Euro 2012: Poland’s big test

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Back at last! After a hectic March spent boning up on sewage and construction terminology to fully justify my claim to know everything, I am at last able to focus some of my attention on AKE! as before.

For most of the footballing world, the words looming ever larger on the horizon are “World” and “Cup”, with no small about of interest for the words “League” and “Champions” (in either order, or both, depending on your team of choice). Sadly, Poland won’t be gracing the World Cup with their presence, and the Extraklasa is accelerating the pulses of corruption investigators but few others. So, in an act of solidarity with the Poles (and to block out thoughts of England’s inevitable glorious penalty shoot-out defeat in June), I’m turning the spotlight to Euro 2012.

When UEFA announced 3 years ago that the 2012 European Championships were to be held in Poland and Ukraine, the general overwhelming bemusement felt around Europe was matched only by the huge pride and joy here in Poland (and presumably Ukraine too). True, in typical Polish fashion there was a tinge of cynicism as to the likely success and timeliness of the preparation work on stadiums and infrastructure, but at present things in that respect seem to be going fairly well. The same can’t be said of the 4 cities chosen in Ukraine, and they were seemingly very close to losing their role as hosts when the UEFA inspectors last visited- a lack of attractive alternatives possibly aiding their cause and seeing the decision made to keep faith with Ukraine to pull through somehow.

The real elephant in the room though, in terms of a threat to the success of the tournament, and one of the principal causes of the mediocre level of the Polish club game, is the hooliganism that is an inescapable part of football here. The scale of the problem was summed up by a story concerning one of Kraków’s Irish pubs that I heard from a friend recently, which goes something like this:

A British tourist over for a weekend of fun with the boys bought himself a replica Cracovia (one of Kraków’s 2 top-flight sides) shirt, slipped it on and headed to said Irish pub for a beer or two over the latest Premier League action. The manager of the pub spotted the red and white stripes of the Cracovia shirt across the bar, approached the customer, who was doing nothing worse than drinking his beer and enjoying time in the pub with his mates, and told him to leave, recommending he take off his shirt when he could and save wearing it for when he got back to the motherland.

Why did the manager do this? What had this man done to deserve ejection form the premises? Well, the answer to the second question is basically nothing, but the reason he was told to leave was that the manager didn’t want any trouble in his establishment, and trouble follows Polish football, as sure as a fall follows pride. Walking around the city, as previously mentioned home to 2 top-flight sides in Wisła and Cracovia, you simply do not see anyone wearing replica shirts of either team, and those you do see occasionally, of the usual English or Spanish giants, are usually worn by tourists who don’t know any better.  It simply isn’t safe to be seen in Kraków so openly showing allegiance to one or other of the clubs here because of the antipathy between them. Whether this rivalry is genuinely the reason for any potential violence dished out by ‘fans’ of the opposing side or just an excuse is irrelevant- walking the streets of any Polish city, even a civilised one like Kraków, sporting such attire is an open invitation for a passing thug to consign you to a hospital bed.

This deeply entrenched association between football and violence is endemic throughout the country and should be a major worry for the people responsible for the success of Euro 2012 here and in the corridors of power at UEFA. It is not a well-publicised matter so won’t hamper ticket sales or the influx of visitors for the matches, but the native ‘supporters’ aren’t likely to be very welcoming to those who fly in to watch games that the majority of Polish skinheads can’t afford tickets for. There is a serious danger of the tournament’s legacy being one of violence and unrest.

On a larger socio-economic level, the lack of income from sales of shirts and other merchandise is severely hampering the progress of Polish clubs, having a strong effect on Poland’s lowly 26th place in countries according to UEFA coefficient. In turn this gives Polish football less exposure to European competition, which would bring greater finance and a higher level of competition. People in the UK are familiar with the self-perpetuating nature of the big 4 and their annual exploits in the Champions League, but few realise that the equivalent vicious circle is in operation at the bottom of Europe’s pile as well

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