Poland v Russia: A rivalry most bitter

Poland v Russia carries the bad blood of centuries and, with the Katyn massacre's wounds reopened, there are fears of mayhem on the terraces today, says Shaun Walker in Warsaw

It may not have the footballing pedigree of some of the game's great rivalries, but in terms of the historical context there are few sporting clashes that can match Russia versus Poland. Four centuries of bitter conflict and mutual invasions have marked relations between the countries and when they meet on the pitch in Warsaw today, Polish police will be on the look-out for trouble. With both sets of fans known to have hardcore sections prone to hooliganism, this match has emerged as the biggest potential flashpoint for violence at Euro 2012.

Warsaw's most recognisable building remains the monstrously Stalinist Palace of Culture, a permanent reminder of the decades that Poland spent under Communist leadership backed by Moscow. The countries still have awkward diplomatic relations, with Poland suspicious that Russia would like to destroy the nation's sovereignty, and Russia distrustful of Poland's EU- and Nato-oriented foreign policy.

Neither set of fans is known for their restraint. While Polish hooliganism and racism have been in the spotlight in the run-up to the tournament, Russia's fans were involved in its first violence, with scuffles after the final whistle of their side's 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. A small group of fans attacked local stewards mercilessly, putting at least one steward in hospital.

After footage of the incident went viral on YouTube, the fear is that hardcore Polish fans will want to wreak revenge today. Several Russians were also arrested after a bar brawl in Warsaw, while in Wroclaw a fight broke out between different groups of Russia fans which ended in one being hospitalised with knife wounds.

Mistrust and bad blood between Russia and Poland has been stoked over the years by incidents such as the Katyn massacre, when Soviet forces killed over 20,000 Polish nationals in 1940, and subsequently blamed it on the Nazis. Two years ago, the wounds of Katyn were reopened in the most horrific way when a plane carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other officials crashed on landing at Smolensk in Russia killing all 96 passengers and crew. They were en route to a memorial service for Katyn victims.

While there has never been any evidence that the crash was anything but an accident, some politicians in Poland including Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw have suggested that it may have been part of a Russian plot, continuing to fuel hatred between the two.

When the draw was made, it was a nightmare scenario for the Russians. While England fans would have preferred the easy access, Ryanair flights and relatively developed infrastructure of Poland, but instead were dispatched to Donetsk and Kiev, the Russian fans had exactly the reverse situation.

With much of Ukraine Russian-speaking and supporting the Russians as their second team (if not their first), games in Kiev and Donetsk would practically have been home fixtures for the Russians. They would also have been accessible for fans coming in by train and bus, who instead had to book flights and obtain visas to make the trip to Poland.

Nevertheless, several thousand have come here, including a large number of Russian nationalists. Maria Baronova, a Russia fan but also an activist who helps organise protests in opposition to President Vladimir Putin, was in the stadium for the game with the Czech Republic and said many of the people around her were wearing the yellow-white-black colours of extreme Russian nationalists.

The bad blood was not only felt among nationalists, however. Baronova said that she was mugged in Poland and had her telephone stolen, but the police refused to file an incident report, – possibly because she is Russian, she believed. "Poland is now first in my list of utterly awful countries, it's the very first time I've ever come across police that won't even file an incident report," she said afterwards.

As the tensions continue to rise, most worrying for Polish police is a march through central Warsaw planned by Russian fans ahead of the game. Today is Russia Day, a public holiday in Russia, and while in Moscow anti-Putin activists are planning an opposition march, in Warsaw the rally will more likely have an ultra-nationalist character and could attract attention from hardcore Polish fans.

There were also allegations that a section of Russian support racially abused the Czech defender Theodor Gebre Selassie during the match in Wroclaw, although Russia's sports minister has insisted that fans were actually complaining that Czech fans had refused to join in a Mexican wave.

But while the Russians have responded to racism allegations with characteristic flippancy, they are taking the prospect of hooliganism more seriously. In the aftermath of the game, the Russian Football Federation appealed to its own fans to act responsibly and not bring shame upon "yourself, your home country and your team".

In a further conciliatory gesture aimed to relieve tensions ahead of today's game, Russia's Football Union chief, Sergei Fursenko, and the national manager, Dick Advocaat, took part in a Polish wreath-laying ceremony on 10 June to honour the Smolensk crash victims.

Fears that the ceremony could turn into an anti-Russian demonstration did not materialise. Football is outside politics, said Fursenko after laying the wreath. "With this tradition we are supporting people and demonstrating our position. We are just footballers," he added.

Despite the best efforts of officials, however, Russian blogs were claiming yesterday that a section of Russian fans planned to unveil a large banner reading "Smolensk" during the Polish national anthem, and throw paper aeroplanes on to the pitch, in a sick taunt about the tragedy.

Today's game may not be the last symbolic tie for the Russian team, since in the second round they could face Germany, and the date that the game would be played has not gone unnoticed: 22 June, which is seared into every Russian's consciousness as the anniversary of the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the day that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union from Poland in 1941.

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Sport
sport
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed