Can Europe Make It?

Commercialisation and nationalism in Polish football

Could there be a link between the increasing commercialisation of Polish football and the rise in far-right hooliganism?

Michał Syska
20 December 2013
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An anti-racism banner is unfurled at a match between Ruch Chorzow and Legia Warsaw. Flickr/Fare network. Some rights reserved.

The unfulfilled promises of the Euro 2012

The chance to organise the 2012 European football championship was supposed to be beneficial for Poland in a number of ways. According to representatives from the government, the Polish Football Association and the media, the event was not only going to have a strong, positive impact on the nation's economic development and help promote to Poland on a worldwide level, but also improve upon the organisational and professional level of Polish football.

The economic effects of the event proved to be debatable. On the one hand, its organisers point out that Euro 2012 made it possible to build state-of-the-art stadiums and redevelop the Polish transport infrastructure. On the other hand, the event's critics stress that the transport improvements would still have gone ahead in Poland regardless of the tournament, while the newly built arenas have now become a gargantuan financial burden for the local authorities. Virtually unused, they now incur huge maintenance costs, at the expense of numerous indispensable investments in the area of social policy, education etc.

Certainly, Euro 2012 did not result in any sport-related success for Poland. The national team exited the competition without even a single victory, despite starting in the weakest group alongside Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic. The qualification matches for next year's world championship in Brazil have also ended in their fiasco. The same could be said of the balance of Polish clubs at European level competitions.

Contrary to the opinions dominant before Euro 2012, the event also failed to spur any sport-related or commercial development of the Polish league. According to a report by the Deloitte company, the league currently brings in less revenue than matches played in countries with much less inhabitants, like the Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland or Austria.

Also, Poland has its place near the bottom of the European ranking when it comes to the average number of spectators at league matches calculated for the total population of a given state.

It seems that all those who anticipated any commercial success in Poland similar to that of the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga underestimated the historical and social aspects of Polish football.

The social determinants of Polish football

“Throughout history, the attendance at matches within the Polish league has been lower than at comparable games played in Germany. This is not only a consequence of the size of the general populace,” says Prof. Rafał Chwedoruk, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw, a specialist in the history of social movements and an expert on football.

“At first, football developed in the 19th century as a pastime for the bourgeoisie, as this particular social class grew richer and enjoyed more free time and funds. Football became a mass sport only as a result of yet another wave of the industrial revolution,” he adds.

When Germany was undergoing industrialisation, football became a mass sport.

“Such a thing in a much less developed Poland was impossible even after it regained its independence in 1918. Two ethoi were dominant within the Polish society: the serf ethos, quite distant from mass culture, and the ethos of the nobility, which later gave rise to the intelligentsia, which represented a model that alluded to high culture. Among the intelligentsia, football was viewed more as desublimating entertainment among the rabble, which is why even if any renowned character displayed any interest in football, it was most often treated as an individual oddity,” says Prof. Chwedoruk.

It is worth noting that sports clubs in Europe and Latin America were often a form of social self-organisation. Even up to this day this is very true for Germany, a country deprived of a strong state for hundreds of years. The Polish society represented a different approach, as for many reasons - mainly poverty or legal-political limitations - it could not become self-organised.

The high attendance at matches within many leagues is also a result of a historically strong regionalisation (e.g. Germany, Italy).

Prof. Chwedoruk points out that: “After regaining its independence in 1918 and after the Second World War, Poland was forced to undergo rapid centralisation processes if it were to survive. Local identification was thus not as important in Poland as it was in Germany, for example.”

This football clubs' deep social roots and the significant role of the supporters in Germany is incidental to the property and business strategy utilised in the country. In Poland, each club in the Ekstraklasa (the top level of the Polish football system) is obliged to assume the form of a joint stock company, whereas the dominant model in Germany is the association model, according to which the private investor cannot do whatever they want (and - most importantly - cannot be in full control of their club). This philosophy prevents any pathologies, dominant in Poland and related to corruption, bankruptcy or the financing of professional clubs from public, self-government funds, from occuring in Germany.

The market enters the stadiums

Assuming the corporate market model in Poland by football clubs inevitably led to a conflict with supporter circles. Before Euro 2012, the Polish government declared war on hooliganism at Polish stadiums. This is because violence related to the football supporter subculture is a major problem in Poland. The paradox of the situation was that this war had been declared at a time when, according to police reports, this phenomenon was becoming rarer.

In the 1990s, football arenas were battlefields for unending confrontations between opposite groups of supporters and the police. The early 2000s brought about a positive change: this violence was to a large degree removed from the stadiums and found its way onto other places (it is typical for the Polish hooligan scene to organise battles between hooligan squads in secluded locations, e.g. forests, according to rules established previously by both sides).

