National crackdown on hooliganism leads to protests

The Polish authorities have come down hard on stadium thugs after two new incidents gave the nation’s football culture a serious black eye, but the high stakes showdown has brought marchers to the streets and may be costing the government support. A riot during a Lithuania-Poland friendly in March resulted in the arrest of a dozen Polish nationals and prompted EUFA officials to attend the final match of the Polish Cup between Legia Warszawa and Lech Poznań on May 3, in order to see for themselves whether the EURO 2012 co-hosting nation was able to maintain order. Their worst fears were confirmed when the record-setting crowd of 36,000 erupted into a riot, battling police and security guards, and demolishing the stadium in Zawiszy while they were at it.

Officials reacted swiftly to the incident, openly citing the shame of the sad spectacle being played out in front of foreign football officials. Prime Minister Donald Tusk immediately began to publicly ponder closing any or all of the nation’s stadiums if they serve as “a base for hooliganism,” and the closure of the stadiums in Poznań and Warsaw for the remainder of the season quickly followed, both of which were recently erected at costs of over 700 million and 350 million PLN, respectively. A more controversial measure was the announcement that no supporter of any visiting team would be admitted to any of the matches of the remaining five rounds of the league season at any stadium in the country.

This frontal assault on one of Poland’s most sacred of cows provoked a passionate response across the spectrum of politics and media, as well as on the streets. Protests broke out across the country, with a contingent of over a thousand Lech supporters gathering outside their closed building for their following match, and large numbers of supporters from various clubs threatening protests outside away matches. This put local governments in a legal bind – between constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly that touch delicate nerves relating to the Solidarity era, and serious and justified concerns about public safety. As marches have grown more widespread, their organizers have learned to exploit this situation with increasing effectiveness.

The debate over the issue has become a rather sticky wicket for Tusk and his government, who are sliding in popularity while under attack from politicians such as opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who is asserting that the measures are too heavy-handed and are based on an authoritarian mentality, as well as from a variety of journalists including some vocal critics on 24-hour news channel TVN24, whose parent company also owns Legia.

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