On Tuesday night there was a very uplifting game, but it was surrounded by the malevolence of some young Polish men, who could not and would not forget previous occupations and atrocities. Why would they, when you consider the collaboration with Nazi Germany and the subsequent Cold War domination by the Soviets? But UEFA took no action to avoid having Poland play Russia, in the Polish capital, on the day that Russia celebrates as its National Day.
To be caught up in the sporadic violence outside the stadium and in the streets was to experience the futility of George Orwell’s notion that sports can somehow be an alternative to war. This reporter walked into a maelstrom of Polish youths as they suddenly masked their faces, leaped over police barriers and laid into Russian fans. The riot police were ready for them, firing off tear gas and bursts from water cannons. The fan violence was frightening, the police uncompromising in their response. Yet inside the stadium, while Poles whistled down the Russian anthem, absolutely no action was taken to prevent Russians from unfurling a gigantic red flag with the slogan, in English, “THIS IS RUSSIA.”
‘Not a march’
Alexander Shprygin, leader of the All-Russian Fans’ Union, told us: “It is not a march. A march has militaristic meaning. Call it a walk.” Call it anything you like, but it provoked the inevitable. Yet after a wonderful, sustained 90 minutes, I witnessed another side of the Polish-Russian relationship. On a crowded stadium train station, Poles and Russians gladly exchanged scarves.
When one Russian declined the gesture, saying, “I have only one scarf,” the slightly affronted Pole said, “It was only one game.”
Indeed, it was. Neither side had won, but the game was a triumph over the nationalism in the streets. “Hit the red trash with a hammer, with a sickle,” the youths were still chanting after the game. By then, the game had replaced the malevolence, and sports, for a couple of hours, became more important than loathing.