Eastern European Football fans are very much feared in the West, something I’m certain they take great pride in. And few come scarier or harder than the Poles. We picked a game, took out some Złoty, called up fellow blogger Between Distances and hopped the border to watch Pogon Szczecin take on Ruch Chorzów to see just how scary they get.
Right now in 2016, Polish fans have an awful reputation abroad. Be it the story of player Dominik Koszowski stabbed to death, Legia Warszawa fans who attacked stewards at the Westfalenstadion and began spraying them with their own stolen pepper spray or Arka Gdynia and Lechia Gdansk who staged a snowball fight with snow substituted with lit flares between home and away supporters during a game; so many Poles have astonished the outside world with their exploits as fans.
All former communist states with lower life satisfaction indices, high unemployment rates and low GDP per capita generally have “problems” with hooliganism (some fans don’t see it as a problem at all). The general trend is that young people, frustrated by lack of opportunity, turn to the Football fanatics to get that elusive sense of identity and self-worth. Unemployment eliminates the negative incentive of hooliganism (if you haven’t had a job in 4 years, what damage can a police record do?) and the sport’s dependency on the Ultras and hools mean that the governing Football body’s best bet is to tolerate the action, rather than kill off the only source of income for clubs in the form of ticket sales.
But Poland’s fan scene is complicated and massively fragmented. After years of conflict and political turmoil, alliances and confederates have emerged with supporters of different teams loyal to one another. Over the course of the 90s, mutual hatred caused hooligans to collaborate, launching attacks and ambushes on 3rd party hooligan groups, and the befriended fanatic groups would provide numbers in preparation for violence. The membership development of these coalitions and alliances has stemmed from many varying events, but the openly politicised nature of Polish hooliganism has resulted in a culture of competition amongst hooligans, with premeditated rather than random acts, and the large population of Poland’s cities has served to push fanatical behaviour beyond levels seen in other countries.
We caught a train, sitting down the way from some of Pogon’s German Fan Group in the same cabin also making the trip, and took a few hours to saunter around the city in the early afternoon sunlight, taking in the sights and sipping a beer or two to keep the extremities as warm as possible. Szczecin’s history shows; a city that has been German / Prussian longer than it has been Polish is evident in the architecture, much of which dating back to the 19th century. As dusk fell we made our way to the ground. A long wait in 2 different queues, a cheap scarf and sticker purchase, two dirt cheap pints and we were in.
What the Stadion Miejski im. Floriana Krygiera has in name length it compromises for in sectors. A giant bowl, very steep with two long terraces pitch side and a curve behind the goal for the Ultras, but inexplicably completely open down behind the other, giving it a very ‘unfinished’ feel. There are very few facilities around the ground; a basic clubhouse made of concrete and steel selling tickets and porta-cabins situated at various points for the weaker bladders. We had the cheap seats, not covered overhead but otherwise fine, with the Ultra curve to our left and away fans opposite. It took an hour for Ruch to bring any real numbers and only in the second half they made themselves heard, picking opportune quiet moments to sing, which was invariably met with whistles and “dobre curva curva” etc from the home fans. They probably brought about 200.
Ruch scored first, a very classy and composed finish after some tragic defending, with Pogon levelling with a curling shot to the top right corner (that would’ve looked suitable in any league) in the first half, and sealing the win in the second, can’t remember the goal. Poles claim to have taken influence much more from the English hooligan scene than the Italian Ultra style, thus we didn’t see mass amounts of flag waving or the like from the fanatics during the game, but we wanted a choreo and pyro show and we got one; an Iron Maiden inspired “Eddie” design accompanied with flares, in around about the 80th minute. Run for the fucking hills.
What struck me about the support was how inclusive it was, very much the opposite of what I had anticipated. We were not leered at or intimidated at any point, and were opened up in conversation by a few fans eager to talk. Fans in our sector, not in the Ultra curve, began chants on several occasions that the whole stadium sung, very contrasting to the German dogma of “nobody but the Capo”. Another novelty for us; the curve would call for our sector to begin a Mexican wave, which would run along our terrace, curl around the curve, over the Ultras and then back down the terrace opposite us. The Pogon fans didn’t make much a distinction between the different fan blocks; all sung and were applauded for it. It was much less hierarchical than support often feels in, for example, Germany. We left the stadium immensely satisfied. So much so that our post-game bar hopping caused us to miss the final train home.
We travelled to the game with Between Distances. For exceptional travel writing from places around the world and some truly epic Football tales, please check out his blog here.