Will Poland vs. Russia Spark a Soccer War on Warsaw’s Streets?

As the two historic rivals squared off at the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, fears grew over animosities spilling onto the streets of Warsaw

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Imago / ZUMA Press

Russian and Czech fans watch as Russia beats the Czech Republic during the UEFA European Football Championship on June 8, 2012

Update: The BBC reports that violent clashes have broken out Tuesday in Warsaw between Russian and Polish fans, during a march by Russian fans to the stadium for their team’s Euro 2012 match against Poland. Polish police have intervened to separate the rival camps, but they fear it may be more difficult to contain such violence once the parade is over, and rival groups of fans spread out in the Polish capital, during and after the match.

Three decades ago, Poland lived in fear of waking up on any morning to see the Russians marching through Warsaw’s streets. On Tuesday, that fear will be realized. Of course, it won’t be the Red Army coming to crush the 1981–82 democratic uprising, but instead the thousands of Russian soccer fans who have vowed to march through the Polish capital ahead of their national team’s Euro 2012 showdown with co-host nation Poland. For many Poles, the 20,000 Russian fans expected in the city, including some ultra-nationalists, will be no more welcome than the Soviets would have been 30 years ago.

The official Russian football-fan organization has stressed that its planned march has no political intent and is simply a show of support for the team, but Warsaw police have identified Tuesday’s events as the biggest security challenge of the tournament Poland is co-hosting with Ukraine. “We will be keeping a constant eye on possible threats,” Interior Minister Jacek Cichocki told the AFP on Monday.

(PHOTOS: Russia’s Soccer Hooligans)

Both countries have pockets of hardcore ultra-fans who, during their domestic soccer season, routinely battle in the streets and bleachers with fans of rival clubs. The presence of such groups raises the potential for violent clashes around a game as symbolically fraught as Poland-Russia. Soccer fans from both countries are working against the enmity being fueled by the nationalist narrative, with Reuters reporting joint wreath-laying ceremonies at a monument for Soviet soldiers killed fighting the Nazis in Poland and at another commemorating Poles killed in the heroic 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers — the latter, of course, being another instance of Polish historical grievance with Moscow because Soviet forces had waited outside the city while the 63-day uprising was crushed before pressing forward to drive the Germans out.

For many Poles, history’s wounds are too raw to be simply forgotten. While West European countries have generally moved on from World War II narratives as the basis of national football passions — except as self-parody, like when England fans carry blow-up plastic Spitfire fighter planes and sing about the Royal Air Force shooting down German bombers during the Blitz — Eastern Europe’s wounds are a lot fresher, and it hasn’t had the benefit of a half-century of shared prosperity to heal the scars. Poland’s newspapers have taken to likening Tuesday’s game to the Miracle of the Vistula, the 1920 battle in which Polish forces repelled an onslaught by Russian Bolsheviks looking to export their revolution. Poland’s coach Franciszek Smuda is depicted as a latter-day reincarnation of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the archnationalist opponent of the Soviets and the czarist Russian empire who led that victorious fight.

(READ: Why Putin’s Russia celebrates the 1612 triumph over the Poles.)

It may have been a tasteful choice: an episode almost a century old as the narrative peg for nationalist chest beating because the political animosity between the two countries remains very much alive and more recent. Poland is still mourning the loss of President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed with 94 others in an air crash in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, and whose circumstances are still disputed. The incident is made all the more bitter by the fact that Kaczynski had been en route to speak at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the notorious massacre at Katyn, where some 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed by their Soviet captors in 1940 — a source of abiding Polish rage at Moscow throughout the almost five decades of Soviet power over Poland. An honest reckoning with the crimes of the past was impossible under Soviet control, and the postcommunist leadership of both countries has made little headway in addressing their troubled history, even as they’ve built pragmatic relations.

(MORE: Euro 2012: Racist Abuse of Dutch Players in Poland Clouds Soccer Tournament)

The fact that in strictly footballing terms, Russia is a considerably stronger contender simply underscores the narrative of little Poland facing up to the imperial behemoth. Of course, if Russia wins, as the form book suggests it may well do, that would make defeat even harder to swallow for the locals, particularly if thousands of Russians are on Warsaw’s streets rubbing their faces in it. The Polish authorities have sanctioned the prematch Russian fan march and encouraged Poles to join with the Russians in celebrating what is also Russia Day, the anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. That, however, is unlikely to diminish the nationalist tinge on proceedings.

Some Russian fans announced themselves at their team’s opening game last Friday against the Czech Republic with a savage, unprovoked beating of Polish stewards outside the match that left four in the hospital. Others brandished a Russian imperial banner and set off fireworks. Russian fans had also been arrested after fighting with Ukrainian fans in the city of Lviv, Ukraine, earlier — UEFA has launched disciplinary proceedings and is also investigating claims that Russian fans directed racial abuse at the Czech fullback Theodor Gebre Selassie, who is of Ethiopian origin. And, of course, a handful of Polish fans have also been implicated in violence against visiting fans of various nations in recent days. Russia’s football authorities are pleading with the fans who have traveled to Poland to “respect yourself, your home and your team” and keep politics out of the stadium. That may be a tall order for a clash that enacts, in ritual form, a century and more of national enmity.

What the Russian and Polish fans perhaps need is a common enemy to take their minds off their differences — in the way that premedieval Popes called for Crusades as a way of getting the Europeans to stop fighting one another. (Perhaps that was why so many England fans showed up to their clash with France on Monday wearing full crusader chain mail bearing the cross of St. George!) But the only enemy charged-up fans in a stadium can agree to hate, usually, is the ref — oh, and in this particular game, he just happens to be German.

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