Poland travel guide – will you return in a coffin?

Shortly before Euro 2012 kicked off, the BBC’s Panorama programme aired a documentary which investigated the issue of racism in the two host nations and brought into question whether they should have been chosen for this monumental sporting event.

Most BBC Panorama documentaries do not make it into the headlines of UK newspapers, yet alone those of the foreign press. However, this particular Panorama episode caused quite a stir across Europe. As a Brit living in Poland, I missed the episode when it was aired but the reaction of the press and people could not be overlooked. Poles were horrified to see their nation branded anti-Semitic, racist and hooligan-like. However, if there’s any truth to the Panorama documentary, then why all the shock, surprise and fuss?

Rzeszow, Poland

Rzeszow, Poland

The 30 minute long video portrays an image of the host nations as people bent on anti-Semitism, racism and, above all, violence. The reporter chose the unimportant cities of Łódź and Rzeszów (neither of which were host cities for Euro 2012) to exemplify his point. Both cities have rival football teams and hold annual derbies and this is exactly what was shown in the report. Derby day – not exactly the best day to show the world a football team and its fan, and that applies to UK teams as well.

The report picks up on something which wonderfully exemplifies the anti-Semitic vibe in Polish football: the calling of Cracovia F.C. fans ‘Jews’ by Wisła FC fans, both from Krakow. The journalist, however, fails to point out a key fact of history to elaborate this odd labelling. Cracovia F.C. had a particularly difficult period in its history between the first and second world wars when it was one of the few football clubs in the entirety of Central Europe which refrained from the zeitgeist of banning supporters and players of non-Aryan ethnicity. At the time, the largest non-Aryan minority were the Jews. This lead to the club being seen by extremist as a Jew-loving club and the name ‘Judas’ has stuck ever since. If you ever attend the derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland A.F.C., then you would see the Newcastle fans calling the Sunderland fans ‘mackems’ – a name which comes from the role the Sunderland people played in the production of ammunition during the world wars and it has stuck ever since.

That is not to say there is no racism in Polish football. Many Poles would agree that there is a significant presence of racial issues in football, especially among the die-hard fans, but we cannot tarnish the whole of Polish society with the same brush. Jonathan Ornstein is an American Jew who has lived in Poland for over 10 years and who came close to stopping the episode’s concentrated and one-sided view of Poland when he said “most Poles happily accept other faiths but football hooligans have yet to catch up with the rest of society.”

Anyone who has watched the documentary will have noticed that the most violent, extremist and concerning sections all come from Ukrainian teams. The most horrific footage of clear hate crimes in football are all taken from Ukrainian football stadiums.

I have never been to Ukraine so I cannot say how it is there but as an expat living in Poland I feel much safer in a major Polish city, such as Poznan, Warsaw or Krakow, than in Birmingham, Manchester or London and can reassure any travellers to Poland that Sol Campbell’s statement “you will return in a coffin” is not true nor realistic; not about Poland at least.

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