Legia Warsaw vs. Lech Poznan
I have been intrigued by Polish football culture ever since 2004, when I saw the national team beat Wales 3 – 2 in Cardiff. While it was an entertaining game, my lasting memory from the match was the mass brawl which took place in the away end at half time between the visiting supporters. It seems that one of them pulled out a flag with the name of a club team on it, which did not go down well with another group of fans in the same section. All out mayhem ensued, with bodies flying across seats as the bewildered stewards looked on helplessly. It was all forgotten about in the second half as things went back to normal and they continued to support their team towards qualification, but the memory has stayed with me. A decade later, I was on my way to Warsaw to see the two teams in question go head to head, with Legia Warsaw hosting Lech Poznan. I was expecting madness, and my first game in Poland would not disappoint.
It was the last game of the season, and when I first booked the trip it looked as though the game could potentially be a title decider. A few poor results for Lech ensured that Legia had retained their title the week before, but there is no such thing as a meaningless game when these two play each other. The day before the game I met someone from Belgrade who, upon learning I was going to the game said “You must be crazy!” and “Are you not worried they will kill you?” When somebody from the city which is home to the best derby in Europe reacts like that, you know it’s going to be something special.
As it turned out, all the local fans I met were very welcoming and extremely pleased I had come to write about the game, some of them even being familiar with the site already. Luckily for me they were not bothered about my Feyenoord connections, despite the fact there is a strong friendship between Legia and Ado Den Haag, to the extent they even sell Den Haag scarves in the club shop, with many of them also on display inside the ground.
I was glad not to have gotten on the wrong side of any of the locals, with Polish fans being the biggest I have seen on my travels around Europe so far. At 6ft 3 it is rare that I am made to feel small, but this was one of those occasions. It almost feels as though Polish supporters do not buy a season ticket, but instead have to provide proof that they are a former UFC heavyweight champion to be admitted to the stadium. With this in mind, the levels of security were unsurprising. Rather than simply buying a ticket, I had to send the club a copy of my passport, before coming to the ticket office to collect it in person and sign a ‘no hooliganism’ contract. This was all in Polish so I have very little idea what I was signing, but I imagine it was along the lines of “I solemnly promise not to punch anyone in the face unless they really deserve it, yours sincerely, Ben”. Having passed some impressive friendship graffiti (below), I did my usual trick of wandering round to inspect the away end.
While there were no armed guards as there had been in Serbia, waiting for the Lech fans upon arrival would be more than 60 riot vans, water cannons and two modified snowploughs which had been turned into a human battering ram. Covered by a huge cage, there was a huge scoop on the front of the vehicle at head height. I would have liked to have taken some pictures of it, but somehow the balaclava clad policemen did not look like they wanted their picture taken. I decided that I didn’t really want to fly back to the Netherlands without my head, so sadly you’ll have to leave it to your imagination. Put it this way, it made the welcome you receive at Millwall feel like going to your grandmother’s house for tea.
A few (very) strong Polish beers later I headed in to the ground, with the Legia supporters clearly in the mood for a party. Security was very tight indeed (tighter than it was at Warsaw airport in fact), but somehow someone had managed to smuggle in a gigantic bottle of vodka and was openly swigging from it as kick off drew near. I have no idea what percentage it was, but it is no exaggeration to say I could smell it from two blocks away. Drinking the strongest vodka in the history of humanity would not be the most impressive thing to take place before the game however, this was reserved for the best tifo display I have ever seen in person. About a dozen Legia fans had made their way on to the roof of the stadium above the ultras section, with a huge flag depicting Legia as the kings of Poland being displayed, with all their rival clubs depicted as subjects bowing at their feet.
Once the flag had been deployed, hundreds of smokebombs were set off on their side of ‘King Legia’, one side in red and the other in green. The smoke covered the entire pitch, ensuring that kick off was delayed for around ten minutes. The stadium announcer did not even pretend to be annoyed, instead repeatedly chanting “Who are the champions?”, with the crowd responding “LEGIA!” He would then repeat the question twice more, with the shouts of “LEGIA LEGIA LEGIA” getting louder each time. All of this meant that by the time the smoke had cleared enough for the game to get underway, the crowd was in an absolute frenzy.
