Both the Polish and the international press billed Tuesday’s match between Russia and Poland as a symbolically loaded contest between two long-standing, if not eternal foes. The historical allusions were as abundant as the images of soccer balls that now adorn virtually every advertisement for every imaginable product here in Warsaw. And there’s no doubt that this was the Big Game, bigger even than the UM-OSU matchups that we know so well in Ann Arbor. Russia went into the match as the heavy favorite, having crushed the Czech team a few days earlier. In the 17 times that these teams have met, the Poles had only won four times (with four ties). But this game was to be played in the brand-new National Stadium in Warsaw, in front of millions of viewers from around the world, with advancement in the UEFA Cup tournament on the line. Had Russia won, it would have clinched a place in the quarterfinals and made Poland’s path out of the preliminary rounds almost impossible.
But contrary to the press accounts, the game was emphatically NOT another chapter in some sort of transhistorical Russo-Polish contest. To be more precise, it evoked a keen sense of rivalry, but little actual hostility. In fact, the events of last Tuesday served to upend a range of stereotypes about Polish nationalism, Polish-Russian relations, and the place of soccer in Polish culture today.
I have been coming to Poland every couple years since 1986, but I’ve never seen an atmosphere comparable to the one I’ve experienced this past month. Displays of Polish patriotism have always been common enough, but they have almost always evoked lachrymose historical memories of tragic defeats or horrific crimes. There has been plenty of misfortune in this country’s history, so building a sense of national identity around those moments isn’t hard.
But times have definitely changed, and a new generation of Poles is looking for new forms of expressing their Polishness. For the first time, I’ve seen a Polish patriotism that isn’t about martyrdom, suffering, or oppression. No, the patriotism of 2012 is about fun, joy, silliness, and kitsch. The country is awash with trinkets and clothing tied to the UEFA tournament, and while the commercialization and trivialization of national identity might be lamented by some, the Poles are buying these products in massive quantities.
These aren’t the expressions of a patriotism of pain and suffering, but instead a patriotism of light-hearted pleasure. This is the patriotism of a country that is, despite all its ongoing problems (and there are many) undeniably becoming more prosperous, stronger, and just plain happier. While that prosperity is very unevenly distributed, both by social status and by region, the inequality in Poland does not begin to approach that which we have in the United States. A survey from late 2011 showed that for the first time more Poles agree with the statement “a typical Pole lives in good conditions” than with the statement “a typical Pole lives in bad conditions” (Beata Rogulska, Stereotyp Polaka i Europejczyka A.D. 2011 [CBOS, 2011]). Although the world economic crisis since 2008 can be felt here too, this is the only industrialized country that has not gone into recession. I truly don’t want to downplay the challenges Poland faces today, but all things considered there has probably never been a better time to be Polish.
This context explains the atmosphere in Warsaw on the day of the Poland-Russia match. I spent the day wandering the city, and everywhere I went I heard people speaking Russian (something that would have never been imaginable even in the communist days). Moreover, those Russians were almost always welcomed with friendly enthusiasm, if only because Warsaw’s businesses were trying very hard to generate as much tourist spending as possible. I watched Russian and Polish fans interact, and as the great Polish beer flowed those interactions became more and more boisterous. But throughout the day I saw nothing that exceeded the banter and teasing that one can witness on a football Saturday in Ann Arbor before a game with Michigan State or Ohio State. I even saw Russian and Polish fans exchange banners and shirts on a few occasions, mimicking a gesture from a UEFA advertisement encouraging good sportsmanship. The best moment of all was when I saw a group of Russian fans learning to sing the chant “Polskaaaaaa, Biało-Czerwoni!” (Poland, White and Red!)
To be sure, there was tension in the air as the start of the game neared. At one point I saw about a dozen skinheads strutting down Warsaw’s main street wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned with the “Polska Walcząca” (Fighting Poland) logo of the WWII underground – a symbol with a proud history but one entirely out of step with the mood of the day. They were first chastised by Polish bystanders for their display, then eventually met by the police. As I would later learn, several blocks away at that very moment a group of hooligans tried to disrupt a procession of Russian fans on their way to the stadium. That altercation led to some injuries and dozens of arrests.
The balance of the day was captured at the so-called “Fanzone” that had been set up in the vast open square around Warsaw’s massive Stalinist-era skyscraper, the Palace of Culture. The Fanzone was for those (like me) who didn’t succeed in getting a precious ticket to the actual match, and since the National Stadium only seats around 50,000, there were a lot of us. Well over 100,000 fans watched the game on six massive outdoor TVs, and the atmosphere was festive. There were bleachers for those who wanted to pay for a seat, but the overwhelming majority of us preferred the option of standing at no cost. Contrary to the myth that soccer in Europe is just for young, unruly men, the crowd in the Fanzone was as diverse as could be, including women and men in roughly equal numbers. While most people appeared to be in their 20s or 30s, there were lots of children (despite the fact that the game started at 8:45 p.m.) and no shortage of us middle aged folks as well.
We could all enjoy the game because the police were very well prepared. Not only were all those entering the Fanzone screened and searched by private security guards, but riot police in fully body armor and shields had assembled at key points, ready to respond to any provocations. And there were provocations. Throughout the match, gangs of hooligans launched attacks on the police, who in turn used tear-gas and eventually rubber bullets. By the end of the day 184 people had been arrested, which certainly attests to a serious level of violence. But compared to the millions of fans who gathered in the Fanzone, the stadium itself, and at thousands of bars, restaurants, and private homes around the country, that figure is tiny indeed. Moreover, while some of the violence came from attacks on Russian fans, most of the fighting took place between the Polish police and the Polish hooligans.
So yes, there was violence, but that shouldn’t have been the main story of the day. It was the product of a minuscule skinhead fringe who in no way represented the vast majority of fans who enjoyed an extraordinarily exciting game that ended in a tie (a result we Americans might find frustrating, but which was actually a big success for Poland). Exuberant patriotism was on abundant display, but it was the patriotism of 21st century Poland, capturing the sense of intense but fun rivalry with Russia, rather than some sort of metaphor for an eternal Russo-Polish conflict. The past will always be evoked in the context of this rivalry, but I firmly believe that we are today witnessing the first steps towards a very different sort of Russo-Polish relationship. The day will come, I’m convinced, when the various Russo-Polish wars will have as much relevance to a soccer match as the 100 year’s war or the Norman Conquest had during Monday’s game between France and England. In the meantime, Poles are having a great time waving the white-and-red, singing silly songs, buying UEFA cup kitsch.