by James Riach
Violent clashes between Poland and Russia supporters marred the buildup to their Group A meeting on Tuesday night, as police were forced to intervene with baton-charges, water cannons and rounds of rubber bullets amid chaotic scenes which produced more than 100 arrests.
Thousands of Russia fans marched from the centre of Warsaw across the river Vistula towards the National Stadium to celebrate their national day ahead of both sides’ second game at the European Championship, but what began as a passionate but orderly procession soon turned into a dangerous exchange between both groups and the authorities. At least 120 people were detained and 11 people, mostly Poles, needed medical treatment, according to Poland’s home office.
Fearing further violence, police asked the 9,850 Russian supporters who watched their team draw with Poland to remain in their seats for 20 minutes after the final whistle. But there were still some scuffles after the match as fans returned to the city centre.
Approximately 6,000 police officers were on duty to supervise the march, which started at 5pm on the date when the Russian Federation declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, however, they could not prevent widespread scuffles and injuries. One Polish man was lying unconscious on the ground before being taken away in an ambulance.
“We are still monitoring the situation and trying to identify the supporters involved,” said a spokesperson for Warsaw police. “The operation is not over from our side as we continue in our attempts to catch those who are causing trouble.”
In a statement on Monday the Russian Football Union had said: “We urge all football fans now in Poland to remember that they represent Russia. Please respect yourselves, your country and your team.” Yet as their supporters crossed the Poniatowski Bridge, led by Ultras with megaphones, their Polish rivals waited before countering the patriotic chants with cries of “Russia whore, Russia whore” and “hit the red trash with a hammer, with a sickle”.
Separated by lines of police and a tramline in the centre of the bridge’s road, pockets of Russia fans broke into the Polish ranks to spark the fighting. Fans continued to throw missiles such as rocks, flares and bottles at police while the air was filled with smoke and explosive noises as fire-crackers were set off. There were also outbreaks of violence within the Polish support, a group of men began fighting among themselves, hitting and kicking each other before police separated them.
The march had to be halted on several occasions before it eventually reached the stadium, to the east of the city centre, as ambulances carried the injured away and police vehicles blocked the centre of the bridge.
It was a bizarre mixture of violence and hostility alongside jovial and amiable supporters caught up in the chaos unawares, paying for their curiosity by being charged at by police. One cameraman had his equipment swiped from his shoulder while a Polish journalist was hit on the head before being thrown to the floor. Children having their faces painted were soon witnessing a scene of vehement hatred – a theme that has spanned the history between the two nations for many years.
Poland and Russia have shared a relationship of intense animosity, with Warsaw falling under decades of communist rule during the Cold War. Links between the two countries are clear to see in the capital – the Poniatowski Bridge was blown up by the Russian army in 1915 and Warsaw’s most iconic landmark, the Palace of Culture and Science in the centre of town, was a gift from the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
Questions will now be asked of the decision to authorise the march, with city officials granting an informal request from the Russia fans to provide assistance. Warsaw’s mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, received a letter from the supporters and met their representatives to discuss the best way of granting the request.
Uefa has already opened disciplinary proceedings against Russia over the conduct of their fans at the European Championship, following reports of racism and displays of illicit banners during the team’s 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic in their first match.