There’s a war on next door – is Poland safe?
As things stand, yes. We’ve been hit by a swarm of refugees fleeing the war but, by in large, the vast majority of Poles have risen to the plate and shown immense kindness, courage, sympathy and support. The mood is tellingly somber across the country, but that’s tempered by a visible sense of defiance and pride – the generosity and unity of the people has been staggering to witness.
You haven’t answered the question…
Yes, I have. The answer is yes. Clearly, there’s no telling what the maniacs in the Kremlin might do next, but as it is Poland is safe – wahey! But please, and I really mean this, do keep in mind how deeply this lunacy has effected the country. Also, if you are travelling around by train on a groundhop, bear in mind that the stations are full of women and kids who have fled a war with their lives in a bag. If you want to dance in fountains wearing a dinosaur outfit, maybe stave off that big stag weekend piss-up for the time being and do Prague instead.
Don’t worry, I’ll behave!
Great. You’ll have a blast! But while you’re here, if you’re coming over from abroad on a football jolly then do feel encouraged to bring out some football club goodies to donate to the kids that have escaped here with nothing. It’s a small gesture but one that will be warmly received. You’ll find plenty of charities that can facilitate the handover.
Enough about the war. Is Polish football safe!?
Definitely. The police overkill will blow your mind – I’ve seen coppers outnumber the entire crowd. If there are flashpoints in the stadium, they will occur either right next to or inside the away end, or in the heart of the home ultras sector (usually behind the goal). Sitting / standing away from these is a general guarantee that you will go totally unmolested. Hooligans here have bigger fish to fry than some random bozo.
Are you kidding? Some of the matches you’ve featured look absolutely mental…
Yeah, there’s been a few. I actively seek out volatile matches and then try as get as close to any action as possible. You, on the other hand, have no reason to do so.
But I want to!
Fine. Sitting behind the goal with the ultras is not, in itself, a hazardous pursuit – especially if you’re English. You’ll be treated either with indifference or curiosity. After all, every Pole has a favourite English club. Be nice, be respectful. Don’t be a moron. Don’t take pictures.
Hang on, but you take snaps all the time!
Yes. In my spare time I photograph for a website dedicated to ultra / fan / hooligan culture: stadionowioprawcy.net. It’s a website keenly followed by the majority of ‘lads’ in Poland, and my press card certifying that I work for them acts as a magic shield most of the time – once their personal anonymity is guaranteed, you’ll be surprised how hungry many (but not all) hooligans are to earn publicity for their team.
But you do not have this miraculous Get Out of Jail Free card. And even so, and especially when it comes to the more random lower league sides, I will often message relevant fan groups beforehand to warn them in advance that I’ll be shooting pics – and more saliently, to reassure them that identities will always be kept hidden. I cannot stress this enough: always be careful about pointing your phone / camera. If you’re careless, you will get clumped.
You’ve had no trouble then?
Get away. I’ve been punched, kicked, gassed, chased, batoned, trampled, nicked – you name it. But as I say, that’s because I seek the hotspots so as to photograph them.
Any advice if I do choose to stand with the ultras?
Don’t go in a big group – a load of English lads going into a home ‘end’ is going to feel like a threat. If you do go, sing. Even if you don’t have a scooby what they’re yelling, just yell along anyway. Wear the team’s colours. Don’t be drunk. The lads behind the goal are there to support their club, not have a piss-up with their mates.
Oh. But I love a few pints before the match!
As do I. In fact, having a good drink is absolutely essential to my football! Lower league games – as in the kind with no security and no thugs – are defined by the number of old geezers that stand on the touchline sinking a few cans or sharing shots of vodka. Getting smashed with these old timers is an inter-cultural adventure. Enjoy!
I don’t speak Polish!
Well, I don’t really either. But it’s amazing what a few drinks can do – crikey, eight pints and I can speak Japanese backwards. Anyway, I’ve been up and down the country like a jack-in-the-box and language has never proved a barrier. Most young Poles will speak better English than you, and even if you find yourself trapped in the sticks you’ll be surprised how far demonstrating good will can get you. It’s a hospitable country! If you’re nice, people will be nice back – basic rule of life!
Brill. Anyway, moving on. I’ve seen your pictures and think Polish football looks great. Where should I go?
