Disturbances in Poland taint fans
June 16 ~ Russia go into their final group match tonight against Greece as clear favourites for the win that would see the team clinch the top spot, thus avoiding a quarter-final with Germany. The outlook should be positive for the Russians, yet it's tinged with disappointment. This has nothing to do with letting a lead slip against the enthusiastic Poles or with Andrei Arshavin deciding that the last half an hour of a match is not worth bothering with. The stories are all about the fans.
I was at the opening match against the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. After an epic 13-hour journey we ran into the stadium with ten minutes of the game already gone. By the time we found our seats and caught our breath. Russia were 1-0 up.
What followed was quite a brilliant display, all the more remarkable that the centre-forward on the day was Aleksandr Kerzhakov. This did not matter as his replacement, Roman Pavlyuchenko, set up one before burying another past an exasperated Petr Cech. It also gave me great pleasure to note that the atmosphere in the stands was extremely good-natured, with Russians, Poles and Czechs mixing merrily all around us. This carried on in the city centre as we drank ourselves silly in celebration.
We were in a carriage to Poznan when I decided to check Twitter and, to my horror, discovered the YouTube video of the stewards getting beaten up in another part of the ground. The term "bitter disappointment" has never been so apt. People hurt in pointless, mindless violence that cast a long shadow over the rest of us and, no doubt, added fuel to the fire ahead of the following game against Poland.
When Michel Platini met Russian fan representatives in January, they were at pains to point out that this would be an event the old cliché-masters would call "explosive". The Polish police certainly took it seriously. Several Russian advisers worked with them ahead of the game. On the day, the Poles took no prisoners… Well, actually they did, rounding up suspicious-looking groups before the game. Much has been made of the potentially provocative nature of the 5,000-strong Russian march to the ground.
Yet, the Warsaw authorities were informed of this long in advance and did not raise an objection, preparing the police response accordingly. If anything, all Russians together should have made this easier to police. On the other hand, they presented a large target that was subject to constant attacks on the way to the stadium with objects being thrown and small groups bursting through the lines to jump into the Russian crowd before running off. Confusions, injuries, arrests. Ultimately, the organisers failed to protect the visitors.
The huge Russian banner at the stadium again provoked a massive negative reaction. "This is Russia?" "No, this is POLAND, you insensitive recent oppressors!" Some recalled the snarling bear of Moscow at the 2007 European qualifier against England, the face of the aggressive, offensive Russia.
Well, that was in Moscow but how did they get the fearsome bogatyr into Warsaw's National Stadium? Easily. They sent the details, including the picture, to UEFA, who signed off on it. And the sword-wielding chap was "Russia", not Warsaw. Yes, hardly a message of brotherly love, but not one to cause grievous offence.
And then they had to get home. Under the cover of darkness, away from the police and the cameras, dispersed all over the city they returned with stories of more savage attacks after the match. They are now being asked to come forward, their tales to be collected and presented together to UEFA.
Polish TV showed an embarrassed chief of police fielding difficult questions the day after what has already been already dubbed the Second Battle of Warsaw. One can only hope that today there won't be a third. Alexander Goryunov