Louder Than Bombs
Legia Warsaw 0-0 Cracovia (10:12:11)
During June of next year the streets of the Polish capital will be pounding with football fans ready to embrace Euro 2012. The Polish FA will ensure that there are ladies dressed in traditional Polish folk costumes stood on every corner, and Uefa will insist that those fans drink only Coca-Cola, Castrol or Carlsberg and that no food should exist in Warsaw outside of McDonalds. 'We care about Football' is the Uefa motto. Not when temperatures dip below freezing they don't. Michel Platini and Lennart Johansson had waived their free passes for this match leaving Stuart Fuller and I - dressed in more layers than a mille-feuille vanilla slice - to brave the cold.
It's fair to say that both Stuart and I are obsessed about European football. But we do like our culture too and so where better to kick off our day in Warsaw than with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science. It is after all the tallest building in Poland and from its viewing terrace on the 30th floor we reckoned on being able to see at least two of the cities football stadiums. What we hadn't factored in was a giant display of adidas Tango balls placed in front of the entrance of the building. Our eyes lit up, "That's the best sight I've seen since I saw the current Mrs Fuller waltzing down the aisle" beamed Stuart. At the top you can actual make out Legia Warsaw's ground (just) and the new national stadium which you get a stunning view of. We learnt that the palace was a gift from Russia; it was hated at first but now begrudgingly accepted, and that the Rolling Stones were the first major rock band from abroad to give the Poles some satisfaction by playing here in 1967. However, with no sign of Mick and Keith and none of the 3000 rooms resembling a Legia Warsaw museum. It was time to kick on.
The Palace of Culture and Science looking an absolute picture, no?
Danny in adidas Tango heaven underneath the entrance - tick.
For less than £2 you can get a lift to the top and see the new national stadium. What's not to like?
Legia's base, Łazienkowska, lies just south of the city centre. For less than a quid the number 151 bus plonks you right outside the ground. Their football museum was shut and the queue for the pub we'd been recommended was enormous so we chose to soak up the atmosphere inside which had already been echoing across the city.
At a recent Europa League game, the Legia Warsaw fans unveiled a banner declaring the legend, 'We hate everyone'. Unless you're from or support Szczecin (MKS Pogoń), Sosnowiec (Zagłębie) and Elbląg (Olimpia) - they're all actually friends along with ADO Den Haag whose colours we saw all around the stadium - then you're an outsider. Speaking to a few fans beforehand I gather that this steams from some comedy match-fixing in the early nineties. Going into the last game of the season Legia and ŁKS Łódź topped the table and won their final games of the season by cricket scores against teams who'd possibly been slipped a few bob. The PZN (Polish FA) were having none of it and awarded the title to the third placed team, Lech Poznań. Grudge matches and hooliganism have reared their head ever since.
Inside the Polish Army Stadion or if you will the Pepsi Arena, for the record I prefer the former, there was of course a pulsating atmosphere complete with some textbook choreographed singing. It's like this every week here. I can't think of a single ground in Britain where there's relentless noise for 90 minutes during every game. Away to our left in the Żyleta - the stand where the ultras gather which translates to, and you'll like this, 'razor blade' - all dressed in white were the Legia hardcore. They know the score: don't wear black. 'The Black Shirts' is the nickname of their hated rivals in the city, Polonia. "We hate those bastards" said the chap to my right. There's a shock.
It is impossible not to tap your foot along to the rhythm of the beat as anthemic brilliance pours from the lungs of every single fan. They sung louder than the bombs that had flattened most of Warsaw during World War II and wiped out over half of their inhabitants in the process. Loud, beautiful and proud: Warsaw is definitely back.
There are flags and banners everywhere you look on the Żyleta. Many of them date back over 30 years; those flags are incredibly important to the fans. Every club has them and it's important to keep an eye on them because every other clubs supporters/hooligans would like to steal them. In fact, at our game the next day, ŁKS Łódź v Śląsk Wrocław, fans took down their flags in order to protect them before trying to rip down the fences to attack each other. The flags are seen as trophies from winning any battle; the older the flag, the more important. If you're able to steal a treasured flag of another club, you then hang it on the fence during the match against that team - upside down, naturally - and then burn it. The same thing occurs with scarves, t-shirts and everything, but the flags are most valuable. This is unlikely to occur during Euro 2012.
