This is about more than quarter-finals

Frantisek Smuda, the Poland coach, stares out from the front cover of the current Polish version of Newsweek, a look of impressive resolution on his face.

He is wearing neither the grey suit nor the red tracksuit top he usually sports. Rather he is wearing the blue-grey uniform of the inter-war Polish army, two fingers raised to the brim of his cap in salute — a homage to Josef Pilsudski, the statesman and army commander who halted the Bolshevik advance in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 — the so-called Miracle of the Wistula — and so preserved Poland’s independence until the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Tonight’s game between Poland Russia isn’t just about qualification for the quarter-finals of the Euros; it’s about historical pride and about Poland asserting itself as a nation in its own right, rather than just a flat fertile extended borderland between two historically aggressive military powers: Germany to the west and Russia to the east. As Lech Walesa said, for centuries Poland’s mindset has been one of resistance, fighting on both flanks to preserve its independence, and then opposing Communist rule when it was effectively a satellite state of the USSR.

Relations between Russia and Poland remain uneasy, the antagonism ratcheted up by the footage posted on YouTube apparently showing Russia fans attacking a Polish steward after Russia’s 4-1 win over the Czech Republic in Wroclaw last Friday. It’s not clear what provoked the incident but the clear glee with which a fan emerges from the melee to kick the steward as he lies helpless on the ground is sickening.

The outrage felt by Poles about that — and it has been clear in television reports and newspaper coverage — will pass; historical atrocities may not. Because of the ongoing Russian refusal to release 35 of the 183 volumes of files relating to the incident, the events at Katyn in April and May 1940 remain horribly current. The USSR, as it was bound to under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded Poland in September 1939 after Britain and France declared war on Germany for its invasion of Poland. The Polish army was commanded not to fight against unbeatable odds with the result that hundreds of thousands were taken prisoner. In total it’s believed around 150,000 Poles — not just soldiers but civilians as well — died in Soviet camps during the war. Most shocking, though, was the systematic extermination of Poland’s elite at the suggestion of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD.

It has been confirmed that 21,768 Poles, including an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, about 200 pilots, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, 131 refugees, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers and more than 100 writers and journalists were murdered, significantly weakening Poland ahead of the Soviet takeover at the end of the war. Only in 1990 did the USSR admit the massacres, although it acknowledged only 1,803 dead, and in 2005, when a decade-long Russian investigation was concluded, it refused to classify the atrocity as a war crime.

The Polish president Lech Kaczynski was pursuing a hard line against Russia when he went to visit the site of the worst of massacres in the forest just outside Katyn near Smolensk in May 2010. In thick fog, his plane clipped a tree and crashed, killing all on board. When the bodies of victims had to be exhumed in March this year so that inconsistencies in the autopsy reports could be straightened out — one man had mysteriously gained eight inches in height — it led to a wave of conspiracy theories, adding to the sense of hostility Poles feel towards Russia.

For the first time for a long time, this tournament has carried a general underlying sense of a potential for violence. Returning from Gdansk on Sunday night, for instance, I changed trains at about 2.30am in Bydgoszcz to be greeted by around 60 police in full riot gear — a weird overreaction to the handful of bedraggled journalists and fans who had chosen that route back to Warsaw. Given the arrests in Poznan and the incidents with Russian fans, though, it was perhaps understandable.

Thousands of Russians are reported to be descending on Warsaw for tonight’s game, many of whom will not have tickets. Most probably come excited by the stylish way their side beat the Czech Republic on Friday, but the monkey chanting allegedly directed at the Czech right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie — a UEFA investigation is underway — and the trouble in the rail station afterwards suggests others have a different agenda.

The Russians may head for the fanzone that extends round three sides of the Palace of Culture where an estimated 80,000 Polish fans watched their draw against Greece on Friday. The symbolism is potent: the Palace is a classic Soviet Gothic building, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, donated to the city by Stalin.

For a long time it was the most hated building in the country; now it stands as an awkward symbol of Poland’s past.

If tens of thousands of Polish and Russian fans gather to watch the game there tonight, it could easily become the centrepiece of a major flashpoint.

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

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