Date: 24 February 2023 / League: Polish top flight
Final Score: 2-2 / Attendance: 27,522
There are big games in Poland, and then there’s Legia v Widzew. Amounting to one of the fiercest rivalries in the country, the profile of this match couldn’t be higher – on the one side, you’ve got Legia: a club featuring not just the swagger associated with capital city clubs, but the largest trophy shelf in the nation. Founded as the sporting wing of the Polish army, for decades this led to allegations of favouritism and bias during the Cold War era.
In contemporary times, no other club in Poland has done a better job of branding itself for the modern world, a point born out by their smart 30,000-seater stadium and swank hospitality facilities.
Then there’s Widzew. Hailing from a city commonly called ‘the Polish Manchester’ due to its industrial heritage, this club also has the pedigree of a giant – of their more memorable successes, this is the club that knocked out both Man Utd and Liverpool in the European Cup back in the early 80s. Having endured years in the doldrums after financial mismanagement saw them relegated to the fifth tier in 2015, the last few years have all been about rebuilding the club.
Playing to sell-out crowds at home, and enjoying one of the largest away followings in Poland, Widzew have bounced back in recent times, a fact affirmed by their overdue return to the nation’s top tier in 2022.
Placed second (Legia) and fourth (Widzew) in the league going into the game, this was an eagerly anticipated match between two old foes – not since 2013 had this fixture been hosted by Legia, and with both clubs flying high a night to remember came practically guaranteed.
I live over three kilometres from Legia, but leaving home two-and-a-half hours before kick-off all I could hear were a wall of sirens coming from afar. Reaching the ground, the atmosphere was as intense as anything I’ve experienced with the February darkness pierced by blasts of pyro, screeching police wagons and the distant sound of chanting – you just knew this was special night.
Inside the ground, raucous doesn’t begin to describe the atmosphere; even sat up high in the press seats you could feel the ground rocking and this reached a new level when the club anthem was played. More than just the cue for a lusty rendition of the Legia song, Sen o Warszawie (“a dream about Warsaw”), this was also the signal for a spectacular flag drop.
Fully unravelled to reveal a cloak-entwined female holding a torch aloft, the display was capped by a rooftop pyro show designed to look mimic the effect of a flaming beacon. I’ve seen some staggering tifo arrangements, but this one was up there as one of the best.
Played out in a febrile atmosphere, the second half saw both sides engage in displays that temporarily turned both ends into blazing masses and smoke and flashes. And, unusually almost for Poland, the thrills of the pitch were matched equally by those on the grass itself. Finishing 2-2, this was a ding dong battle that saw Widzew come within a whisker of snatching it at the death.
This was not the end of the drama, either. Come full-time, and Widzew continued to taunt their hosts by burning a captured scarf, whilst Legia, for their part, tried to breach the VIP area where some Widzew fans had been spotted. This last bit I missed, but video that has surfaced shows one Legia fan falling off the second tier whilst trying to climb over to Widzew.
All-in-all, this was a very decent night – of course, nowhere near as crazy as this fixture formerly was, but as good as one can hope for in the largely hooligan-proofed top league.