The decision to stage the Poland-Russia match on June 12th was always going to cause problems. Whether by design or stupidity, UEFA set up the streets of Warsaw to become a 21st century battlefield for the half-heads of Poland and Russia. Many Russians need little instigation to find the arrogance that saw a little Viking village become over time the largest country on earth.
To find themselves in “enemy territory”, on Russia Day, playing Poland, in football, in a major championship, having rolled over former subjects a few days previous – it was a troublemakers dream. The shocking video of Russian “fans” unprovoked attack on match stewards after the Czech match cast the cast iron assurances that “Polish lies”, “Western propaganda” was actually Russian thuggery on tour. President of the Russia FA, Fursenko, claimed that no such attacks occurred, the silence from Taganka (where the offices are in Moscow) was indicative of the shock many were feeling.
Monday’s battles were not all the cause of Russians. The “fans” who tried to create mayhem in Poznan on Saturday were local and not new to hooliganism. Those who were ambushing Russian fans in cafes and, indeed, on the road to the stadium, were looking for any sign to start their disgusting behaviour. And so they got it, not in the cafes were fans were mixing and enjoying the pre-match build up, but in the organised, planned and armed “freedom” march behind the banner/flag of the old Russian Empire. The slogans on the flag harked back to the 17th century when Moscow became the centre of the Russian Empire and beat back Polish advances to wipe out the Polish kingdom, casting the land as a wasteland of uncivilised heathens in need of a stern hand. From the time Poland joined with Lithuania against Moscow and the Russians, history has be troubled.
On internet forums words buzzed about like tracer bullets as a prelude to battle. The keyboard warriors in Russia were determined to “civilise” the Poles, anti-catholic, anti-EU and anti-Western sentiment flowed from the screen like sludge from a broken waste pipe. So shocked by this I stopped trying to make sense of it and tried to do some work. Despite scenes of violence on the streets of Warsaw and competing reports of casualties, it just looked too ridiculous to consider that it would get worse. Russian media were brilliant at this moment. Here in Moscow about 20,000 people from all shades of politics and protest gathered in the city centre to shout about freedom and rights. Treble that number gathered in two of the fanzones (Gorky Park and Luzhniki Stadium) to watch football, giving the real attitude of Russians and the status quo. The media reported on the protests, covered the speeches and commented on the numbers showing up across the country. They switched to the fanzones – a far more representative face of modern Russia with Asian and Southern faces smiling and waving flags (in contrast to the very Russian populated protest) and were cautiously optimistic about the match. And then they switched to Warsaw, reported on the teams and went straight into the street battles. The reporters and commentators were ashamed. They condemned the fans for provoking the locals and for showing a negative side to Russia. In a way it was too one-sided, there was a large slice of blame to be placed on the organisers and the locals. However it was a day to be proud of the Russian media – much maligned as they generally are.
And so to the match, calm was reported in the streets, all was ok at the OK Corral. Poland and Russia, squaring up to one another, the big showdown. 500 years of oppression and all that to be sorted out in 90minutes. Watching the pre-match chat on an ITV stream I immediately switched back to Russia 2 when Adrian Chiles said “and of course they’re hosting the 2018 World Cup, at England’s expense”. I felt that denying myself the dulcet tones of Gareth Southgate, the rasp of Roy Keane and nasal twang of Jamie Carragher was worth it as I knew Roy would never turn around and say “get over it”. And the anthems struck up, the camera pulled out for a crowd shot and unfurling from the upper deck of the Russian section came a gigantic flag stating “This is Russia”. Of course the brainless mob who’d come up with this dress like and figure themselves to be the next Danny Dyer, complete with Burberry. But as the camera zoomed in on the Russian team faces, and came to rest on Captain Andrei, the flag was firmly planted behind them. At which point the commentators were furious, calling it a shameful night. I checked forums and they were alight with the joy of hormonally challenged boys who were all alone at home.
It began, both sides having at it in the best, in my opinion, match so far. When Russia scored the commentators were relieved. They urged a second as they felt Poland would have too much. When Poland equalised they were magnanimous and forums lit up with abuse and hate. That Poland failed to win was good in a way, for had they gotten that second goal, more teddy bears would have been punched in Russia than at any time since Teletubbies were taken off the air for promoting Western values. The match ended with happy faces from both sides. The Poles relieved at not losing, the Russians likewise. Kerzhakov showed himself to be off form again, despite some beautiful touches and moves, Arshavin looked for the easy ball after some close attention, while Dzagoev, apart from the goal, was subdued by Polish commitment. Warsaw was calm afterwards, probably due to the increased numbers of police in the streets.
So Russia Day ended with a battling draw, a well earned point and Russia takes on the bankrupt Greeks who still have a chance to go through. Rumours of Gazprom doing a “Dima Bilan” as it’s known here (when they allegedly bought the votes for the 2008 Eurovision) with Greece are groundless, Russia have more than enough to come through easily. Though not with the current line up. Poland can face the Czechs with great confidence and if justice is done, will get the needed win to come through. Having started the day as a group with only one team in it, Group A might have sparked Euro 2012 into life, so many those idiots in the streets with their dubious grasp of history might have something to be thanked for!