For those amongst us of a certain age, the scenes from the streets of Warsaw yesterday afternoon and evening had a wearyingly familiar look to them – streets of mostly young men, mostly wearing terrible clothes, trading kicks and punches on the street of a European city whilst others, including, of course, a media that had over the last few days given every impression of really looking forward to this moment, looked on. The Polish police had been aware of the potential for crowd trouble to come from the fixture between Poland and Russia, but even a tightly co-ordinated effort on their part to keep the peace on the streets of their capital city c0uldn’t fully contain those that wanted to fight and the result was one hundred and eighty-three arrests – with more to expected to follow – and ten injuries. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, an effervescent match was played out which ended in an honorable draw which keeps both with one eye on qualification from their group with one match left to play.
Where, though, might we start to apportion blame for the scenes in Warsaw yesterday afternoon and evening? Moreover, does it even matter whose “fault” it was? At street level, perhaps, it doesn’t. There were evidently plenty of people in Warsaw yesterday afternoon of either nation that were spoiling for a fight, and to seek to apportion blame between two groups of individuals would seem to be a somewhat fruitless exercise. There is a case that can be built for arguing those Russians who marched through Warsaw celebrating Russia Day were, considering that Poland was effectively occupied by Soviet Union for the best part of four and a half decades, being insensitive.
The same might also apply to those who unfurled a massive banner with “This Is Russia” (which, for reasons as yet undisclosed, was written in English – who were they saying that to, then?) printed on it along with an artists rendition of Dmitry Pozharsky – a military commander who led Russian soldiers against a Polish invasion in the early seventeenth century. They were, we could argue, being some distance short of “culturally sensitive”, but when have the sort of people that commemorate military battles of five hundred years ago in the country against whom their forebears fought been culturally sensitive? It’s not behaviour that would usually be considered to be at the top of the list of priorities for either ultra-nationalists or football supporters.
Similarly, to lay the blame for yesterday scenes at the door of the draw for the competition is a little simplistic. The day that the draw for a sporting event is altered because of concerns over the behaviour of those will turn up to it is probably the point at which that the event concerned should be querying whether it should still go ahead. Having said that, however, when we consider the scheduling for the competition it doesn’t seem unwise to ask the question of whose bright idea it was to schedule a match between these two particular countries on this particular day?
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask the question of whether anybody whatsoever within UEFA might have been aware of the significance of the twelfth of June, of all days and, while there may or may not be an element of truth behind saying that moving the date of this match would have been “a victory for the hooligans” or some such (and, let’s face it, the standard reply to that sort of statement should probably be to say, “But would would it? Would it really?”), it would seem somewhat extraordinary if at no point in the preparations and scheduling for this tournament someone had said, “You know, I’m not so certain that having Poland play Russia, in the evening, in Warsaw, on Russia Day is such a brilliant idea.” What most likely happened was that UEFA looked at the last, trouble-free tournament and the best-laid plans of the Polish police, and thought they could take a chance on it all passing off peacefully. With Poland as co-hosts (and, therefore, first seeds), all UEFA would have had to have done would be to put them in a different pot. Few, in all likelihood, would even have noticed.
The decision not to was, as we can now reflect with confidence, a decision that back-fired, although it should be noted that the suspended six point penalty for Euro 2016 qualifiers and €120,000 fine for firework-throwing and illicit banner-waving is at least an acknowledgement of sorts that the behaviour of some Russian supporters over the last few days has been unacceptable. On the pitch, this has been a sparkling tournament so far, but away from it there has been more than one report of significant crowd disturbances (as well as allegations of racist behaviour inside stadia which started before even the opening ceremony) , and these amount to more than the standard, patronising, “Eastern European football supporters are all neo-Nazi hooligans” trope that the Western European press – in particular that of this very country – might have been expected to trot out as soon as one individual with a pint of beer too many inside them threw a punch at another.
All has not been sweetness and light in Poland and Ukraine this summer and to deny that is to deny the evidence of our own eyes. However, neither would it be right to assert that countries in Eastern Europe can’t be “entrusted” to hold major football tournaments in the future because of the risk of a repeat of the troubles of the last few days or so. This would be akin to arguing that, say, England shouldn’t have held the European Championships in 1996 on account of the Dublin riot of 1995. The many should never be made to pay for the worst excesses of the few.
Perhaps the ultra-nationalism on display over the last couple of days or so is a reaction to social problems in the countries concerned and, if this is the case, its absorption into football hooliganism should perhaps come as no great surprise. Perhaps, however, the whys and wherefores of all of this are a question that are better left to sociologists than to football writers. It is to be hoped that we have now seen the worst excesses of all concerned, although there are no guarantees of this just yet. What we would, however, suggest would be for sweeping statements regarding the nationality of those involved to be put to one side.
We didn’t like this sort of generalisation when it was directed towards England in the days when it was our lunatic fringe throwing plastic chairs around and there should be no excuse for us to fall into such a lazy trap ourselves, even if seeking to claim that the English are somehow disbarred from commenting on the subject because we have had similar problems in the past seems just as ludicrous. This summer we – England – haven’t been involved, so far. That said, however, the next European Championships after this will be newly-expanded to take in twenty-four nations and held in France, which is but a booze cruise from Englands shores. We remain very much in a glass house when it comes to the issue of hooliganism at football matches, and we all know what happens to people that start throwing things around from inside them.
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