The current generational and style mix in the German Fankurven at the moment is indeed very interesting, and worthy of an article in itself. The idea of denim and patch-bedecked and mullet wearing “Fussballfan” in an Italian Curva is too ridiculous to contemplate, but some how it still works at home.

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  10. Tony B

    think the case is pretty simple. England after Taylor’s report and Poland after communism are 2 different worlds. When it comes to infrastructure, stadium safety, political engagement and general social conditions we are a lot closer to Italians (or were, today’s Polish emigration to Britain is changing the situation rapidly). And I think this is just the soil for ultras.
    I don’t think it’s because of the Pope or Boniek. We also don’t see Serie A or… any league (even Polish) on free tv and few people can afford to pay for digital or satelite tv.

    Plus, Polish ultras is quite young- dates back to 2001 if I recall well. Back then England already wasn’t a good inspiration and USA is trying to develop it’s ultras right now, so we might be pretty close in the end.

  11. Vern's Crowd Control Barriers

    Living in the US, I had no idea about a lot of the problems going on in the EU soccer league, but it seems fairly normal that this sort of bigotry is happening. After all, there’s no “civilized” place in the world where there isn’t any racism at all. I find it most interesting that it comes out of the former communist bloc, though.

  12. Rulo Vinello

    Very good written. I’ m loving reading these articles , it is such a rich topic, and a great chance for fans to share their knowledge & passion!

    R.Vinello

  13. Adam

    Poland’s Increased support of Fascist Germany comes from years of Communist Suppression, The Communists in Poland killed thousands , If not just as many as the German did. Despite what you may of heard or read from Politically bias journo and social commentators. Majority of the Polish People hate Communism and some not all, Have no faith in Democracy, especially with the current Global Economic Crisis, They See Fascist Germany of the old as the only other Alternative form government .

    Being of Polish Origin myself I can account for the Ultra Nationalist view of the polish people. Poland for the Polish people and also the classic line of GOD,RACE AND COUNTRY which many clubs use as their slogan. The global Left Wing Campaign to turn Patriotism into Nationalist/Fascist Politics, Help’s feed the Irritation. Poland for many years never had their own country let alone, Laws or government. So attacking the Polish peoples Patriotism for their home land, is not really a wise move and normally condemned by the general public.

    Let us not forget , These firms Helped Lech Walesa overthrow the oppressive communist government in Poland , they were his Militant Wing. If these firms overthrow governments , what chance do academics , Politicians and police have ? . Let us not forget , the current political recruitment drive to get these Hooligan firms involved in either Right Or Left Wing Politics , There are many documented cases of this , Especially in Poland and Russia. Not all clubs support Right Wing Ideologies either , some have ties with the old communist party