Right, this is a question I hear all the time on some of the stadium pages I post on – and I bloody hate it. I ain’t no mind-reader, so I have no idea where you’re coming from, what you like, how much money you have or what you really want. What I will say is that firstly you need to work out what you really enjoy and what you want from your weekend away. Poland is not a one-dimensional country – some cities are better for history, others for their nightlife. Some have great hotels, others have richer culture. Ah, and some have women that will have your neck twisting like a periscope. What I will say, is do not build your weekend around football alone.
Eh? Why not?
Because it’s usually crap! I mean that sincerely, and I’m not talking solely about the actual football aspect. From the ‘experience’ perspective, the clampdown on hooliganism has rendered age old A-list fixtures duds. It’s with depressing frequency that away fans will find themselves banned the night before a match. Likewise, fan boycotts are common (no matter how a team is doing) and then you’ve got the issue of insane scheduling. Kick-off times are changed at the drop of a hat to serve TV audiences, whilst in the lower leagues even the actual date of a game isn’t revealed until five days before. Many times I’ve booked a two-night weekend stay in the back-of-beyond only to find that the match I planned on seeing has been scheduled for a Sunday night after my last train leaves.
So what are you saying?
Be prepared to be flexible in your travel plans. And where the traditional big needle matches are concerned, don’t expect the Battle of Agincourt to play out in front of you. Instead, pick a city that you feel you will enjoy and then consider the football a bonus.
You’re not helping. Where would you go if you were hitting Poland for the first time?
Ok, so balls out of the bathtub as Partridge would say. I live in Warsaw and absolutely love it. It’s still a little grubby around the edges, and it definitely lacks the spellbinding intimacy and appeal of other cities, but it’s now a world class town that will give much back to those that like a big city buzz. I’m not a supporter of them, but you can usually count on a belting atmosphere from Legia Warsaw.
Pushed to name a favourite city, I’d go for Wroclaw for its mix of old town charisma, quirky history and crazy nights, but their stadium outweighs their needs and as such the football experience can often be underwhelming if you pick the wrong match (not a slight on their fans who can really get going when the moment demands!). Same goes for Lechia Gdansk – amazing city, brilliant fans, but unless it’s a big match you might be disappointed by the football thing.
Onto Krakow, and that’s pretty much the starting point for most first-time visitors to Poland. And for good reason. The city is stunning, and aside from a motherlode of tourist sights it has a banging nightlife, the country’s richest variety of hotels and my favourite curry. As the bigger side (no offence Cracovia), Wisla Krakow are def worth your eye.
And then there’s Poznan – to me, and I stress that I say this as a neutral, it’s a stadium that feels ‘right’ and often produces the best atmosphere in Poland – if their fans are not boycotting! On the downside, though it’s a great city, it’s definitely quieter and more sensible than say Wroclaw or Krakow. Now I’d also recommend Lodz, especially for those hunting a good drink-up, but snagging tickets for either of the city’s side can be a pain in the neck.
And that’s that?
I’d call those your core choices. Read up about the cities in question, then decide which one suits you best. Simple. Getting the right city is crucial to your enjoyment – essentially, if the football disappoints (and it definitely might), then you’ll have a top time regardless.
You’re painting a bleak picture – how come all the matches you go to look mad?
They’re not. I spend hours each week (no kidding) trawling through fixture lists, train timetables, bus schedules and hotel booking sites before coming to a decision on where to head. The planning is painful, yet also painfully enjoyable. More to the point, I actually follow my own advice. Very rarely do I go to a game simply for ‘the match’. I love WWII history, craft beer, Indian restaurants, zany private museums, abandoned commie bunkers, haunted castles, derelict asylums, aliens, pubs with fireplaces and fancy heritage hotels. More often than not, I’ll plot a trip based around one of those things.
Shut up you tart. I want to see some crazy pyro action so I can post on my FB!
Glad you raised that. There’s a misconception that pyro in Poland is legal. It is not. Fans and clubs face stiff punishment, which is why supporters will mask up before letting off flares. Penalties are harsh and it’s no longer as commonplace as it once was. That said, there are no-brainer fixtures where mad pyro shows are just guaranteed to happen. Local derbies for pretty sure, or ancient heavyweight fixtures such as Legia v Lech. As mentioned prior, trouble at these games is rare due to the police presence, but if it’s a ‘show’ you’re after then you won’t be disappointed. But… bear in mind some clubs are more celebrated for their ‘shows’ than others. Legia and Lech I particularly rate highly.