With the title already in the bag, the supporters did not have to worry about the game itself so much. Indeed, I realised that I had barely looked at the pitch for the first five minutes, such was the incredible visual spectacle going on in the stands. The Yellow Wall at Dortmund has become arguably the most iconic stand in European football in the last couple of years, but the Legia ultras stand deserves just as much attention in my opinion. In addition to their superb tifo display, the noise they made was enough to make the earth shake, quite literally on several occasions. After around ten minutes, a small section in the middle of the stand joined arms and began to bounce up and down as if they were one man. This soon spread to the rest of the stand, as I blew my ‘pretending to be Polish’ cover by turning to the person next to me and saying “****ing hell, look at that!”
Soon, I would not just have to look at it. The wave of bouncing spread around the stadium, until the entire ground was bouncing up and down and singing “Na Na Na Na Na…LEGIA WARSZAWA”. The ground was trembling and you could see dust flying up from the ground, but the architects behind designing the stadium had clearly prepared for this kind of challenge when it was constructed as it managed to stay standing despite the incredible level of support it had to withstand.
It is important not to forget the Lech fans, who were also putting on a tremendous show in their small corner of the ground. Having to visit their rivals after just conceding the title to them cannot be easy, but they were not letting it show. They sang for the entire game, putting just as much effort into supporting their side as if it was them who would be lifting the trophy come full time. Their team were also refusing to give up, despite the fact that they could not finish any higher or lower than second. Lech should have taken the lead on a couple of occasions, but the strikers were extremely poor at finishing, which could not be said for the man two blocks away and his bottle of vodka. Legia had chances of their own, but in the first half the real story was certainly off the pitch rather than on it. Goalless at half time, but without question the most entertaining 0 – 0 I had ever attended!
Half time – Legia 0 – Lech 0
The second half started, and almost immediately Legia were awarded a penalty. In all honesty it was a rather soft one, but the referee clearly didn’t want to spoil the mood for the home supporters who had come to party. It was converted by captain Ivica Vrdoljak, who ran to celebrate in front of the away supporters with a cupped ear gesture. I hope he already has life insurance, because if he is prepared to take such dangerous actions as winding up a Lech Poznan away end, it is unlikely he will find anyone willing to cover him now. The rest of the Legia players then formed a guard of honour, applauding their leader as he ran through the middle of them and waved to the home fans.
The party could really get started now, as the Legia supporters rejoiced in the fact it seemed as though they would seal the championship with a win. The team was playing with more confidence now, winning a string of corners and seeming likely to score again. The whole stadium was involved in the singing (with the exception of the corporate area – some things never change), with one chant which was repeated several times involving one side of the stadium shouting “LEGIA”, with the other replying “CHAMPIONS! CHAMPIONS!”
The clock was running down on the game and Legia were preparing to party with the trophy, but the Lech fans had one more surprise in store for them. With around 20 minutes left of the game, they unfurled a huge banner and began waving black flags. My Polish is almost non-existent, but I believe it reads “The championship will return”, along with the dates that Lech had been the champions of Poland.
This flag waving continued for roughly ten minutes, before the fans began a countdown. The strict searches on the way in to the ground clearly had not worked, or they had another way of smuggling in pyro, as the away section erupted into a sea of flares, with the game suspended for a short time due to the smoke billowing across the pitch. This was my view of it, but when you see it from the front in the picture emailed to me by one of their supporters, you see how truly impressive the display was.
But it was Legia’s party, and they were to have the final say. With only two or three minutes to go, Bartosz Bereszynski managed to tempt the goalkeeper away from his line, before placing a delightful lob in the back of the net. It was a really special goal, but that was nothing compared to the response it got from the fans. They were not going to let Lech use pyro in their stadium without putting on a show of their own, and the ultras stand responded in the best possible fashion. Hundreds of white streamers were tossed all over the pitch, while red and green flares were ignited and fireworks shot into the air. The game was suspended once again for at least five minutes, presumably to allow everyone to look on in awe without missing anything on the pitch.
With all of this going on, the referee clearly wanted no part of it. Five extra minutes had been signalled, but a maximum of two were played before he blew for full-time. As the Lech players went to thank their fans for the support over the course of the season, a stage was hastily constructed on the pitch for the champions of Legia to receive their trophy. The players were introduced one by one accompanied by the Chariots of Fire soundtrack, before they finally lifted the title in a stream of golden confetti. A few hundred fans joined them on the pitch, although there was enough security to ensure that it did not turn into a full on invasion.
My first experience of football in Poland had been one I will never forget, and I will certainly return to the country for more games in the future. When I put together my list of the best fans I witnessed in 2014, I have absolutely no doubt that both of these will feature highly. Despite the recent European Championships and an attempt to make the sport more sterilised and family friendly, Polish football culture remains as strong, unique and completely insane as ever.