WARSAW, Poland — A year before Poland co-hosts one of the highest-profile sporting events in the world — the quadrennial European soccer championship — national and international authorities are worried violence could interrupt the tournament.
In what many fear is a taste of what could happen during Euro 2012, hundreds of Polish fans recently went on a rampage in Kaunas, Lithuania, following a friendly match between the two countries' national teams. Footage of hooligans engaged in running battles with the police were broadcast around the world.
“This is a huge image problem for Poland,” said Martin Kallen with UEFA, the European soccer body and the tournament organizer, adding that hooligans are present at every match in Poland.
Street fights are just one in a laundry list of illegal activity connected to Polish fans.
The stands of the country's soccer stadiums have long been dominated by beefy men hurling insults at opposing fans and even at their own teams. The authorities have clamped down on violence in the stadiums in the past, with the effect that fans have taken their fights into forests, where they stage pre-arranged fights with rivals.
Those fights provide violence and entertainment for the young men, often badly educated and with few job prospects, who make up the rank-and-file of the hierarchical organizations of fans. But the leaders of those groups are increasingly being linked to drugs and prostitution, as hooligans step into the vacuum left following the crushing of the Polish mafia a decade ago.
As the fan clubs have begun to dabble in the drug trade, the violence associated with the groups has grown. In January, Tomasz Czlowiek, a fan leader for Krakow's Cracovia team, was massacred by machetes, clubs and knives wielded by thugs associated with the city's rival Wisla team. But police think that the attack had more to do with battling for drug turf than a dispute among fans.
In many cases, the managers of Polish soccer clubs have struck deals with hooligans, both to keep peace in stands and to fill seats, as many normal Poles are not keen to attend matches known mainly for their woeful quality of play and for the vulgarity of some of the fans. As a result, management has been afraid to confront some egregious behaviour.
The head of the Polish soccer fans association, Krzysztof Markowicz, has a criminal record, and during a November match between the Polish national team and a visiting squad from Ivory Coast he spat on a family who came to the game in the wrong outfit.
In Warsaw, Piotr Staruchowicz, another fan leader, hit a player after the capital's Legia team lost a match. During matches, Staruchowicz screams vulgarities at the crowd through a sound system provided by the soccer club. In a sign of his power, the club's management took weeks before finally moving to reinstate a stadium ban against him first imposed two years ago.
Soccer hooligans also excel at racist invective, such as hurling bananas at non-white players, chanting anti-Semitic comments at rival fans and bringing racist banners to matches. In a recent report, the East Europe Monitoring Centre documented 133 racist and xenophobic incidents at Polish soccer games from 2009 to the present — more than twice as many as in Ukraine, which will co-host the upcoming tournament with Poland.
“The sheer number of incidents reported, and the organized nature of many of them, give cause for alarm,” noted Piara Powar, the group's executive director.
Until now, the Polish government has concentrated most of its energy on building the infrastructure necessary to host the tournament. Poland has had to build four world-class stadiums, as well as embark on an ambitious — albeit unlikely to be fully completed — road and rail modernization program.
But as the hooligan incidents have multiplied, and pressure from UEFA has increased, authorities are finally beginning to act. Donald Tusk, the prime minister and a soccer fanatic himself, has promised a wide-ranging crackdown.
Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, the justice minister, is promising legislation that would allow for hooligans to be tried immediately in soccer stadiums thanks to a video link to a judge.
“If that solution works then we'll bring it in to the Polish league as well,” said Kwiatkowski. “Clubs should know who is a fan an who is a bandit. I have the feeling that clubs are sometimes hostages to gangs of hooligans.”
However, there is little danger of fights in stands during Euro 2012, because the tickets to the tournaments are being distributed by auction, which makes it impossible for gangs to take control of part of the stadium. Instead, the danger is what happens to peaceful fans from across Europe when they leave the stadium and venture out onto the streets.