In 2004, the Republic of Poland joined the
EU, and was recognised as one of the world’s most
promising democracies. Fast forward 15 years, though, and Poland is controlled by PiS, a
right-wing nationalist political party that has won the
presidency, the majority in parliament, and used its newfound
power to seize Polish courts, silence the Polish media, and openly rebel against the
EU. How did a country make such a dramatic U-turn
in such a short space of time? A less discussed mechanism has been through
the exploitation of the native football supporters in
Poland. Football in the region has never had a fan-friendly
culture. Professor Rafał Chwedoruk, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw, remarked
to Open Democracy that, unlike in Germany, where
football was brought to the masses after the industrial revolution, “such a thing in
a much less developed Poland was impossible.”
This, combined with the chaotic state of the country after the second World War meant that
football never the developed deep social roots that
facilitated its rise in other parts of Europe and South America.
This doesn’t mean that football is unpopular in Poland, as the sport eventually became
widespread across the country in the mid 20th century.
However, the lack of a deep public connection to football
carried over to the structure of the Ekstraklasa, the Polish football league.
Unlike the association model in Germany, where fans play a central role, every club in the
Ekstraklasa acts as a joint stock company, in which private
investors hold all the leverage over a particular club.
This has led to repeated cases of corruption, bankruptcy, and even the use of public government
funds for football clubs. The entire sport of football
in Poland ultimately became a money making exercise
driven by market interests. This model obviously outraged fans, and a
protest culture amongst supporters developed. Throughout
the 1990s, football stadiums in Poland were pocked by hooliganism. But these protests
weren’t benign, and have allowed right wing nationalists in
Poland to take ideological grip on the same fans.
Essentially, the Ekstraklasa symbolized what various rural Polish citizens resented about
their country: it was a corrupt and elitist institution simply
trying to earn money at the expense of the working people of
Poland. This, in combination with more complex political issues, made football stadiums a
prime place of protest, turning them into an incubating
hub for extremism. As many football supporters in Poland came
from working-class or rural backgrounds, right-wing nationalists were able to use the distaste
for the corporate structure of domestic football as a political
tool to expand right-wing support. A tipping point was reached before the 2012
Euros. As Poland were co-hosting the tournament, it was
imperative that the issue was resolved before the competition started. Consequently, the
Ekstraklasa and the Polish Football Association raised ticket
prices across all football stadiums across the country.
The supporting theory was rooted in economics: Poland’s social structure has always been
composed of two vastly different classes: a poorer, rural
lower class and a wealthy upper class. However, there was a
strong belief in Poland that the number of middle and upper middle class citizens would
increase in the 21st century due to an improving economy.
Many also believed that the 2012 Euros would contribute to
this expansion of the middle class. Increasing ticket prices, it was reasoned, would change
the demographics inside stadiums, enable a higher
number of upper or middle class people to attend football
stadiums at the expense of the more traditional, rural supporter.
But that never truly occurred as anticipated. As such, raising ticket prices only strengthened
the resolve of the nationalists. They were able to tighten
their grip on football supporters, and used the initiatives to
demonstrate how football institutions in Poland didn’t care about the lower class, adding
apparent credibility to their divisive and xenophobic
rhetoric, and further driving their political agenda.
Now, as PiS and the nationalists have continued to gain power in Poland, football supporters
remain the principal losers. Once exploited by money
hungry companies, they are now being used as pawns in a
political movement that threatens Poland’s stability.