Anthemic brilliance from the Żyleta
All white on the night
Stuart and I weren't dressed in white - doesn't disguise the beer belly - and we hadn't stolen any Lech Poznań flags during our whirlwind tour of their stadium on the morning of this match so we took up the clubs kind offer of a spot in the press box for two minutes before moving to be nearer those fans. I should add that the reason we were in Poland in the first place is that we've been employed to write a guide to Euro 2012. So like a couple of estate agents from Homes Under the Hammer, and in between all this nonsense, we were actually doing some work; clutching a couple of clipboards and putting ticks and crosses next to stadiums, transport systems, hotels, local cuisine and every single different Polish beer we could lay our hands on. Na zdrowie!
The game - which was, fact fans, the 1000th to be played at this stadium in all of its various guises, finished 0-0. But the fans, them again, didn't seem to react to anything that occurred on the pitch. When a player was clean through on goal they didn't raise or lower their voice. It was just unwavering support throughout. If they'd have won 4-0 or lost 0-4 I'm guessing it wouldn't have made any difference. Could you imagine Old Trafford rocking to its very foundations during a bore draw at home to Wigan? No, of course not.
At one point a few Legia fans tried to break through into the away sector. And sort of halfheartedly a number of Cracovia fans tried to break out of their end, but security dealt with it swiftly and there wasn't any actual trouble that I noticed anyway. Considering they were second from bottom in the league, Cracovia were backed by an impressive following of around 1500-2000. Bizarrely a lot of them didn't turn up until the second half prompting a cracking visual display of flag waving. There were definitely fans of Lech Poznan in among them - another fan friendship - and by all accounts a few supporters of Polonia Warsaw had also popped in to lend a verbal volley of hatred towards Legia.
The impressive Cracovia support dressed in black. Obviously.
I'd been polishing up on my Polish all week in preparation for the post-match press conference. So whilst mumbling away about a pretty dull scoreless match for twenty or so minutes I can confirm that neither Legia gaffer Maciej Skorża nor Cracovia boss Dariusz Pasieka - who was sporting a magnificent Cracovia scarf - said dwa piwa proszę (two beers please) or jestem z zespołem muzycznym (I'm with the band). These were two of the three phrases I'd learnt. The other one allowed me my big moment in this gathering when it came to my turn for asking a question. Slightly tentatively and with clammy palms I leant into the microphone and asked Czy ten pociąg staje w Warszawa? (Does this train stop in Warsaw?). Unsurprisingly, thirty seconds later Stuart and I were out on the streets of Warsaw and in need of a beer.
Our attempt to blend in with the locals back at the bus stop failed miserably. Fire crackers and flares have been banned from Polish stadiums in attempt to clean things up ahead of Euro 2012, but action outside of the ground is a different matter. Flares were let off - which both warmed and cheered us up - and then came the fire crackers; nobody batted an eyelid other than two English daises who jumped out of their skin. We'd been rumbled.
We ended up back in the old town of Warsaw watching Real Madrid get humped by Barcelona in a pub full of the worst type of plastic fans known to man. They'd never been to the Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabéu or even along the road to Legia or Polonia Warsaw. And yet they saw fit to scream every time Ronaldo, Cesc or Messi got the ball, and smashed glasses on the floor when the goals rained in. Get yourselves to a live game lads. There are 500 or more reasons to love watching football in the flesh, because it's not all bad you know.
What was bad was Stuart and I attempting to sing karaoke in the wee hours of the night. So apologies to all those gathered in the Pub Ślusarni. It wasn't pretty. I opted for (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais by The Clash whereas Stuart cleared his throat, and most of the pub, to Bryan Adams Summer of 69. We don't make a habit of this, but we'd had one of the best days abroad watching football in our young-ish lives, and we've been to a few places. Poland is officially the new Germany in terms of watching football; cheap beer, superb fans, crumbling stadiums; brand spanking shiny new ones, history, friendly locals, cheap and largely efficient transport the lot. Get yourself over there, you won't regret it.
Meanwhile back in the old town at night it's Happy Christmas from Warsaw...
...and a very Merry Christmas to you all from EFW. *wipes away tear*.
...and a very Merry Christmas to you all from EFW. *wipes away tear*.