Britain may once have been home to the world's top football hooligans, but times have changed. While overweight British casuals struggle to get a kick-off outside the local Wetherspoons on a Saturday night, Polish firms are taking part in brutal battles in the forest or hacking their rivals up with machetes. Pretty much every Polish town now has its own hooligan group, and hundreds of pre-arranged fights, called "ustawka", are taking place each month. All of which was presumably in the minds of the UEFA bosses who decided that this summer's European Championships should take place in Poland and neighbouring Ukraine.
Ahead of the tournament, I went to Poland to find out if there really were neo-Nazis round every corner. Terrifyingly, there were. The first thing any fan travelling to Poland should be aware of is that the football culture is completely different. If you’re wearing the wrong colours on the wrong street, for example, people won't leer and make wanker signs at you, they'll bypass that and punch you in the head. And if you're gay, black or someone who enjoys wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, you should probably just give the country a miss for now. Before Euro 2012 began, Polish anti-fascist groups tried to sound the alarm, warning that many highly-organised hooligan groups had fallen under the influence of ultra right-wing organisations, but the Polish authorities didn't seem to do much about it. I heard about how fascist groups had begun to use hooligans as foot-soldiers to take over the streets and that in some cities the situation was getting out of control, so I decided to travel to Poland and see for myself.
On the ground in Warsaw, I met a leading football fans organiser, who explained the culture-clash fans could expect in the wild East. “It is better not to show your symbols in our cities, even in our centres. In Poland, things are different than in a normal English club. In England, you don't hit the fans of the other club because of their colours, but in Poland that is absolutely normal.” Polish ultras are the backbone of national football; fanatics who love their team and put on huge displays on the terraces. But the violent underbelly is never far from sight. I was told that the average Polish hooligan will spend 20 hours a week training for battle in MMA and bodybuilding sessions, and that most firms consider the use of weapons to be "cowardly". There are exceptions, however. “In Krakow they killed each other with knives. There are racist groups, and there are a few clubs for which a black player is unimaginable. It is a mask, essentially. They're saying, 'We are so aggressive, we are so strong, we are so white.' It is a kind of theatre.”
Warsaw's National Stadium As for what will happen during the Euro games, Polish ultras won't have to do too much about it, since “there are other groups of fans from Europe who will be fighting each other. English hooligans are going to be fighting each other in the forests, while some groups are arranging rendez-vous under railway stations. That won't be the case in the city centre, however. They leave that area free for regular supporters.” While Poland suffered atrocities under Nazi occupation, the scars of the Soviet regime are still fresh and anti-Communist sentiment from neo-Nazis resonates with the hooligans. A previous generation of football fans played an important role in fighting the authorities during the revolt against Communism. Polonia Warsaw’s stadium walls are covered in beautiful and bizarre murals depicting the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, in which the Polish resistance made a last stand against the Nazis, but the art sits alongside white power graffiti. At the other end, the Polish Antifa (anti-fascists) have been fighting a street war against the far-right, working to change minds where they can, but dishing out beatings to boneheads when deemed necessary. They told me that at least 40 people have been killed by right-wing extremists over the past few years, and people are not willing to take it any more. I met a leading Antifa member in Warsaw, who spoke out to highlight the rise of a new generation of mindless neo-Nazi hooligans. “This young generation of Polish hooligans has no moral spine, no balls, probably also no respect for themselves,” he explained. “They shout and they do anything that nationalist or fascist leaders tell them to. The neo-fascist postures of some football fans make them one of the most backward parts of our society. Football fans could be a kind of social avant-garde and everyone is aware of the potential that lies in the stadiums, in hooligans, in ultras; not only right-wing political parties. So they try to convince them to join their side.” The balance of forces changed drastically after Poland’s annual Independence parade last November became a successful rallying point for the far-right. Antifa organised blockades to defend the streets of Warsaw but while they blocked the streets and battled police, the fascists, bolstered by unprecedented numbers of hooligans, went on the rampage; attacking bystanders and burning press vans. “When they [the far-right] invited football fans to their march and organised coaches for football fans, they lost control of their march,” my contact explained.
“Football fans that attended the march were there for a number of reasons; Some of them are engaged in neo-fascist, nationalistic groups, some of them came with their friends, some were looking for excitement. What's interesting is that after the escalation of violence, some parts of the nationalistic and far-right groups had no idea what to do about it, how to handle themselves in the situation they'd created."
Antifa fear that many members of the police and even mainstream political parties in Poland are sympathetic to the far-right. The problem is at its worst in the small city of Bialystok, near the border with Belarus, where hooligans have fallen under the influence of the neo-Nazi group Blood and Honour and police have failed to control the growing violence. I travelled to the bleak city and got some locals to drive me to the site of a recent murder. Once there, they explained how one terrible night in April, a band of neo-Nazi thugs went on a rampage through the city centre. Their first victim was found lying unconscious in the street at 10.30PM having suffered a severe beating. He died shortly afterwards in hospital. To consolidate their reign of terror, Bialystok's neo-Nazis are believed to have assassinated a leading hooligan opponent in a brutal machete attack. Pubs have also been targeted by groups who say they are "hunting for lefties". Local Antifa members are extremely nervous and say they fear for the lives of their families if they speak out. I was escorted to a secret location away from the city’s unsafe streets, where Antifa are preparing themselves for self-defence but also working to change the city’s culture.
“There have been many scuffles and fights in the streets,” one of my guides explained. “The Nazis use machetes and knives, sometimes batons, they are the most dangerous. We only carry what we need to defend ourselves, but you can’t really go out to the pub alone. You will get attacked, people have even been attacked at the local supermarket.”
Fire extinguisher-sized containers of pepper spray may counter the hooligans’ knives and bats for now, but the group is working hard on promoting the city's music scene in the hope of building a healthier youth culture. In an attempt at providing a outlet for frustrated locals, they fly in punk bands from across Europe. And there's nothing like going to see a hardcore band from Belarus when you're so furious about fascists you can't even speak. Bialystok's small core of Antifa refuse to move to Warsaw and give up the fight, but they expect things to get worse before it gets better. Which could mean more deaths. For the time being, and while the world’s media spotlight is on Poland, they feel the government is forced to do something to deal with the problem. Come the 11th of November, however, the nazis will be back on the streets of Warsaw, and unless something dramatic happens, their hooligan army will be bigger than ever.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack