Euro 2012 – a tale of two nations

Just a couple of weeks to go and the world’s attention is turning to the Euro 2012 Championships. Much of the press coverage from the UK has been negative, first focussing on the poor preparations of England’s training ground and recently on racism in both Polish and Ukrainian football. The BBC’s Panorama programme recently covered this in a lot more detail, trailing racism in both countries in the press with former England footballer Sol Campbell warning fans not to go to either Poland or Ukraine or risk ‘coming home in coffins’.

I’m a normal bloke who’s proud to have lived in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world for most of his life, who’s been to enough games at Wembley and travelled half way around the world for the world cup in South Africa. I’ve also been to more than a few Polish football games in my time to boot. I can only tell you my impressions on the people of Poland and how they will welcome visitors and try to avoid sounding either like an apologist or a scaremonger.

Poland is an overwhelmingly white country. With most polls putting white Catholics at around 97% of the population there can be plenty of days when you don’t see anyone of any alternate nationality. I’ve seen racism too. As I documented in my blog ‘Welcome to Warsaw’ on previous occasions, I’ve seen a man make monkey noises at the substitution of a black player in a Legia Warszawa game. I’ve seen the white power symbol and SS twin lighting flashes scrawled on walls and worn on T-shirts. I’ve spoken with a half Nigerian girl who told me she’d been abused twice the 18 years she’d lived in Poland. This is a country in which overt nationalism and a racism we would find shocking can be found relatively easily – and it’s abhorrent. But the picture is more complex than the recent headlines and reports have credited.

Poland is a land of contrasts: Growing cosmopolitan cities surrounded by a countryside which can sometimes look and feel as if the last 100 years have passed it by unremarked. Young or old, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, those who have benefited from Poland’s quite stunning economic growth since it won its own freedom or those who haven’t – there are many polarised ends of the spectrum in Poland. For young uneducated Poles from the countryside and on the margins of Poland’s success since it won its freedom in 1989, the heady togetherness found in a mix of martial arts, tribal league team support, aggressive nationalism and fear of the outsider (driven by Poland’s unfortunate position as the cricket ball between Germany and Russia) can be powerfully seductive.

After the Allies carved Poland into an ethnically homogenous country at the end of the Second World War it lost forever the multiculturalism which had previously made it quite exceptional in Europe (with a population of some 3 million Jewish people, 10% of the population and many other ethnic mixes besides). Subsequent stoking of anti-Semitic feeling by successive Communist Governments led to the last few Jewish people
leaving for life abroad. A thousand years of relatively comparatively undisturbed Jewish life wiped out.

In the turbulence of Poland’s transformation in the early 90s the racist skinhead culture grew powerful as rampant inflation took hold and for many it looked like Poland would turn into an economic basket case like other former Communist occupied countries. That it didn’t is partly down to the work ethic and discipline of Poland’s people who worked desperately hard for a better life.

People like my friend Marcin. A guy who as a child was forced to stand in line to queue for bread before school. Who suffered deprivations most of us from the West can read about but not comprehend. A man who has built his own company up from the ground and is now enjoying the success of this hard work. For many professional Poles like Marcin the future is bright and the (occasional) racism found in Poland is both repellent and embarrassing. And yet, Marcin sits in the same football stands as those same men who wear white power beanies and polo shirts. From the same background, but with a different outlook on life.

Poland shouldn’t be afraid of the world’s attention. We should be glad the world is holding a mirror up to this wonderful country. Now let’s show the world its true reflection.

I say to someone from an ethnic minority wanting to join the 10 million plus visitors to Poland each year this summer, please come and visit us. This is a wonderful country and Polish hospitality is without equal. The national team’s supporters are not the same supporters of league games you’ll see on TV and in the press with all their virulent tribalism. They’re families, they’re hard working people who take pride in their country and want to show the world how much it has changes and how much potential it has. The Polish Government has taken the policing and security of this event extremely seriously – they know how important it is to Poland’s reputation. You should take the same care you’d take visiting
any unknown city as a tourist, but not more.

Which reminds me of my trip to South Africa for the World Cup. The UK media spent a lot of time talking about the rampant crime, terrifying HIV rates and extreme poverty in the run up to the football- saying some England fans were ‘virtually certain to die.’ But not one England fan was arrested or killed in that month. But proving the media wrong about South Africa doesn’t prove them wrong about Poland –  that’s up to everyone Polish person when kick off begins.

Poland has to show the world the success it has forged after so many years of oppression in its recent history. Poland has to give those within it who fear the world outside the chance to believe things should be different. That is what UEFA means when it talks about the power of football to change lives.

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27 thoughts on “Euro 2012 – a tale of two nations

  1. Sylwia says:

    “The national team’s supporters are not the same supporters of league games seen on tonight’s TV with all their virulent tribalism.”


    Actually, compaired to the UK, league football is very little popular in Poland.

    BTW In my experience, skinheads were in their worst in the late 1980s. There were Communist agents among them, too.

  2. rjblock says:

    Very thoughtful post.

  3. Jamie Stokes says:

    Can’t argue with any of this plea.
    But I wish people would stop using the ‘Poland is trapped between Germany and Russia’ myth.

  4. mochafueled says:

    Very well written counter post to the BBC story. My students did bring up the story in class today. Probably bigger problem, then racism, is getting around Warsaw with all the tram and metro mess during the cup games

  5. guest says:

    “Can’t argue with any of this plea.
    But I wish people would stop using the ‘Poland is trapped between Germany and Russia’ myth”

    Why ? It is the truth. Not a myth.

    Since 1792 Poland had only ~40yrs of (German/Russian) independence, with all its horrible consequences. This is exactly what happens if you have Russia and Germany as neighbours. Both were extremely authoritarian and militaristic. Germany till 50’s and Russia until now…

  6. […] Polandian, Paddymokotow wrote: […] Poland shouldn’t be afraid of the world’s attention. We should be glad the world is […]

  7. boxgrove says:

    Racism in Poland?? Ask yourself (Brits only), who has invented racism, you stiff upper lip hypocrites.

  8. Janosik Jr. says:

    Over the past few years, a few moronic American and Canadian hockey fans amply demonstrated their racism. Just google hockey and racism.

    Right wing nutcase groups are just as big or an even bigger problem in Great Britain today than in Poland.

    I suppose the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has not been read and believed by anybody in the US, Canada, and Britain for the past 25 years, right?

    There are nauseating sociopaths in all societies.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Here is an interesting article from the left coast of the US on this issue.

  10. paddymokotow says:

    Thanks for some of the positive feedback. I note after the storm there were a number of interesting reposts on this subject, Michal Zachodny, Donald Tusk (Guardian) and Jamie Stokes among them. Poland needs its cheerleaders!

    Janosik and Boxgrove – you’re absolutely right. There are racists in all societies. Couldn’t agree more.


  11. Jamie Stokes says:

    The comments from boxgrove and Janosik are typically infuriating responses to this issue. In an article that has nothing but praise for Poland, they still manage to perceive an insult and react with absurd attacks. Refusing to accept that there is a problem with racism/anti-Semitism in Poland is the main reason that it continues. When your neighbour points out that your house is on fire, you don’t accuse him of inventing fire, you get some buckets and do something about it.

  12. Sylwia says:

    Jamie, you’re right of course, but isn’t it what BBC is doing? In view of the quite violent riots we’ve seen in the UK last year, shouldn’t BBC make programs about how safe the UK is now instead of how unsafe Poland is?

    I think, overall, the Polish response was in reference to that. We know that our football hooligans are ugly and we don’t ignore them. Actually, the Tusk government was accused of being too ruthless with them. What we don’t do is we don’t make TV programs about all the riots in the UK in order to scare people from attending the Olympics and blow smoke over our own security issues.

  13. Sylwia says:

    One more thought after reading Jamie’s article at Kraków Post: The “Jewish” teams simply tend to have some pro-Jewish legacy, while their opponents don’t. It’s perhaps not as clear Christian-Jewish situation as you have in Scotland with Protestant vs. Catholic teams, but the fans’ response is similar.

    For example, there are two major teams in Kraków nowadays: Wisła and Cracovia. Before the war there were many more sport clubs, some dozen of them were Jewish. Two most important ones were Makkabi (zionist) and Jutrzenka (Bund i.e. socialist). Makkabi was supported by those Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel while Jutrzenka was supported by those who saw their future in multi-ethnic Poland. They hated each other from the bottom of their hearts and matches between them were dubbed the “Holy War”.

    Two major Polish teams were Wisła (nationalistic) which accepted only “Poles” as in Polish speaking Catholics and Cracovia (democratic) which accepted all Poles as in Polish citizens – no class, religious or ethnic distinctions. In effect, some Jutrzenka players joined Cracovia, while the pre-war Wisła would never accept a Jewish player and at the same time no Makkabi player would like to join a Polish team. So Wisła and Makkabi were equally nationalistic teams, while Cracovia was a tolerant one.

    The war put an end to Makkabi and Jutrzenka, but fans transferred the Jewish legacy onto the democratic Cracovia. The term “Holy War” is applied today to matches between Wisła and Cracovia, too.

