With only seventeen months passing since Poland’s successful co-hosting of the European Championships, fans of all sixteen clubs in the country’s top flight are now being threatened with the possibility of being unable to follow their teams on the road. After a number of recent incidents involving supporters travelling to away games, the country’s police chiefs have asked the Polish Football Association to consider implementing a nationwide ban on away fans; leading to widespread disapproval.
The situation was brought to a head after a recent Ekstraklasa meeting between Widzew Łódź and Zawisza Bydgoszcz, which saw a number of clashes. In the second half, around 600 fans of Widzew’s biggest rivals ŁKS (who also happen to be friends with Zawisza) tried to break their way into Bydgoszcz’s athletics stadium. At the same time, Zawisza fans left the stand to aid their allies against the police, whilst the visiting supporters attempted to break out of their section to confront their foes. Stones, bricks and metal fencing was hurled at the riot police, who themselves were forced into firing rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters. Four policemen were injured, and four police cars were destroyed during the incident. A total of sixteen fans were arrested.
For their part in the incident, both clubs have seen their supporters banned from away games until the winter break, whilst Zawisza have seen their stadium closed for one game, and a section closed until the end of the season. However it was the fans’ actions on the way to the ground rather than the fighting inside which has caused the authorities to issue their request to the FA.
During their 220 kilometre journey north, a handful of the ŁKS fans making the journey from Łódź became involved in an incident where a trees were felled onto a major train line. As well as delaying a number of Widzew fans making the same trip, countless others were inconvenienced as trains were rerouted to avoid the chaos. The incident has now led to a nationwide debate as to whether a ban on away supporters will save money for the country’s already stretched police forces.
“The chief of police, superintendent Marek Działoszyński, has asked the heads of the Polish Football Association and the T-Mobile Ekstraklasa to prohibit the participation of visiting fans in league matches until the end the season” said police spokesman Mariusz Sokołowski. He also went on record to say that in the 136 league games played up until that point, there were 73 violations of the law involving fans. Sixty cases of use of pyrotechnics were also recorded, whilst another 57 recorded incidents took place as visiting fans were making their way to the stadiums.
Back in August before an early-season meeting between Lech Poznań and Pogoń Szczecin, fighting between the two sets of supporters erupted. During the fracas, the visiting team’s fans – at the time friends with Lech’s biggest rivals Legia Warsaw – caused around six-thousand złotys (£1,200) worth of damage to the city’s buses; smashing windows, tearing seats and breaking electronic displays.
In September, an incident in the northern coastal city of Gdynia reached national newspapers when a group of Ruch Chorzów fans fought a group of visiting Mexican sailors, in front of families on a packed beach, after one of the Mexicans was accused of assaulting a woman. Last season there was also a widely shared video of groups of Cracovia and Widzew Łódź supporters fighting at Katowice train station – despite the two sides not even being in the same league at the time; just passing by each other on their way to their club’s games in Świnoujście and Gliwice respectively.
“We have significant problems with organized fan groups crossing paths, for which virtually no one wants to take responsibility” said Działoszyński. “Actually, we are left with the problem as they police themselves”.
“You should consider whether the actual reason for fans’ attendance at matches is to take part in the sporting arena and cheer for their team, or the desire to only cause trouble.”
But despite the undeniable problem, it didn’t take long for the idea to be shot down:
“It’s so surreal that it is difficult to comment on it” exclaimed Dariusz Smagorowicz, president of Silesian club Ruch Chorzów. “I think that there is no other country in Europe that would apply such a solution”.
Małgorzata Korny, director of organisation and security at Śląsk Wrocław, also weighed in on the debate, exclaiming: “If you are sick in one place, would you treat the whole body? For a long time we have had no problems with away fans – I can even say that our cooperation with them has been perfect. There may have been some isolated incidents, but never a big deal. Football stadiums are for spectators”.
After the clubs had their say, it was down to Zbigniew Boniek, president of the Polish FA, to flatly deny the police’s request:
“The Polish Football Association does not adopt a resolution ordering the playing of all games without spectators from the visiting teams. In the opinion of the PZPN, to introduce this type of collective disciplinary sanction would be inappropriate and would not improve the situation with regard to these problems”.
“Fans of Polish clubs have repeatedly proved that a lack of tickets for a match does not stop them from travelling in the wake of their team. Attempting to play matches without the participation of visiting supporters could see fans travelling between two cities in a completely uncontrolled manner, which would complicate the work of both the organizers of matches and the police”.
Understandably, the police forces which have spent approximately 3.2 million złotys (£630,000) in policing top-flight football so far this year, were extremely disappointed with former Juventus and Roma midfielder Boniek’s response.
“The question is: do we have to put a multi-million złoty burden on the Polish taxpayer? In the first half of 2011, we had a solution” recalled police spokesperson Sokołowski, of the PZPN’s actions in the hope to eradicate hooliganism in the run-up to Euro 2012. “For four rounds, matches took place without the presence of the visiting supporters. During this time, there were less than half the number of incidents.”
Though Euro 2012 may have passed largely without a hitch, the threat of hooliganism does seem to still be a problem which, at the moment, Polish football doesn’t know how to deal with. Current sanctions are merely forcing the problems away from the safety of the country’s new modern stadia, causing problems for the general public. Whilst the suggested idea may not have had much effect, or would have even been fair on the majority of fans who travel to away games without issue; with a police force almost at breaking point, there is a real need for some action to be taken before the problems begin to spiral out of control. But what that action would be, no-one can seem to agree on.