Vladimir Putin

Making a stand against big bear

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Did Chelski's billionaire Roman Abramovich fund that huge 'This Is Russia' flag unfurled over three tiers of the National Stadium during the grudge match between Poland and bitter football - and political - rivals Russia? As provocative, confident and ostentatious as it was, showing a muscle-bound warrior in a centurion helmet and brandishing a marauder's sword, it imposed an envious silence for a few seconds on the home fans. Loaded with metaphors, the main message was clear: bigger, stronger, unstoppable goal machine coming your way.

Not so fast. With the dominating Soviets' 1-0 lead sounding sirens in Polish hearts and humiliation and helplessness levels threatening to blow fuses all over Poland, Jakub Blaszczykowski swung his own sabre - his left foot - and marked the spot where the gusty Poles were to make another stand against the mighty bear. The Russian fans were pushed back onto their posteriors by the invisible Polish hand conjured in the wall of noise that made eardrums quiver. Stunned, silent and brooding, a few sheepish, Russian feet back-heeled the big bag holding that flag out of sight under a seat or two.

David nearly toppled Goliath. Franciszek Smuda's men were swept along on the wave of hysteria and came close to clinching a historic win. But 1-1 it remained - much to the relief of police chiefs, the Polish government, Uefa, as well as the custodians of the Poniatowski Bridge who watched, like most of us, in despair the running thug-on-thug, police-on-thug battles and the presence of guns, helmets, (water) cannons and blood once more on this historical span across the Vistula. This magnificent bridge has, like the Poles, suffered much over the last century. The retreating Russian army blew it up during the first world war to frustrate Germany's advance. The Germans quickly rebuilt it but the structure was within months destroyed by fire. It was the rallying point of the 1926 May Coup and during the second world war German troops toppled the bridge as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising.

Match day was also Russian Independence Day, and given the decades of political rivalry between the bitter neighbours, the combustible cocktail of historical grudges, football and alcohol soon spilled over and ignited.

Small groups of Russian Ultra fans - aka thugs - broke away from the main march and attacked goading Polish supporters. Riot place waded in and I felt the air suck out of my ears when I was caught in no-man's land between advancing Polish fans throwing bricks, flares and bottles towards the riot police. I jumped over a railing out of the line of fire.

I sidled up to a pair of Uefa officials walking ahead of the robo-cops. 'They're just marching to a football match,' said one of the worried looking officials. Both were dressed smartly in grey suits to observe this nasty element of fan culture. Superman made an appearance in front of the flanks of riot police, as did Darth Vader and a Leeds fan who unfurled his banner calling for Ken Bates to be ousted. The nasty was getting weird.

There was a Monty Python-esque moment when the invaders reached a group of Poles protesting against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 'Down with Putin!' shouted the Polish. 'Yes! Down with Putin!' many among the Russian marchers shouted back. A pair of helicopters buzzed overhead, broken beer bottles crunched underfoot, the smell of police horse droppings, cordite from flares and alcohol fumes filled nostrils and ears clattered with banging drums, barking police dogs, chants and warnings about incoming projectiles - 'Down with Putin! Putin is a murderer!' 'Polska!' 'Russia!' 'Look Out!' Later, water cannon and tear gas were fired but by then I was safely in the stadium.

'There is universal feeling in Poland that Russia has not yet faced up to what it did to our country during communism,' political commentator Jacek Lepiarz told me. 'The Polish and the Germans are friendly because we have spent 20-30 years discussing war crimes, invasion and partition. But this truth and reconciliation dialogue has not happened with the Russians and there is a feeling that Moscow has not accepted what it did during its occupation. Also, Putin is seen as a member of the secret police, which were feared and remain hated here. The trouble on the bridge was not caused by football rivalry,' he said.

Poland now have to beat Czech Republic to stay alive. There shouldn't be any politically inspired trouble during that game, assured Lepiarz, a former Germany-based political journalist. 'The Czechs distrust the Russians as much as the Polish,' he said. 'I know nothing about football,' he revealed 'but that was a good game, I think.' One of the best, I assured him.