It’s been quite a couple of weeks for historical symbolism in football. Ten days ago the football world was transfixed by events taking place in Belgrade, where a drone carrying a flag of greater Albania floated down onto the pitch during the Euro 2016 qualifying match between Serbia and Albania – an event which provoked an almighty scuffle and the eventual abandonment of the match.
Last night, history, politics and football came together on a rather less inflammatory level, but nonetheless interesting one in the Europa League game between Metalist Charkiv and Legia Warsaw held in Kyiv. At the match Legia Warsaw fans unveiled a banner with the Polish names and crests of two cities lost (or taken away depending on your viewpoint) from Poland by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. The two cities L’viv and Vilnius (in Polish – Lwów and Wilno) are now a part of the independent states of Ukraine and Lithuania.
The flag, although it didn’t say so outright, implied that Legia fans still consider the cities to be Polish, a fact which was noted by Ukrainian news outlets. One stated the following:
‘Against the background of the Polish flag Legia ultras put the names of two cities – the Ukrainian Lviv and the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. So fans, obviously, decided to declare that these territories belong to Poland.’
Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) tended to agree with the comments of the Ukrainian press, stating that they had noted the presence of the flags, something which looks like it will bring some kind of punishment to Legia, a club that is certainly not in UEFA’s good books anyway.
Polish ‘patriotic’ reactions to the events from last night were more interesting however. In the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Poland has been one of the strongest backers of the beleaguered Ukrainian government in Kyiv. This has led it to demand strong sanctions against Putin’s Russia and television, radio and the written media have been scathing in their criticism of Russia while firmly backing Ukraine’s sovereignty.
At the same time there has always been a (admittedly rather small) section of Polish opinion which has looked on at the events in Ukraine with suspicion. These groups look back to the bloody history of Polish-Ukrainian ethnic cleansing which took place during the Second World War in the Eastern territories which Poland eventually lost. These groups fear the reemergence of Ukrainian nationalism which brought about the brutal deaths of Poles in the East. One such site, Kresy.pl, (which discusses issues related to Poland’s old Eastern lands) has regularly shared news of Ukrainian nationalist incidents and presence during the turbulent events occurring in Poland’s Eastern neighbour.
It was no surprise then that Kresy.pl covered the unveiling of the flag by Legia ultras. While the tone of the pieces was relatively neutral, the comments under the articles invariably weren’t. Comments such as ‘Well done for the flag’ or ‘I’m sorry but how can people get offended? Every Pole knows that ‘LWÓW HAS ALWAYS BEEN POLISH!!!’ received a host of Facebook ‘likes.’ Other comments were more conciliatory. One for example stated:
‘If any Germans expelled from Poland had written during the match with Poland that Opole, Szczecin and Gdańsk (all cities lost by Germany after WWII – rightbankwarsaw) were German cities, the Polish government would have protested immediately. Try and be consistent with your comments!’
Contentious events involving Polish football ultras and teams from their former Eastern territories are quite common. In 2007, Legia were banned from Europe for one year for rioting during an Intertoto match vs Vilnius club FK Vetra and in 2013 Lech Poznań Ultras unveiled a banner in a match with fellow Vilnius club VFMD Żalgiris which stated ‘Lithuanian idiot, bow in front of your Polish lord!’
While the scale of what Legia fans did last night is not quite as inflammatory as the events mentioned above, it underlines that, even if it is just within the football community, the relationship between Poland and its Eastern neighbours is not altogether serene.