    So on the one hand there are Wisła fans who call the Cracovia team and fans “Jews” and that was shown in the BBC program, but on the other hand, there are Cracovia fans who fully embrace being “Jewish” (Jude Gang) even though they’re not ethnic Jews, and that wasn’t shown in the BBC program. Scroll down to see some Cracovia Jewish banners:

    Examples of Cracovia chants:

    Możesz nazwać mnie Żydem,
    Nie jest to dla mnie wstydem.

    (You can call me a Jew
    To me it’s no shame)


    Mówią na nas Żydzi
    nikt tego się nie wstydzi
    Bo naszego klubu
    jest piękna historia

    (They call us Jews
    Nobody’s ashamed of that
    Cause it’s a beautiful history
    of our club)

    and the Cracovia stadium is dubbed “Holy Land”.

    Of course, Cracovia fans don’t approve of anti-Semitic slogans, saying that they offend Jewish people and not Cracovia fans. And it’s worth adding that the most famous Cracovia fan was John Paul II.

    On the other hand, last year, Maor Melikson, an Israeli player, joined Wisła. Ironically, he used to play among others in two Israeli clubs called “Maccabi” (Maccabi Yavne and Maccabi Haifa).

    So well, in the end, calling Cracovia fans “Jews” is nothing else than calling Celtic fans “Catholics” or Rangers fans “Protestants”.

  14. Sylwia says:

    Two more quotes:

    Manuel Rympel in his memoirs wrote: “It should be emphasised that the democratic Cracovia supported Jutrzenka, while Makkabia, even though a Jewish club, was Jutrzenka’s antagonist. The additional irony was that in their attacks on Jutrzenka, Makkabia allied with the Catholic Wisła that applied numerus nullus towards Jews.”

    Another quote I thought about comes from Julian Tuwim, a Polish-Jewish poet. It’s a fragment of his pre-war poem “Całujcie mnie wszyscy w dupę” [You May All Kiss My Arse]:

    And so you, Arian experts,
    The Germanic spirit’s farts
    (When I examine your blood and mine
    Trust me, it’ll be the same animal’s blood),
    Criminal thugs and stormtroopers,
    Valiants from Makabi or OWP,
    And record-holders, and sportsmen,
    You may all kiss my arse!

    (In my very poor translation. It’s my firm opinion though, that if Jamie ever cared to learn Polish Julian Tuwim would become his linguistic guru).

    I think it’d be much much more interesting if BBC made a program about that. Trace the roots of Polish and Israeli sport clubs, their pre-war antagonisms and their current echoes. Then the fans, too, might learn a thing or two.

    (Whoever manages the blog today, dig my previous comment out of the abyss of your moderation queue.)

  15. Scatts says:

    Sylwia, I’m loving those Cracovia chants although they do appear to lack the subtelty of things like “The referee’s a *anker” or “You’re gonna get your *ucking head kicked in!”. ;-)

  16. scatts says:

    Now hopefully in my usual persona. Regarding comments claiming there are bigger problems elsewhere or that “it’s the BBC what done it”. I think what Jamie and others, myself included, find “annoying” is this constant deflection of the problem away from Poland and onto somewhere else, usually further west.

    It seems there is often little discussion about whether or not this thing is or is not a problem in Poland, nor any analysis of why it is a problem or is perceived as one just a claim that other places have the same or bigger ones. As if a) we didn’t know that and b) we just decided to pick on Poland for the hell of it.

    I wasn’t going to bother saying anything because, well, it’s nothing new but as Jamie has spoken out I can’t leave him alone on this. Mind you, I think Jamie left out the obvious choice when faced with the house on fire scenario, namely, set your neighbors house on fire!

    Thanks for the historical background Sylwia. Very interesting.

  17. […] Polandian, Paddymokotow escribió [en]: […] Polonia no debería tenerle miedo a &#406&#1072 atención del mundo. Deberíamos […]

  18. guest says:

    In Poland there is a house on fire and BBC is screaming that the whole country is burning.

    That’s simply annoying. Especially if the european stadndard is a whole street under fire.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I am a black woman who lived in Poland (Warsaw) for 4 years. During my time there I would say that the majority of Poles were very welcoming. That is not to say that I did not receive any racial abuse – I did. On one occasion, I was spat on by a teenager, and another time some guys in their 20’s made monkey noises as I passed them. I have had problems with the immigration officers at the airports and other little things that I need to mention. That said, if given the chance and if the winters were not so harsh I would move back to Poland in a heart beat as I prefer it to the UK. The older Polish people loved my full black children and loved making a fuss over them.

