The City Of Knives

With the 2012 European Championships drawing ever nearer, joint hosts Poland are keen to eradicate a long term problem.  Here's Ryan Hubbard.

On the 17th January this year, a thirty year-old father of two left his home in a gated community to the south of Poland's second city, Kraków. As he headed through the nearby neighbourhood of Kurdwanów, his Audi was forced from the road, crashing into a nearby shop. Upon exiting his car, the man was set upon by a large number of masked attackers, wielding knives and baseball bats. Attempting to flee from the mob, the man sought refuge in a nearby waste container. He was quickly found, pulled from the container, and savagely beaten along with a group of bystanders. The man died in an ambulance on the way to hospital.

You may be wondering why I am writing about this brutal gang attack on a football website. Well, this is the latest shocking example of the fanatical hooliganism between the "firms" of Poland's two oldest surviving clubs, Wisła Kraków and Cracovia Kraków.

Tensions between groups of rival supporters have been high since the clubs were formed within months of each other in the early part of the 20th Century.  The last two decades have only seen an escalation in trouble.  After the fall of communism many young people were left unemployed, disillusioned by life, and turned to hooliganism as an escape. Many of the hooligan groups saw a rise in memberships at this time.

Fighting between the two groups has seen an increasing number of incidents in Kraków, and the widespread use of weapons has led to the city earning the unwanted title of ‘The City of Knives’.

In 2003, a 23-year old man was stopped near his home by a large group of men. Although he didn't follow the sport, when asked which team he supported, the man replied "Wisła". The men - a group of Cracovia yobs - then proceeded to stab him to death.

Two years later, a young Pole, visiting his father from Germany, was set upon and killed by a group of Wisła fans, which again was despite the man supporting neither team.

And then in 2008, a Wisła supporter was dragged by a Cracovian mob from his car and savagely beaten to death in front of his friends.

The recent murder just adds to the ever-increasing list of tragedies attributed to the so-called ‘Święta Wojna’ or ‘Holy War’. With Cracovia hooligans vowing to avenge January's despicable attack, it seems unlikely to end any time soon.

The latest victim, known as "Człowiek", was a leading figure in Cracovia's violent "Anty Wisła" group, though it was believed that since the birth of his first child, Człowiek had turned his back on a criminal past and vowed to concentrate on his new life as a father and husband. Some however, were not convinced, and believed that his new life and his work as a personal trainer was merely a front to disguise his position as a recruiter for the hooligan group.

The attackers were part of the Wisła ‘Sharks’ hooligan group, who maintain a deep hatred for Człowiek and Cracovia as a whole. But despite the football links, the investigation into the murder took a sudden turn due to the amount of drugs allegedly found in Człowiek's car. The police now believe that a dispute about the distribution of illegal narcotics was to blame for the attack. There is however another rumour bandied about between fans, that Człowiek was hunted by the rival gang, due to an incident in London where a Wisła supporter's sister was injured in a non-football related incident.

The vehicle which rammed Człowiek's car is believed to belong to the head of the Wisła hooligans, known as "Misiek". In 1998 he gained notoriety during a UEFA Cup tie with Parma, when he threw a knife from the stands which hit Italian midfielder Dino Baggio on the head (The incident can be seen here). Subsequently, Wisła were banned from all European competitions for a year.

However, it must be said that it isn't only the two Kraków clubs that have their hooligan element. Practically every major club in the country has struggled against violence both inside and outside of the stadium. Wisła's rivalry with Legia Warszawa is touted as one of the fiercest in Poland, and incidents occur regularly across the country. A recent high-profile incident saw the head of the Lech Poznań supporters group ‘Wiara Lecha’ caught on camera spitting on a group of three fellow Poles during their national team's 3-1 friendly victory over Ivory Coast. The three - a family taking their Lech-supporting children to see the game - were eventually forced from the stands to avoid further aggression.

Polish clubs used to make deals with the troublemakers in order to avoid problems in the grounds, with free tickets and special privileges being offered. However these deals have, quite rightly, been rescinded as the clubs try to distance themselves from a hooligan element. In the approach to the 2012 European Championships, jointly held in the country, everyone in Polish football is doing their best to find a way to show that fan aggression will not be tolerated.

Many clubs - including both Wisła and Cracovia - have built new stadia, and with this they are bringing in increased security measures to cut out violence during games. Fan identification cards and better segregation are just a few of the steps being taken. There is hope in the country that the contemporary stadia along with the modernisation of the game will force hooligans away.

The new procedures, however, only seem to be a minor inconvenience to the thugs. To counter the procedures, the yobs now only have to organise their clashes away from the cities to avoid being controlled by the Police. These "ustawkas" or "meetings" are usually arranged to occur in an unpopulated area, such as a forest or clearing, where the police are usually caught off-guard or sometimes even totally oblivious to the happenings. A recent, high-profile ustawka occurred between fans of city rivals Widzew Łódź and ŁKS Łódź just outside of the small town of Poddębice, some 20 miles outside from the city. Hundreds of rival hooligans participated in the mass brawl, which resulted in the death of a 24-year old man. The government is working with the police to bring in a suitable law which can stop these events from taking place, but this is currently to no avail.

The persistence of the hooligans to cause trouble is putting immense strain on the league clubs, who are desperately trying to become positive influences in their local communities. One Wisła Public Relations worker even went on radio after the recent murder to explain how the club works hard to improve its image, before admitting "this sort of thing happens and we are right back to square one."

One (rather unsurprisingly) unnamed Wisła Kraków supporter recently went on record to say "I wish they would lock up [Wisła hooligan leader] 'Misiek' for life. He does nothing good for the club". A view shared by most in the city.

Hooligans are using their football allegiances as cover for their illegal activities and justification for their brutal wars. By adopting team colours as a battle uniform, they are slurring the names of the clubs who they claim to represent. In most of Europe, this narrow view leads people to attach a stigma to Polish fans. Whilst there is no denying there is a problem, for the majority of fans this stereotype is unwarranted. During games, the Polish supporters are amongst some of the best in the world. They can provide a visual spectacle that few can rival. The constant singing and chanting - even when their team is underperforming - only adds to the amazing atmosphere. The majority of these supporters would love nothing more than to see the violence eradicated, and hope that one day the thugs will no longer be able to drag the names of their teams, and their country, through the mud.

Many believe that it is the appalling actions of the minority which are a major factor in the Polish game's inability to develop into a major European force.  They probably aren't too far from the truth. If Polish football could finally remove the hooligan element associated with their beloved game, it would benefit both the supporters and the clubs. Without a threat of violence, attendances would surely improve and extra sponsorships could help clubs to bring in much needed money. With a little extra investment maybe we could even see Polish clubs return to the Champions League and turn a few heads.

For now, Poland will settle for a little progression off the field. Both clubs are desperate to stand against the hooligans and maybe in a few years we will see a Kraków derby where Wisła and Cracovia can co-exist free from the violence that currently plagues the City's top two teams.

For the sake of football in Poland, that would be a massive step.

Thanks to Michał Zachodny for his help on this.

Ryan can be found on Twitter here and you can read more from him at his blog.