The Holy War in Poland
The Centenary of the Holy War
Its full name is the “Great Derby of the Royal Capital City of Krakow”. No wonder the shorter “Holy War” is used more commonly. And it fits better too. Two weeks ago marked 100 years since this all officially started: Wisla Krakow versus MKS Cracovia, perhaps the most intense derby in the world.
When I first came to Krakow, my friends advised me to stay home on Holy War day. Not without hesitation, I went shopping and passed police in riot gear here, there and… everywhere. It’s a game everyone talks about days before, but when it finally comes Krakow seems like an ocean just before the storm — abnormally silent.
It’s surely not The Biggest Game in the World, as such. No chance, with stadium capacities of 6,000 and 20,000. In a few years both grounds will be rebuilt, but will still not match any of the great rivalries worldwide in terms of the scale. It won’t compete with the Old Firm games in terms of frequency, either. But I doubt even the Old Firm could produce an experience comparable in terms of intensity. In fact, when I bought tickets for a few Scotsmen two years ago, they left the stadium by half time feeling their lives were threatened.
My club is Wisla Krakow. People call it Biala Gwiazda (White Star). Cracovia call us “dogs”. For 40 years Wisla was owned by the communist police, and “dog” is a common term of abuse for police officers in Poland. Cracovia are known as Pasy (Stripes) or “Jews”. That’s a consequence of Cracovia’s supposed Jewish roots. Fans of both clubs have learned to live with these bitter nicknames. Wisla fanatics often use the dog theme, emphasising the positive traits (bravery, loyalty, commitment), such as in the flags “Furious Dogs” or “Fidelity”. Meanwhile, Cracovia’s hooligans actually called themselves “Jude Gang” and their stadium’s nickname is “Holy Ground”.
The stadiums are a stone’s throw distance apart, just across a meadow. It looks nearly absurd when supporters are loaded into buses near one of them and escorted by armored vans to the other. They could easily walk there within five minutes. But it’s not called Holy War for nothing.
Bigger than World War
The term “Holy War” was at first 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 was then integrated into a song and became popular.
Cracovia was set to meet Wisla on September 2nd, 1939. However, due to German aggression, the players were sent to battle and at least 21 never came back. When the Germans took control of Krakow, they prohibited all sporting events. Being declared by Hitler as the capital of the General Government, Krakow was the base for up to 50,000 German soldiers.
But even this didn’t stop the rivalry. The “conspiracy championships of Krakow” were hosted mostly by small grounds in the outskirts of the city, but still attended by hundreds or even thousands. Needless to say, being caught during an event like this could mean death. But it was only in 1942 that the derby did not take place. The Nazis had been informed about the time and place and so the game was abandoned when German forces started arriving.
In 1943, over 10,000 people came to cheer for their teams as the Holy War was decisive for the Krakow conspiracy championship. When the referee gave Cracovia a penalty kick four minutes before full time, Wisla players attacked him. A moment later the whole audience was engaged in a huge fight. The battling crowd started moving and reached the district headquarters of the German SS in Podgorze. The only thing that saved people from being sent to nearby Auschwitz was the fact that the SS was governed by a former Austrian football player. When he had heard that this riot was a result of the derby game, he said: “Supporters? Then let them fight…”.
Just 10 days after Krakow’s liberation, when the war was still going on in Europe, the city which had lost over a quarter of its population was again excited by the Holy War. The game was far from perfect — it lasted only an hour — and Cracovia’s team was incomplete, whilst the referee was a Wisla fanatic (history had come full circle — the first official game in 1908 was refereed by a Cracovia player).
In the early 70s, Cracovia’s position started deteriorating rapidly. Year by year they were relegated, ending up in the local league. The club was stuck there and so the Krakow derby had to take a break. But supporters couldn’t stand that thought. They convinced authorities to celebrate the first Holy War after Krakow’s liberation by hosting an annual anniversary derby. As the games were played in late January, the timing didn’t collide with league schedule. It didn’t count in the league; it was about who would be calling themselves Pany (Masters) for the next year.
These matches were played annually until 1990. That year brought perhaps the most unbelievable scene in Polish fan culture’s history. Police officers clashed with supporters, which isn’t surprising in itself. But the police intervention after the game was widely judged as far too brutal. Therefore, they were counterattacked by Cracovia hooligans and, most surprisingly, by Wisla’s fanatics as well. Side by side, supporters of both clubs had pushed police far into the city centre and later trashed the USSR consulate, where some of the escaping policemen had sought safety. This time the Krakow derby was prohibited for good, and no more anniversary Holy Wars have been played.
To cope with the remaining demand, the rector of Jagiellonian University organized a game in 1993. Thankfully for the rivalry, soon after that Cracovia advanced to the second division and Wisla was relegated from the top flight, so both teams could finally meet again in the league. However, Wisla soon went back up to the Ekstraklasa and so no games have been played for seven years.
In 2004, when Cracovia returned to the top flight, the first derby in the Ekstraklasa for 20 years was to be played. The game ended goalless, but for many what was happening off the pitch was more important. Over 1,600 policemen were sent to secure the game and citizens were officially asked to “avoid strolling and watch their backs when leaving home to consign the garbage”.
The dark side
The Holy War tends to have a literal meaning for some. When Wisla reserves were playing Clepardia in the Polish Cup, they had to come to a district dominated by Cracovia fans. Before the game Clepardia players supposedly told their rivals: “They’ll get you after the game anyway”. Just after the final whistle, a group of up to 40 hooligans attacked the Wisla players. According to some witnesses, they were armed with knives or even axes. Before police came, several players had to run between the blocks for safety.
I’ve heard and read a few times that the first victim of the Holy War was the wife of a Cracovia fan in 1930s smothered by her husband in the stadium. She was supposed to have asked him just before full time: “Which team is ours?”. This might be an urban myth, but the fact is, when a couple of people approach you in the street, the last question you want to hear is “Who do you support?”
Krakow’s districts are strongly divided and the map of football sympathies resembles a chessboard. One district supports Wisla, the other Cracovia, with fans of third division Hutnik being a rather outnumbered minority. If you wander around the housing estates, you’ll notice various graffiti indicating whose estate it is. Those are probably the most dangerous places, rather than the stadiums: Mateusz ended up with his brain out. Filip stabbed. Kamil with an axe in his back. Michal died under baseball bats. And the list goes sadly on.
Legia fans recently refused to go to an away game in Krakow “in the name of principle”. Wisla’s and Cracovia’s firms are the only two that haven’t signed the “Poznan agreement” a few years back according to which firms nationwide don’t use weapons in fights.
The atmosphere at the Krakow derby is hard to compare with anything. It’s one of the few games when you can see the whole stands jumping. No matter if it’s Cracovia’s “Kto nie skacze, ten za Wisłą” (Who’s not jumping is a Wisla supporter) or Wisla’s jumping chants. This is where you will see a sea of hands in the air whenever the capo tells to raise them. This is the game when chants are thundering onto the pitch. This is simply the game of the season, the game ultras are preparing weeks or even months before. When Cracovia returned to Ekstraklasa, “Ultra Wisla” prepared several different choreographies for one game. When Wisla celebrated their centenary in 2006, they made around 700 flags especially for that game.
And so to the final result of the 175th Holy War: on the pitch, 2:1 to Wisla, making them the Pany. Off the pitch, 15 seats were trashed in the away section, several enemy scarves were burnt on the fences and two minor riots with police and security came after full time (one in the home section, one in the away section). After the previous seasons, this sounds almost like a picnic.
Photo credits: mi… on Flickr.