Partying with Polish Football Fans Outside Wembley
When it comes to Polish people, English xenophobia takes two forms: Firstly, there are those who view them as some sort of super-working class, a fleet of Duracell bunnies who flocked to England in their droves back when England thought it was dead classy and was too busy worrying about its skincare regimes to keep an eye on the economy. When it was revealed that the FA would be allocating 18,000 tickets to Polish fans ahead of Tuesday's match against England at Wembley, the English people who buy into this opinion saw it as a chance for begrudging, condescending praise:
Poland fans allocated a massive 18,000 tickets for tonight's game at Wembley, I suppose that's fair considering they did build the stadium— John NOT Terry (@BigJohnTerry) October 15, 2013
The other brand of English xenophobia aimed at the Poles is less begrudging and more bewildering. This is a scared, violent school of thought (presumably the same school that UKIP members send their kids to) that flat-up refuses the basic right of anyone other than their immediate family to exist. These proud lionhearts reacted like this:
Sickening FA have given almost 20,000 tickets to Polish fans who surprise surprise despite taking our benefits + nhs still support Poland— David Jones (@DavidJo52951945) October 15, 2013
Of course, the rest of us hate both of those types of English people much more then we hate foreigners. We're the ones who can find some real human empathy in the desire to drink can after can of Tyskie in the five hours leading up to a football match. Excited by the possibility of an England game at Wembley with some actual away support, I headed down along to the crucial World Cup qualifier to see what it's like when thousands of Polish people get drunk together.
Although no one was expecting the rival sets of fans to kick off, I spent a large part of my formative years watching Danny Dyer documentaries on Bravo. So the thought of drinking with the rivals made me a little nervous. When we arrived at about 3PM, we found these Polish fans already making themselves at home in the environs of Wembley Park. They agreed to have their photo taken on the condition that I be in it, at which point one began to playfully choke me with his scarf. It became clear that we spoke a common language. The language of "quality banter". That and English.
Despite the large numbers predicted – the Poles were always going to exceed their allocation by rocking up in the English sections of the stadium – it was pretty quiet for much of the early afternoon. It would appear that, just like everyone else, it's totally normal for Polish people to spend all day doing a job that forces them to save their drinking for outside of work hours. Who knew?
Nope, you're not looking at one of those newly converted American soccer fans who come over from NYC to sit behind you and call Frank Lampard a "dickwad" at the top of their voice. This man was actually repping Nysa, his hometown in southwestern Poland. He's now lived in England for the past five years, so he should really replace his current jumper with a giant St George's cross, right? Possibly, but as he told me he works in security at Gatwick airport he's probably done more to secure our borders than Tommy Robinson, Paul Dacre and Nigel Farage combined, and can therefore support whoever the fuck he wants, quite frankly.
As kick-off approached, the Polish fans were starting to make their voices heard, wandering along Olympic Way chanting "POLSKA GOLA, POLSKA GOLA, TAKA JEST, KIBICÓW WOLA" and proudly using their national flag to hint at the tremendous size of their Polish penises.
In an era when the modern Premier League fan sports a tee with an Aztec print pocket, a pair of plimsols and a Macklemore hair-do, it was refreshing to see fans wearing their colours with pride. It was at this point that I started to wonder where all the England fans were.
Oh wait, here they are, wrapped up in Superdry and the kind of skinny jeans last seen at a Paddingtons gig in 2006. They weren't the only ones who'd made this sartorial choice. I'm not sure if this is the new breed of casual, but it doesn't really invoke the same level of fear as a ventilated CP Company face-balaclava, does it? Is there anything less intimidating than someone wearing Superdry? They look like they're here for an X Factor audition rather than a tear-up. Who's their top boy, Olly Murs?
If there's one thing that everyone living in England loves, it's being able to walk into any shit chicken shop at any time of day or night and staggering away with a cardboard box filled with soggy fried chicken and chips that taste like abandoned furniture. Unfortunately, this being Wembley, most of the shops had wildly hiked their prices. When this guy spotted our official looking camera he raced over and, via a series of drunken grunts and wild gesticulations, communicated his disappointment in the obvious match-day price increases.
Now we're talking. All those evenings spent watching Football's Hardest Away Days and The Naughtiest Mobs In Zagreb had convinced me that there was going to be a point in my life where I'd be in the midst of a group of eastern Europeans, burning flares without a second thought for the safety of people's eyelids. And although I was in a car park behind a Harvester pub rather than the stands of Red Star Stadium, it still felt really authentic, especially when I started coughing and had to cover my face like a total pussy.
In an attempt to stop the two sets of fans throwing chairs at each other, Scotland Yard had designated five pubs as being "Polish only" for the night. I had the impression that these would resemble some sort of border detention centre, except with more vodka and singing along to Katy Perry. As it turned out, they were fairly relaxed affairs, primarily full of second generation Poles who had basically declared that the night was going to be a victory either way.
The consensus among those I spoke to was that Poland were going to lose, and that they'd be supporting England in Brazil next year anyway. For even the most right wing among us to quarrel with this attitude seems moronic. The Irish-Americans who paint clovers on their faces on St Patrick's Day never have their allegiance to Old Glory questioned, so it's strange that any of these people would be criticised for wearing a Poland top for 90 minutes.
If you know what a deadlift is and you can spell "Schwarzenegger" without looking it up, your primary interaction with Polish people has probably been at the gym. It's never wise to adhere to stereotypes, but when I heard that I would be drinking with Polish football fans I immediately assumed that I'd be among guys who spend their days throwing heavy machinery around construction sites and their nights throwing drunken idiots out of Oceanas. For this group I happened to be right, so when they started pulling a front double bicep pose for the camera I thanked the Gods or Iron that I had blasted bis and tris that very morning.
Going to gyms not only lets you ham it up with certain groups of Polish men, it also allows you to run into tonk-as-fuck super-policemen who, handily, you're actually friends with. My mate here told me the cops weren't expecting any trouble from either set of fans, which – given he looks like a human wrecking ball – was probably good for their sakes.
Despite losing 2-0, the Poland fans emerged from the stadium in good spirits, parading down Wembley Way in a bittersweet victory lap. Before the match, Polish FA spokesman Jakub Kwiatkowska had stated that: "Games against England are very special. Every time we play in a country with a big Polish community it’s important for them to be at the game and support the Poland team. It is always better to go to work the next day and say to their English colleagues: 'We beat you.'”
While a World Cup qualifier is a competition, national loyalty isn't. Allocating 18,000 tickets isn't an affront to English identity, but a reflection of how it's changing, and it was admirable of the FA to make the move. A large amount of those 18,000 fans live in England and as such, many of them held some sort of allegiance to both flags.
Because of that, it was an international spectacle devoid of petty xenophobia or crippling angst. This allowed fans on both sides to get drunk, watch Andros Townsend confuse Ipswich Town fans, and prove that England probably isn't going down the drain. Plus we won, which is a bonus.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackBlocker