As the refugee crisis has become worse and worse over the past few months, many European football clubs have tried to help out with large donations. German champions Bayern Munich started the charity fest when they donated one million euro to projects helping refugees, while they also opened up a training camp for refugees arriving in Munich. Elsewhere English side Arsenal have donated both kits and supported the construction of two football pitches to help refugees in Iraq, while Dortmund and St. Pauli played an exhibition game to raise both awareness and money for the refugees leaving the areas torn apart by ISIS.
Before the charity game between Dortmund and St. Pauli the players of the two teams showed a large banner saying “Refugees Welcome”, and this is a statement that has been shown on stands across Europe in the past weeks, as football fans all over the continent are both welcoming and helping people who had to leave everything behind.
Before the first round of the European competitions, the Champions League and the Europe League, the 80 different clubs competing in the two tournaments agreed to donate one euro to refugee projects for every ticket that was sold.
This gesture, coming from a world of football clubs who are more and more often accused of forgetting their roots in the chase for money and success, was highly praised and well received.
Not by everyone however. When the Europe League match between Polish side Lech Poznan and their Portuguese opponent Belenenses kicked off at INEA Stadion in Poznán only 8,000 people showed up, and the stand behind the goal where the most hardcore supporters usually stand was almost empty. Instead of a packed stand of dedicated supporters the small crowd was met with a banner saying “Stop Islamisation” at one of the entrances for the stadium that is the fifth biggest in Poland, and was also used at the UEFA 2012 Euro. The low attendance was due to the club’s ultras announcing a boycott of the game because of the money going towards refugee charity.
One ultras group issued a statement saying that while the Lech Poznan fan community for many years had done voluntary charity work for the poor in Poland without media attention, they wouldn’t help the refugees, as they found it more important to help the poor in their own country who they felt had been forgotten by the authorities and media.
“The hypocrisy of the elite and their media officers,” the statement said, “makes something in us rebels and we have no plans whatsoever to support current activities contrary to the Polish raison d’etat.”
In the weekend before the Belenenses match the ultras showed a banner during their home game against Podbeskidzie stating: “this is obvious and simple for us, we do not want refugees in Poland”, and so the boycott was far from a surprise.
The ultras in Poland are mostly placed on the political extreme right wing, supporting groups such as the Ruch Natodowy, also known as, the National Front, and they strongly oppose liberal and Western ideas such as multiculturalism Polish football expert Christopher Lash from Rightbankwarsaw.com told me. He added that while Lech’s ultras claim to hate both nazism and communism due to Polands history, they are best described as radical traditional Catholic nationalists, “whose views are definitely closer to nazism than communism”.
“One the one hand the ultras are on the whole anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim – equating Muslims with terrorists,” Lash explained.
“On the other, they do not like being told what to do by central sport or political authorities.”
While it is often said that football mirrors society it is not quite as simple in this situation. Some voices in the public debate has reminded the Poles about how the world society has welcomed the Polish population when it needed help, while others have expressed the catholic argument of “compassion and love of thy neighbor”.
On the other wing, people fear the “Islamisation of Poland”.
“The media have often portrayed Muslims as terrorists. And as Poland is not really a multicultural society, it is no wonder that they absorb and repeat the narratives that they are served,” Lash explained.
This is something that, according to Lash, could and should change over time as Poland’s integration into both Europe as well as the global world rapidly increases. Something that means more and more Poles will meet people with different cultures and backgrounds.
In strong numbers
While Lech Poznan’s boycott was massive, another East European fan scene failed in sending the strong message they wished. Hooligans and ultras of Czech side Sparta Prague had also planned a boycott, and while the most hardcore supporters stayed away, the regular fans showed up in strong numbers and they even surpassed the average attendance from Sparta’s domestic league games.
This came as a bit of a surprise, since the Czech ultras have been some of the hardest critiques of what they also call the “Islamisation of Europe”. Alongside Sparta’s boycott, Viktoria Plzen and Jablonec, two clubs who both participate in the group stage of the Europe League, have made actions towards the refugees coming into Europe. Viktoria’s banner showed a Viking with an axe standing over a Muslim and the text “Europe, wake up”, while Jablonec’s fans pictured a Viking woman with a banner saying Europe kicking a pig, absurdly wearing a turban and holding a Qur’an in its hand, as Czech football expert Tomas Danicek explained to me.
Common for both Poland and Czech Republic is that neither of the countries have a big population of Muslims. Around 19,000 Muslims lived in Czech Republic in 2010, while 31,000 live in Poland. These numbers allow most of the claims made by right winged people to go unchallenged, especially because both countries also have very weak left wings due to their pasts as Soviet satellite states. The stereotypes of Muslims are often based on extreme cases from for example the suburbs of Paris or Sweden as Danicek told me, and these cases fits perfectly with the harsh rhetoric on the stands.
And the football – it goes on.
TOKE MØLLER THEILADE
TOKE MØLLER THEILADE
This story is written by Toke Møller Theilade