Ever since it was announced that Poland and Ukraine would be co-hosting the 2012 European Football Championship, Euro 2012 has in the minds of the Polish people become a symbol of the immense changes that have occurred in Poland since the fall of communism: new modern stadiums, happy, well-dressed people and vibrant and dynamic cities combining the old and the new, and that are in no way inferior to their Western counterparts. Euro 2012 was supposed to be the ultimate celebration of the long way both countries (especially Poland) have come since the dark and depressing days of the 1980s. In many ways this has happened. However, the events that unfolded on June 12 (not an insignificant date, as June 12 is Russia Day, the national holiday of the Russian Federation) in Warsaw represented Poland's worst nightmare, as the new Central European powerhouse's ugly underbelly was exposed for the world to see.
Russian supporters marching to the stadium where Russia was about to face the Czech Republic, chanting "Russia, Russia" and waving the Russian national flag were attacked, in a seemingly coordinated and premeditated fashion, by hundreds of Polish supporters, predominantly young men. Clashes ensued, water cannons and tear gas were deployed by the police in full riot gear, non-lethal rounds were fired and several dozens of people were arrested.
The story was widely publicized and even people with no interest in soccer were watching with a mixture of disgust and disbelief. Yet nobody in Poland was truly surprised. After all, "soccer hooligan" riots have been a common sight in Poland for decades. The predominant feeling among "ordinary" Poles seemed to be that of shame. There are very few nations in the world who care more about other nations' opinion than Poles. And here the world's attention, for at least a few hours, became centered on Poland, and for all the wrong reasons.
This all raises the question -- why did this happen? One explanation readily offered by foreign and Polish journalists alike, that of the ongoing animosity between the two nations, does not seem totally convincing. Many, if not most, of the men involved in the riots have no recollection of the Soviet dominance over Poland. There is certainly a lot of bad blood between Poland and Russia to this day, but this seems more like a pretext than anything else. The real reason seems to be the same one that made a Polish club Wisla Krakow supporter throw a knife from the stands, hitting an Italian player Dino Baggio in the head during a 1998 UEFA Cup game and that caused rioting after another Polish club, Legia Warsaw, played a European competition game in Lithuania in 2007: the frustration, emptiness and hopelessness that some young Polish men face in their everyday lives.
This is not a strictly Polish phenomenon. There is something about the game of soccer that seems to give way to violence of even greater proportions than those described above. Early this year, in one of the worst incidents of fan rioting, violence broke out in a local Egyptian soccer match resulting in the deaths of 74 people. The Egyptian military blamed die-hard Egyptian soccer fans, popularly known as "ultras," for the mass riots and deaths. Ultras, having a long history of confrontation with military police, participated heavily in the mass uprising of the Egyptian Arab Spring, which brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Victims' families and human rights activists blamed the military for failing to maintain security and alleged that military officers knew weapons had been brought into the stadium. After protestors demanded accountability from authorities, 75 individuals including nine military officials were indicted for murder; to date no military official has been convicted. Like the Polish soccer hooligans, the Egyptian ultras were largely composed of young men, disenchanted and disillusioned with the status quo.
It is common knowledge that the Polish transformation, while tremendously beneficial for large parts of Polish society, has left some people behind. Those people include some urban young men, mostly living in communist-era apartment building complexes in large cities, often poorly-educated and sometimes with substance abuse problems. For those men, becoming a soccer hooligan is a way to fill the void; interestingly, some of these men do not seem have a genuine interest in the game itself.
But it is more than that -- in some cases it is a career choice of sorts. The link between organized crime and soccer hooligans is well documented. Proving oneself in riots and clashes with the police and other clubs' supporters may be a way to get noticed and become involved in more lucrative endeavors, such as drug dealing or becoming an organized crime enforcer. And all of this, while officially condemned by almost everyone, happens in the atmosphere of silent acceptance. The various soccer club authorities, and some players too, seem to be on good terms with the hooligans' leaders and even consult them regarding some important decisions.
It seems that soccer matches continue to be, even in political backdrops as different as Poland and Egypt, a sanctified outlet of group violence that authorities secretly cooperate with or at least by their inaction passively condone.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more