The declaration against hooliganism was also accompanied by stricter laws for supporters at the stadiums. These had consequences for all advocates of football, not only the hooligans. There was also a simultaneous effort to socially alter the audiences at football matches motivated by market interests. The stadium was to become a place of recreation for the well-doing middle class, with consumers in the place of supporters. This was attempted by introducing more expensive tickets, for example. This strategy also proved unsuccessful, as it completely ignored the social reality in Poland.

“The audience exchange idea advocated by the league's authorities and part of the media, who promote it under the veil of the struggle with the often demonised stadium hooliganism, had no chances of success in Poland. First of all, Poland has not yet experienced the rise of the so-called new middle class, typical for globalisation, which would possess the financial resources, the free time and the necessary interest in football to regularly show up at stadiums. The level of Polish football will also make it impossible for the state to compete with financial football superpowers, just as the Polish millionaires are nothing more than poverty-ridden relatives of Abramovic or Berlusconi,” says Prof. Chwedoruk.

He adds: “The audience at Polish stadiums is socially and financially diverse and as a result it generally remains deprived of any alternative. Attendance at league stadiums is based on faithfulness, the temporary hype typical for volleyball or basketball is not enough in the context of football.”

It is a paradox (though only illusory in the case of Poland, as explained further) that the opposition of supporters against commercialising football in Poland has a radical right face.

The supporters in the hands of right-wing extremists

A certain section of Polish supporters assume an extremely right-wing orientation which is most often why they orchestrate nationalist and racist incidents at the stadiums and participate in political demonstrations organised by neo-fascist groups. Since the early 1990s, Polish football stadiums have been an area for organising the extreme right-wing and the skinhead subcultures.

The first years of the 21st century saw the gradual depoliticisation of supporter circles, which also had to do with changes in the manner in which they function (there appeared formal supporter organisations focusing on organising support-related activities, contributing to clubs and undertaking activities aimed at charity).

Restrictions by the government against supporters prior to the Euro 2012 championships only strengthened the influence of extreme rightists at Polish stadiums.

Right-wing populism as the language of rebellion

The only available language for the political contestation of the historical discreditation of leftist symbols in Poland after 1989 was the language of the extreme right-wing. It is thus no wonder that many supporters are prone to its influence. The truth is that their problems are not stemming from the patriotism they seemingly represent, but rather from the fact that there is no place for them in the world of football shaped by the logic of the market interest. It sounds ridiculous to hear them shouting “Away with the communists” knowing that football clubs are in private hands, while the names of stadiums are bought out by global corporations.

Numerous sociological studies show that Poland suffers from a low level of social capital. Polish people do not trust each other and have no trust for public institutions. They also prefer competition and rivalry rather than cooperation and joint activity. The neoliberal capitalist model created post-1989 gave rise to social atomisation.

The commercialisation, which makes it way into an increasing number of areas of human life, is accompanied by a growing social segregation. People representing various classes have less and less channels for communication. They live in different districts, their children attend different schools etc. Football stadiums in Poland serve as some of the last places where it is possible for people representing different economic statuses and cultural capitals to meet. Supporter associations are one of the few symptoms of a civic society, where involvement in group activities is not motivated by individual interests. 

On November 11, 2013 news services all over the world discussed the march of right-wing extremists in Warsaw, during which a number of masked football hooligans assaulted a squat. This event represents a sort of paradox, as it is football fans and leftist freedom of movement activists who stood (albeit separately) in the first ranks of the opposition against Euro 2012 as an event subject to the logic of corporate interest.

This event supports a thesis formulated by David Ost in his book The Defeat of Solidarity. Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe, according to which the social indignation in Poland after 1989 was formulated using the language of right-wing populism and was directed against the advocated liberal democratic enemies and institutions.

David Ost rightly points out that: “(...) the condition for the success of liberal democracy is to organise class indignation on a class basis. For the good of a system in which the laws of all citizens are guaranteed and safe, the workers have to accept the narration which explains their indignation as created by economic class divisions, and not national, religious or racial divisions. (…) Racial conflicts support liberal democracy, as they attempt at solving incongruities through negotiations between various groups of people universally considered as the citizens of the same state.”

That is why the battle against racism and xenophobia at the stadiums must be inextricably related to resistance against subjecting football to free-market mechanisms and separating it from its social roots. Introducing dialogue instead of repression might serve as one way towards reclaiming football supporters from the hands of political extremists.

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