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The Warsaw Voice » Society » May 27, 2011
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Crackdown on Soccer Hooligans
May 27, 2011   
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The authorities are responding with exceptional toughness to the latest wave of violence by soccer hooligans, amid fears that vandalism could derail the European soccer championships that Poland will host next year.

The Polish Soccer Association (PZPN), spurred by the police and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, has banned fans of visiting teams from all premier, first-league and second-league matches until the end of the season.

The PZPN made the unprecedented decision May 12, just over a week after hooligans vandalized the stadium of the local Zawisza club in Bydgoszcz during the Polish Cup final between Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznań May 3. Damage was estimated at several hundred thousand zlotys. Bydgoszcz prosecutors are investigating, and one of their tasks is to determine whether the organizer responsible for security at the stadium met all obligations. Police had disagreed with plans to have the final match played at the stadium, but PZPN said the advice was issued too late to transfer the match to another venue.

Thugs charged

Police have arrested 48 suspects so far, all from Wielkopolska and Mazovia provinces, National Police Chief Andrzej Matejuk said May 13, and are searching for more offenders in other provinces. “I am convinced that few people will escape punishment and that security in our stadiums will be improving,” Matejuk added. He said he was aware that the organizers of soccer matches face difficulty in ensuring security at stadiums, and that police will aid the effort by monitoring developments and securing video recordings of incidents.

So far prosecutors have leveled a variety of charges against 27 people, including breaking onto the pitch, damaging property and attacking police officers or security guards. A 20-year-old man who kicked a TV camera operator faces charges that could lead to a prison term of up to five years. Although he had been masked, he was recognized on a video surveillance recording.

Among those arrested was Piotr Staruchowicz, head of the association of Legia Warsaw soccer club fans, who is now under police supervision and has to report in at a police station daily. He has been described one of the most active leaders of stadium brawls. Several weeks ago, after a league match in which Legia Warsaw was defeated, Staruchowicz slapped Legia player Jakub RzeĽniczak in the face. RzeĽniczak made light of the incident; some suggest he did so because he feared for his own safety.

Staruchowicz was present at the match in Bydgoszcz and led several hundred fans onto the pitch before the match was over. Fans of the defeated Lech Poznań club also swarmed onto the pitch, breaking seats and barriers and hurling objects at Legia supporters. They also attacked press photographers and camera operators. Police used rubber bullets and a water cannon to disperse the crowd.

Fans angry

Critics say the organizers made several mistakes when admitting fans to the stadium. Many supporters brought flares and firecrackers, which are banned at stadiums. Other fans freely entered the stadium over the fence, without tickets. To make matters worse, the disturbances took place in front of an official UEFA delegation that was in Poland to check whether the country is ready to host and ensure security at the Euro 2012 tournament.

Despite the violence, the Polish Cup was presented to the winners several minutes later. PZPN President Grzegorz Lato and Sports Minister Adam Giersz handed the trophy to Legia Warsaw players, who then gave it to their fans—including Staruchowicz.

After the match, Prime Minister Tusk immediately ordered the interior minister and the national police chief to prepare a report on the incident, including recommendations for action. Two days later, the governors of the Mazovia and Wielkopolska provinces decided that the next league matches of Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznań would be played without fans.

“I know that this decision harms real fans and players, but it is they who are potential victims of soccer hooliganism,” said Jacek Kozłowski, governor of Mazovia province. He added that since the beginning of March, soccer fans had violated regulations at the Legia Warsaw stadium in Warsaw, one of the most modern stadiums in Poland, at least six times.

The governor’s decision was criticized by the soccer club and—to some extent—by Warsaw municipal officials. The media were also generally critical of the decision; some commentators said soccer hooliganism will not be ended by closing sports facilities. Legia Warsaw fans protested outside the stadium during a match played to empty stands, as did Lech Poznań fans a day later. No incidents were reported, but in both cases the fans chanted: “Tusk, you moron, your government will be brought down by soccer hooligans.”

Tusk was adamant. “Whenever police ask for stadiums to be closed and matches to be played without fans for the sake of security and order, the province governments will be taking such decisions,” he said. Aleksander Marek Skorupa, governor of the Lower Silesia province, followed the advice May 13: he ordered the stadiums of the Zagłębie Lubin and ¦l±sk Wrocław clubs to be closed for one match each. The decision was made after fans set off firecrackers at a match between Zagłębie Lubin and ¦l±sk Wrocław, temporarily delaying the second half.

Political row

Perhaps inevitably, the effort to intensify the battle against soccer hooligans was immediately politicized. “Of course, it is a bad decision,” said Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party. He suggested the ruling camp was now closing stadiums because slogans critical of the government were beginning to appear at them. Kaczyński was supported by Grzegorz Napieralski, leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). “Closing stadiums will not help. The prime minister’s action is just for show. It has nothing to do with a real battle against soccer hooligans,” he said, noting the vast majority of law-abiding fans are punished for no reason by such a decision.

Both current and former Polish soccer players are critical also, not only of what they describe as inadequate regulations but also the failure of match organizers to comply with the law. “We are paying the price because we’re looking after animals. We’re looking after 150 soccer hooligans in every club,” said Zbigniew Boniek, former star of the Italian Juventus Turin club. “Everyone pays for this and the cost runs into millions of euros. But it does not cost soccer hooligans anything.” He noted that in Britain, “stepping onto a pitch means a fine of 5,000 pounds and a 10-year stadium ban.”

Boniek took part in the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at the Heysel stadium in Brussels May 29, 1985 where a brawl started by hooligans triggered a tragedy that claimed 39 lives and injured more than 600 people. As a result, English clubs were banned from competing for the European Cup for five years.

Wisła Cracow is the only Polish soccer club that has been suspended from European competitions because of an attack by a hooligan who threw a knife at Italian midfielder Dino Baggio during a 1998 match between Wisła and FC Parma, wounding him in the head.

Polish hooligans are also known for their “guest appearances” abroad. In Kaunas, Lithuania, on March 26 after the Polish team was defeated by the Lithuanians, groups of drunk Polish hooligans fought for several hours with Lithuanian police and vandalized the city center and areas around the stadium. Police found sets of clubs, machetes, chains, knives and other dangerous tools in the buses that brought the hooligans to the match.

In recent years, according to the police, some groups of soccer hooligans have started mafia-style activities such as drug trafficking, extortion and armed robbery. The Central Bureau of Investigation has been investigating and has already made some arrests, and prosecutors are preparing cases against some of the defendants.
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