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Jun 11, 2012

Polish-Russian tensions run high

When the draw for Euro 2012 was made, it's unlikely anyone at UEFA had a Russian calendar at hand. If anyone did, there may have been a grimace when Russia was pulled out of the hat alongside Poland in Group A, with a meeting between the group favourites and the host nation scheduled for June 12.

That day happens to be Russia's National Day, marking the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of Russian national sovereignty amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's not quite on the scale of American Independence Day but, for some groups in Russia, a country whose long and meandering history translates into a somewhat disputed national identity, June 12 is a day to show their country's colours.

History tells us that soccer matches and national celebrations tend to make easy bedfellows, but they also can form a rather potent cocktail, especially when far-right groups become intertwined in the proceedings. Police in Warsaw are on high alert ahead of Tuesday's contest, with potentially thousands of Russian fans expected to march through the centre of the city before the match.

"We will give you all the necessary support, let you know the way to the stadium," Maciej Karczynski, commander of the Warsaw police, said in a message to Russian fans. "We will extend the hand of help – only do not provoke the police to aggression. We will be particularly strict and firm with those who have come here only to ruin the Euros."

Asked whether there were enough resources to cope with a boiling over of tensions, he replied: "There's enough room [in our jails] for everyone."

The Poland-Russia fixture also comes just over two years after the plane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk that killed 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Though the majority of Poles have accepted the crash as a terrible accident, there are some who perceive the hand of the Russian authorities, seeking to re-establish control over their former Soviet satellite by force.

Polish-Russian relations have a long, bloody history that has stretched over the past millennium. As early as the 11th century, Catholic Poles and Orthodox Russians fought for religious and territorial supremacy over what is now Ukraine. In the early 17th century, Polish forces attempted to conquer Russia, occupying the Moscow Kremlin for a year. Three traumatic partitions of Poland across the 18th century saw the country lose sovereignty and be absorbed into the Russian Empire. In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Soviet and Polish forces fought a three-year conflict over the territory of modern Ukraine and Belarus, with the loss of more than 100,000 lives. When the Soviets finally took control of Poland, following the country's partition under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the Red Army committed some terrible atrocities, most notably the Katyn Massacre of 1940, in which some 22,000 Polish POWs were executed and dumped in mass graves.

Coinciding with the Russian squad's preparations to face Poland, a group of Polish protestors signalled their intention to camp outside Warsaw's Hotel Bristol on the afternoon of Sunday June 10, as they do on the 10th of every month, to call for Russia to come clean about its role in the alleged murder of Kaczynski on that ill-fated flight. Russia's players just so happened to be staying there.

"There are always demonstrations at this location," Wojciech Zajaczkowski, the Polish ambassador to Moscow, told Sovetsky Sport. "We hope that the demonstrations do not disturb the Russian team's comfortable stay."

As it turned out, talk of a 10,000-strong gathering on the hotel doorstep was somewhat ambitious. By mid-afternoon, about a dozen rather miserable-looking middle-aged folk had assembled, armed with loudspeakers and placards, surrounded by another hundred or so onlookers, some with clearly no idea what all the shouting was about.

"We're concentrating on our match," Russia coach Dick Advocaat said when asked about the racket outside the hotel. "We're not paying attention to anything else."

Still, four days after the start of Euro 2012, UEFA is facing a potentially serious stand-off between Russian and Polish fans. The former are already in hot water, with UEFA having opened an investigation into allegations of racist abuse directed by travelling Russian supporters toward Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie during their opening game; UEFA is also looking into the clash between fans and stewards inside the Wroclaw Municipal Stadium. Both sides, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for trouble again on Tuesday.

"Polish fans are probably the most aggressive in the world," Konstantin, a fan from Moscow, told the Kommersant newspaper. "These guys don't play fair at all. They resort to violence, but not in the way that Russians do – with their fists – but with rocks and bottles." Another interviewee, a Pole named Erik, warned Russians to be careful when speaking their native language in public.

With some Polish supporters said to be vowing revenge, tensions are running high. The players involved are also aware of the ill portents. 

"I know very well the history of our countries," Poland striker Kamil Grosicki said on Sunday when asked about the mood in the camp. "Judging by the historical background of our countries, [we must] give 110%."

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