By Roy Delaney
So the missus said to me that the next time we went to a match abroad, she wanted it to be one of those ones with loads of flares going off and choreographed singing. She’d seen it on the telly a lot and rather liked the look of it. So taking those criteria into mind, where’s the first place that sprung to mind?
The problem with Polish football, though – at least the most commonly conceived problem – is that it can be pretty dodgy. Stories of masked clans of right-wing skinheads, tooled up and roaming the back streets looking for away supporters, frequently percolate back to these shores, so the first thing that immediately springs to mind when you think of Polish football is trouble.
Whether that’s an unfair assessment or not, the fan groups of many of the clubs don’t help matters any when they post videos up to YouTube of the latest adventures of their hool element. Just type the name of any Polish football club you can spell into Google, followed by the word ‘fans’ and you’ll see what I mean.
Indeed, all literature regarding going to Polish football as a random punter asks you to consider if you really want to take your life into your own hands first, and then suggests that even if you do want to go, that you have to have an official football ID card called the Karta Identyfikacyjna Kibica to be able to get anywhere near the ground.
So when the chance for a swift weekender to the central Polish city of Łódź came up, I immediately dropped a note to the press office at Widzew to see if this was true – and whether it was advisable for a couple of grimy foreigners to come along and join in the fun. The nice man at the other end of the internet told us that he could sneak us in with some pretend complimentary tickets, and after trying to flog us an array of expensive executive packages, realised we were in this for more of a first-hand experience and sorted us out some tickets on the terraces.
Taking tram 9 along Piłsudskiego, the main east/west artery that splits the city in two, the urban landscape gradually changed from impressive red brick squares to glorious brutalist concrete blocks. We got off when we could see the impressively massive tilting floodlights in the near distance and walked up to the ground. About 50 yards from the stadium sat a series of low-rise shops and bars surrounded by some seriously heavy looking characters. Shaved heads, big scars, neck tattoos and a vague waft of industrial strength vodka hung around in little clumps by every doorway, every one of them garlanded with an ever-more-violent looking red and white scarf.
I felt instantly at home.
The police presence around the ground was immense, although once the security forces had worked out we were foreign we got waved through with a cheery smile by every tooled up enforcer of calm in our path. As we were passing around the grassy bank at the back of the stand, we came to a bunch of men handing out small typewritten statements. One of them said something to us in Polish, so we effected that wide-eyed, open-armed stance beloved by all Brits abroad.
“Sorry mate, we’re foreign.”
His harsh face suddenly turned all welcoming and helpful as he explained to us in English that we were about to take part in a strike.
“We are in dispute with the city council over our new ground. They don’t want to help us anymore, so we are going to make an action…”
A small frisson of caution gently wafted up the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Five minutes before the game starts we’re going to roll up all our flags and walk out of the ground. Everyone. The fans, the staff, all of the players. We’re all going to walk right out of the ground for ten minutes as a protest.”
Phew. Non-violent direct action is always the better option when you’re not familiar with the local bolt holes.
A whistle went up, and we all flooded back onto the terraces like red and white ants crawling out of their nests after a flood.
True to their word, at exactly five minutes to the hour, the call went up and we all trooped ceremoniously out of the ground. Despite their status as one of the top clubs in Poland, Widzew’s stadium was something of an old fashioned affair. Massive grass banks on each side of the ground were peppered with a cascade of dusty plastic seats, while the tiny main stand was the only part of the ground that was under cover. The club had clearly got stadium envy after seeing all the nice, shiny new enormodomes built for Euro 2012 and they wanted some of that action. But the good burghers of Łódź decided that they were too skint, and put the plans on hold.
As protests go, this was a pretty impressive one. The match was scheduled for a live TV screening, but when it came time for it to start, only Widzew’s opponents Piast Gliwice marched out alongside the ref, to the sound of a silent, empty stadium. It must have looked amazing to the television viewers back home.
Five minutes after the scheduled kick-off time a whistle went up, and we all flooded back onto the terraces like red and white ants crawling out of their nests after a flood. Instantly, the flags were unfurled and the crowd exploded in a wash of noise and dance routines. Despite there being only trace elements of an away presence, the atmosphere was as intimidating as you’d hope it to be.
Behind one goal was a massive drum riser, with two big lads thumping out the beat like those sweaty bald guys you always used to see leading the oarsmen in the biblical epics of the sixties. Between them stood a handsome chap with a megaphone, his back to the match, and pumping out a succession of instructions to a crowd hanging on his every word.
We sang, we waved, we crouched, we sprang back up again. It was excellent fun – and every now and again something happened on the pitch that would distract our attention and make us break ranks into the random guttural yelps that football fans around the globe make when they’re willing their team on.
The match itself was almost of secondary importance to all the fun in the stands. It wasn’t a bad game. Both teams still had something at stake: Piast still had a vague hope of a European place, while Widzew required a win to guarantee an escape from the drop zone. The home team scored a near impossible goal in the first half, when an insistent midfielder defied all trigonometry and squeezed one in from the touchline, while Piast equalised with a meat-and-potatoes header from a corner on the stroke of half-time. But that was about it.
And did that matter? Of course not. The missus loved every minute of it, and we found the Polish fans to be welcoming, warm and terrifically funny. We may just have caught them on a bad day, mind.