Is Polish football expensive?
Ha. Football out here demonstrates just how wildly we’re ripped off in England. Hit the basement leagues (and by that I mean from the 4th tier down), and it’s unlikely you’ll be paying more than a symbolic price of PLN 10 (approx. GBP 2). The lower you go, PLN 5 or even zero should not be a surprise. In the top flight, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a normal ticket reach above PLN 75. Even at Legia, the country’s most successful club, it’s possible to buy a ticket behind the goal for as little PLN 20 (approx. GBP 4).
How do I get a ticket?
Ah. That’s more tricky. Most of the higher level clubs require fans to register before purchasing online. This can be a little confusing, depending on the club, but google translate is usually enough to see you through these choppy waters. Alternatively, just message the club – you’ll be amazed how helpful the majority of these are when it comes to international enquiries.
Any inside tips!
Hell yes! I never tire of telling people, if you’re watching Polish football then buy a VIP ticket. VIP sounds posh, but it’s basically a catch-all term for the hospitality section. Every club with a modern stadium has one, and they’re blinding value for money: best seats in the house, free flow booze, hostesses in tight dresses, a school dinner buffet, and a warm lounge to retreat to if the weather goes Arctic. Basically, even if the match is a horror, you’re going to meet people, get plastered and have a laugh.
With the exception of Legia (whose VIP prices tend to start around PLN 300 for less important games), most clubs will charge around PLN 200. This dips yet further at lower league clubs with such facilities. From the 20 or so VIP areas that I’ve visited, my favourite ranks as Motor Lublin (sometimes as low as PLN 100) on account of the lounge’s intimacy, atmosphere, birds and booze – while many VIP floors slop out watery mainstream lagers, at Motor you get beers from the very respectable Perla: woo!
I don’t want VIP. I don’t want top flight. I want the raw and dirty!
Welcome to the club. I love arseing about these VIP facilities, but at the end of the day nothing beats the thrill of watching football in a rusting health hazard of a ground. Poland has many! True, scores have been phased out and replaced by bland, flatpack designs, but many bombsite nuggets still survive. How long for, no idea. Poles love shiny, new things, and football fans here attach little sentimental value to their shitty old stadiums. Hunt around this page for examples, or, take a lucky dip in Silesia.
That’s the capital of Polish football, right?
Right. I should have mentioned Silesia earlier, but I didn’t want to confuse. This, basically, is a heavily industrialized area in the deep south of Poland. Coal mining country. Riddled with towns great and small, these are often sooty, forgotten and economically depressed. But there is also much beauty. A diamond in the rough, it’s a region bristling with dark spooky forests, ruined castles, derelict factories and crumbling 19th century architectural treats hiding in the wild, tangled undergrowth.
And more to the point, there’s tons of football: some giants clubs, but even more weird obscure teams with their own wacky story. If you want something alternative, a weekend groundhop around Silesia comes seriously recommended: more so if you base yourself in Katowice. That’s a city that once terrified me, yet has grown into one of Poland’s most dynamic social hubs. As a destination it is an acquired taste, but a taste that I love.
It all sounds like a pain in the arse – can you sort out my weekend?
Gladly. As mentioned though, unless you’re ready to take a lucky dip, planning a successful weekend does take time. My time! Where possible I help where I can. Obviously, those choosing to pay will receive preferential treatment and guaranteed attention.
You do paid tours?
I can. As someone that makes his living travelling Poland, I’m delighted to offer tailor-made packages for those visiting the country. How much? Well, that depends on how much you want tailored. Through two decades of working here, I have extensive contacts around the country – you want an unforgettable stay in a treehouse or a Tsarist rail carriage? I’ve got it covered. A tour of craft pubs? Yep. A visit to a Nazi UFO base? Speak to me. Dinner in the best restaurants? That as well. Or maybe just safe passage to some crazy ground – can do.
I’m not an oracle, but I am pretty close. Touch base, let’s talk. And if not, enjoy Poland anyhow – it’s a gem.
Please contact me for further info.