    I am saddened by the few idiots that are giving Poland a bad name but I will stick up for Poland where I can.

  20. Boxgrove says:

    “The Real Football Factory” with Danny Dyer just google it,, Heysel 1985

    In my last comment I forgot to insert some of the YouTube clips, and I admit that without proper quotation or facts any statement is less valid then well documented one. I gave you only four out of hundreds links I found on YT.
    My point is that as you all know, till late 80s the Polish football fans could not travel abroad freely. Till then, polish stadiums, with my much-loved Legia Warszawa, ware free of such problems as racism and politics. Yes, there was antagonism against visiting teams but nobody called anybody “Jew”. As you can see in YT clips I put in the post, all this language and symbolism came from the west. Just listen to Dutch fanatics, the language they use… and the symbolism – Celtic cross; this is not a polish sign. So, when I compare what had been happening in the Europeans stadiums in 70s, 80s, till now, polish fans are far behind the Brits, Dutch and Germans. I remember like today the night I crossed Canal la Manche or if you like The English Channel, on May 29, 1985, do you remember Heysel stadium massacre and the aftermath.
    Wrapping up, no doubt there is growing problem with hooligans in the polish stadiums but, there is no such radical behavior on the polish streets, in contrary to what is going on the streets of London.

  21. Boxgrove says:

    Dear Sylwia;
    Bolesław Leśmian, Jan Brzechwa (Jan Wiktor Lesman), Antoni Słonimski, Bruno Jasieński, Julian Tuwim – all Polish nationals of mosaic persuasion.

  22. Sylwia says:

    Scatts: “It seems there is often little discussion about whether or not this thing is or is not a problem in Poland, nor any analysis of why it is a problem or is perceived as one”

    On the contrary, the problem has been discussed to death. For the last 2 years at least I can hardly remember a week without hearing about football hooligans in Polish TV. The guys became a tool in Platforma vs. PiS political wars, with one making a war on the hooligans and the other defending them. There are many things done, laws and rules imposed, they just still don’t bring the desired effect. Probably because PZPN is as rotten an institution as it goes, but there were major changes in its leadership too.

    I’m not a football fan really, and I’m sure there are other people better suited to provide you with the details, but I do think that the problem isn’t being deflected, it’s just not adequately solved, yet.

    However, I think that the Polish reaction to talking about it is a bit like when you have an ill-behaved kid. You take him to a therapist, reason with him, impose rules, change his diet etc. but the kid still misbehaves. And then you simply spat out when one more person in the street tells you you should do something about him. As if you didn’t know!

  23. Chris says:

    Sywia, The information about the Krakow teams was very informative and I have used it in my complaint to the BBC about this Panorama programme. I feel obliged to mention my use of your information and I hope you do not mind/object.
    One of the other strange unexplained things in the broadcast was why the nationalist/right wing graffiti that was shown was written in English. Panorama have been previously caught faking footage but obviously this was not the case here.

  24. Sylwia says:

    You’re very welcome, Chris. It’d be great if BBC made some kind of follow up with a more balanced story.

  25. Chris says:

    Sywia – Many thanks. I was not comfortable about using your words/info without the courtesy to advise you. In my complaint one of the points I made to the BBC was that they failed to explain this alleged anti-Semitism and just used it to back up their right wing neo-nazi theme. Unfair and insulting to the country whose people are top of the Jewish Yad Vashem list and who lost more of its people than any other country in the war.

    Very unlikely the BBC will follow-up with a more balanced report or apology. However, I will pursue my formal complaint and – at least – educate some of them.

    Will Panorama do a programme advising people not to travel to tthe UK for the Olympics due to the massive riots last year or the racist Met Police who have a bad habit of fatally shooting innocent people with darker skin? It would make headlines for them again but they probably won’t because of their xenophobic vsision.

  26. D_mc1 says:

    From an Irish point of view Poland and the Polish people have come across in a very positive light! The media over here has been full of praise for how well our fans were looked after and how well organised everything was. The British media is all about sensationalism and focusing on the worst possible outcome… I believe that Poland will gain a lot of friends after this competition and tourism etc will increase!

  27. Chris says:

    The Irish Fans solid singing (Fields Of Athenry) for the last 10 minutes of their last match was OUTSTANDING. They fully deserved the accolades for being the best fans in the world.

    I also saw a clip on Polish TV of Irish and Spanish fans singing Polska Biało-Czerwoni. These are also on youtube. Fan-tastic.

    As preparation for the next (inevitable) stage of my complaint I am checking Euro12 reports in my newspaper (Times) and there have been several mentions of how wrong and incorrect the BBC was.

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