UEFA Euro 2012: History weighs on Poland-Russia face-off

The conflict, misunderstanding and blood letting which has marked the history of Poland and its larger eastern neighbour Russia - at times its master - is weighing-in heavily at Euro 2012.

Updated: June 11, 2012 10:38 IST
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Warsaw: The conflict, misunderstanding and blood letting which has marked the history of Poland and its larger eastern neighbour Russia - at times its master - is weighing-in heavily at Euro 2012.

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Poland and Russia face-off in Warsaw on Tuesday, in a match that is drawing more concern about what will happen off the pitch than on it.

Russian fans in their thousands plan to march through Warsaw to arrive at the match venue -- Poland's brand new national stadium.

In numbers unseen in the Polish capital since World War II, the Russians will also be marching on their June 12 national day.

With pockets of Poland and Russia fans having a reputation for violence, concern is running high that clashes could erupt even before the opening whistle blows.

Under a Magnifying Glass

To Russian political analyst Fedor Loukianov, "football is like a magnifying glass for bilateral relations and simply brings tensions which are already exist into greater focus."

"Our history is marked by 400 years of conflict: Poland was once an empire like Russia, then Russia took part in four partitions of Poland. If we add the woes of communism and World War II to that, things become very complicated indeed," he told AFP.

For some Poles, very recent history is the most touchy subject.

The April 10, 2010 crash of a Polish presidential jet in Smolensk, western Russia, in which president Lech Kaczynski perished is seen as one of the most tragic episodes in Poland's turbulent history.

The Tupolev 154 plane carrying Kaczynski, his wife and scores of Poland's leaders came down during an attempt to land at a fog-veiled airport.

The Kaczynski-led delegation was on its way to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of a massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

An official investigation has pinned the blame on the Polish pilots and the derelict state of the Smolensk airport, but that has not convinced Kaczynski's surviving identical twin Jaroslaw -- the leader of Poland's main right wing Law and Justice (PiS) parliamentary opposition party.

He and his followers -- mostly elderly and deeply Catholic, with a clear memory of the communist era in Poland when it was Moscow that called the shots -- have long regarded the crash with suspicion.

Gesture of reconciliation

In a gesture of reconciliation Sunday, Russian Football Union chief Sergey Fursenko unexpectedly lay a large floral wreath at the foot of a memorial plaque dedicated to Kaczynski at Poland's presidential palace.

"Football is outside politics," Fursenko said. "With this tradition we are supporting people and demonstrating our position. We are just footballers," he added.

Fears about a confrontation between Poles and Russian fans at the sensitive memorial had surfaced when the Russian side chose to stay at a luxury hotel next to it and the presidential palace.

Russian leaders President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stayed away from Russia's Euro 2012 debut in Wroclaw, southern Poland, where their team clobbered the Czech Republic in Group A 4-1.

Nor are they expected in Warsaw on Tuesday for the match in the stadium built on the east bank of the Vistula river cutting though the Polish capital where Soviet forces waited for the Nazis to decimate the Polish resistance during the tragic 1944 Warsaw Uprising -- one of the darkest battles of World War II.

Before that, during the 19th century Tsarist Russia carved out most of eastern Poland for itself.

While a newly independent Poland after World War I managed to fight off a Soviet onslaught in 1920 at a battle dubbed the "Miracle on the Vistula" near Warsaw, the USSR and Nazi Germany's 1939 launch of World War II effectively saw Poland lose its sovereignty until communism's demise in 1989.

After that, Warsaw moved quickly to join NATO in 1999 and the European Union by 2004.

"Today, it's easy to spark bad feelings on both sides by bringing all this up," Warsaw-based political analyst Slawomir Debski told AFP.

"Poles suspect Russia wants to destroy the Polish state. In Russia, there's the myth of a rebel Poland forever plotting to frustrate Russian interests," Debski observes.

"And politicians on both sides are adept at exploiting these myths," he concludes.

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