Scarf Riders: Krakow’s Football Hooligans

What place would you choose to spend a cosy weekend in Krakow? A café, pub or maybe… a football stadium? Well, there are at least a couple of reasons why I would say the latter is worth thinking over one more time.

If you haven’t been lucky enough to meet some of Krakow’s football fans until now, this is probably because both Wisła’s and Cracovia’s stadiums are being renovated and the teams’ games are currently taking place outside the city. But when both teams play against each other they attract a considerable part of the public’s attention. The Krakow Derby is considered the most famous in Poland. First of all, the clubs are the oldest two still in existence, and they have the reputation of being the largest and most ruthless local “firms” which stop at nothing to fight for the honour of their teams. Matches between these two rivals have been depicted in books, essays, and even poems, and probably no other derbies were mentioned in as many stories and anecdotes. The “Holy War” (“Święta Wojna”), as it is called, often seems as legendary and ancient as the Wawel Dragon.

The last Krakow Derby, the 180th, was the first one in history held outside of the city, but it was anything but mundane. This event is always full of additional attractions, especially off the pitch. Both sides have always claimed: “We can lose all other games but this one has to be won”.

This time, the show started when a group of gentlemen refused to go through the safety checking procedure at the gate and were denied entry. That appeared to be the trigger. Three hundred fans left their sectors and attacked a group of security guards, prompting them to call the police to deal with the disorderly crowd. The effect: two injured security guards and four fans arrested. The police found plenty of the usual hooligan “toys”, like machetes, knives, a baseball bat, and a fire axe from the train in which the fans were travelling.

On top of that, the usual rituals occurred. They are mostly based on a certain element that seems to be especially fascinating for Polish hooligans: fire. This is mainly used to destroy the symbols of enemies. The fans set flags and scarves alight, usually stolen earlier from the supporters of the opposite team. Every burning scarf means one humiliated, often beaten fan from the other side. This time, the blaze was so impressive that it required the intervention of a fire brigade inside the football ground.

Meanwhile, the game went ahead in the shadow of “the fire show”. In contrast to the spectators, the football players impressed no one. Wisła, last year’s Polish champions, showed neither skill nor ambition and were defeated 0-1 by Cracovia, who stand in 9th place in the top division. The normally supportive Wisła fans showed no mercy this time for their side, and amongst the usual vulgar chanting, subtle threats were addressed towards their beloved team.

The fierce battle between the fans of the two teams is quite a long story. To be precise, the first meeting took place on 20 September 1908. Since that moment, only World War I has appeared to force a long break between the Krakow Derby matches. Due to a lack of space for pitches, the two teams were forced to merge into one club. After the war, Wisła players were told: “Go home. To be strong, Cracovia needs a strong Wisła.” Apparently this statement also represents the perspective from which fans look at this issue. They need to feel hated by somebody, it is a part of their identity. This is how the Holy War emerged, with its range of violent aspects still present in the stadium stands and on the streets of the city.

On some occasions the animosity between the supporters of the teams was so immense that they actually forgot about real wars. During the occupation of Poland in World War II, the German occupiers banned all sporting events. However, the Poles failed to obey this rule and football games were played on a regular basis. On 17 October 1943, the two Cracovian teams were battling it out for the title of champion of Krakow in the presence of ten thousand fans. Four minutes before the end of the game, the referee declared a penalty after a Wisła defender knocked away the ball from an empty goal with his hand. Wisła players grabbed the referee, while the Cracovia team immediately leapt to his defence. Before long, the fans of both teams had invaded the pitch and a full-blown fight had erupted. The riots spilled out all over the district and reached the regional SS official residence. It is very easy to predict what could have happened to all of the captured fans fighting with such astonishing bravery. Luckily for them, the boss of the SS office was Austrian, and a football player from Vienna. When he learned that a derby match had caused the riots, he said: “Football fans? Let them fight…” After the unfinished game a walkover was granted to Cracovia.

The hooligans of these teams have not always fought against each other. On 28 January 1990, after a match for the prize from the mayor of Krakow, the police acted very brutally against Cracovia fans, which encouraged the “Wisła hools” to support their enemies, and the two sides attacked the police shoulder to shoulder. The clash moved into the city and the final part of the wide-scale violence took place in the USSR consulate, where the policemen were hiding. The building was demolished and the derby banned for a long time.

However, under communist rule, the authorities did their best to conceal the scale of these occurrences. The paucity of accurate official figures makes it difficult to estimate the frequency of such episodes at that time.

Nevertheless, every Polish club worth mentioning has its own hooligan firm associated with it. Hooliganism is part and parcel of Polish football. The whole movement has its roots in the 70s and derives from the skinhead subculture. This is why it is often soaked with nationalism and racism. An inherent part of the football subculture is the scarves bearing emblems of teams (the common name for football fans is szalikowcy – “scarfers”). Large-scale fights are a recognised phenomenon characteristic for Polish hooligans, and are called ustawkas (arrangements). Usually they are organised as pre-planned meetings, a type of “Fight Club” that takes place outside of the cities in forests or places remote enough not to attract the attention of the police or media. The remote location of most serious ustawkas means that they are very rarely reported and that the police are unable to control them.

The war led by football hooligans is accompanied by horrific scenes of violence in the mainstream media and an atmosphere of condemnation towards all football fans. Public opinion seems not to distinguish deliberate violence involving organised gangs from spontaneous and minor disorder caused by fans in or around football stadiums. To be fair, the fans are rarely angels, but that is perhaps not a reason to brand them all as sinners. The media’s coverage of football hooliganism is crucial, as it is the media that constructs the overall understanding of the phenomenon. An analysis of certain incidents reveals an irresponsible overstatement of the ferocity of football fans, by both tabloid and broadsheet papers. Some journalists seem only to use a sensationalist style, which results in the reinforcement of the stereotypes in football, suggesting that the problem is in fact more serious than it is in reality.

In covering football, few journalists explore the positive aspects of Polish football culture. And there is a wide range of these elements to mention, including the often extraordinary support and encouragement for their beloved team until the very end of the game, despite its final result.

Finally, there have been several documented cases when it was the police who provoked fans to fight or used means that were completely disproportionate to the actual problem that precipitated disturbances. While the police should not necessarily show more leniency toward hooligans, it has often been the case that hostile and confrontational policing tactics have escalated minor incidents into wide scale riots.

Nevertheless, the problem of hooliganism does exist. Until now, all actions initiated in Polish law aimed at tackling the problem have been based on a variety of short-sighted measures that have done little, if anything, to improve the situation.

Football is an energetic, passionate game and even the mildest mannered supporters find themselves getting involved in the emotional side of the sporting rivalry. In order to improve safety at sporting events, more sophisticated models of policing and crowd control need to be implemented. At the same time, considerable efforts should be made by football clubs themselves to eliminate racism, xenophobia and aggressive behaviour amongst fans. If not, Krakow will forever be called the city of knives.

See also: The Great Enemy

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