On Saturday 12th Aug 2017, at 8,30pm, bitter footballing rivals Wisła Kraków and Cracovia face each other for the first time this year, in one of the fiercest footballing derbies in the world.

The rivlary between the two teams from opposite sides of the Błonia, is known as the Holy War (Święta Wojna), and  has a reputation for outbreaks of fighting between the hooligan element from each side.

For this fixture though, trouble at the ground itself should be avoided, as the Cracovia fans are ‘shut out’, banned from attending the game as a punishment for previous crowd trouble.    In spite of, or perhaps because of that there is still guaranteed to be a huge Police presence in and especially around the stadium. In the past, fighting and skirmishes have taken place away from the stadium, often in the housing estates.

 Kick Off  8:30 PM
  Stadion Miejski im. Henryka Reymana, Kraków


For the uninitiated, tourists, or visitors to Kraków, they may see, what is literally an army of Police, as the huge Policing operation takes place.  There is generally, no real cause for concern, the Police and private security have enough officers on standby and on high profile patrol, ready to stamp out any unrest.  though it has to be said that trouble rarely occurs in the city centre or normal tourist areas. The focus is mainly on the area of Błonia and the routes to and from there.

In the run up to Poland co-hosting the Euro 2012 championships, interest in all things football was at a peak, not least how the Police would deal with the hooligan threat.  I was lucky, to have an unprecedented opportunity to join the Policing Operation for a previous Krakow Derby, spending 12 hours with the football hooligan unit, with unrestricted access, thanks to a shared profession, in a previous life.

I was assigned an officer as a driver/bodyguard, and invited to go where I like, attending briefings, on surveillance, inside the water cannon, riot vans, cctv/police control room and more.  You can read about my experiences and see some of the photographs below.

Monday 28th April 2012, an unseasonably stifling hot April day, with temperatures pushing 30 degrees, but it is about to get hotter still in Kraków.

Today is the 185th ‘Great Kraków Derby’, (Wielkie Derby Krakówa) also known as the Holy War (Święta Wojna.), one of the most fiercely contested football derbies in the world between Wisła Kraków and their bitter rivals and near neighbours MKS Cracovia.

The contest was first recorded in September 1908 (records on earlier games are incomplete), but today is different, this is likely to be the last meeting of the two times for perhaps 2 years or more, as Cracovia are soon to be relegated from the Ekstraklasa and it may take them more than a couple of seasons to play their way up the league to return to the top tier and once more face their old rivals.  In simple football terms today’s match is hardly relevant as the season reaches its conclusion, but try telling that to the fans.

For the record the previous results are Cracovia won 60, Wisła won 82 with 42 matches drawn (2012 figures)

Both sides are near neighbours with their grounds on opposite sides of Błonia meadow only a few hundred metres apart.  There are many terms used to describe both sides in this war, Wisła Kraków, otherwise known as Biała Gwiazda (White Star) and Cracovia, known as Pasy (stripes) also have bitter nicknames for each other Cracovia call Wisła ‘dogs’ whilst Wisła refer to their arch enemy as ‘Jews’.  Meanwhile the hooligan gangs of each club are know as the Anty Wisła (Cracovia) and Sharks (Wisła).

Kraków itself is known in football hooligan terms as The City of Knives, a reference to the fact that the Kraków clubs refused to sign an agreement between Polish football gangs not to use weapons.  Kraków’s football thugs, are feared for their brutality and are prepared to use their weapons, many encounters have tragically resulted in fatalities over the years.

I spent the day with the Kraków Police Football Intelligence Unit, or to give them their full title, ‘expert of the combating football hooliganism department’, as the hours ticked down to kick off and joined them inside the stadium with unrestricted exclusive access to the Policing operation.

1330 – Five hours before the kick off of the 185th ‘Great Kraków Derby’ with Wisła Kraków playing host at the Stadion Henryka Reymana.

The commander of the Football Hooligan Unit and his deputy arrive at Kraków Police Headquarters, (Komenda Wojewódzka Policji w Krakówie) on ul Mogilska.   Both have taken time out form their preparations and training for Euro 2012 to turn their attention to matters closer to home.

Today there will be 11 members of this undercover specialist unit on duty, forming a small part of the 600 Police officers on duty for the match.  Their duties involve monitoring the extensive array of CCTV monitors at the stadium control room and carrying out more discrete covert recording of each set of fans using hand held video cameras.  They also act as ‘spotters’ identifying agitators and ringleaders.

1345 – The unit discuss the latest intelligence, and put the finishing touches to their well prepared plan.  Intelligence suggests that the Cracovia fans will gather in the main Market Square then walk to the match, in protest at their perceived injustice at the hands of the Polish Government who they feel are being overly harsh on football fans.

More worryingly the intelligence also reports that some fans are planning to place nails into the large pyrotechnics which are often thrown by the hooligans at each other during such games, turning the relatively harmless if deafening, fireworks, into potentially lethal home made grenades.  There are also reports that the fans will be carrying balaclavas, black jackets and dark sunglasses in an effort to frustrate any attempt to identify them.  Any fan covering their face is committing an offence.

1355 – Wisła stadium has a capacity of 33,326, however only 1000 tickets have been allocated to the Cracovia fans.  The officers bemoan the fact that the list of Cracovia fans purchasing ticket only arrived a couple of hours earlier.  It is a requirement that the away team provide full lists of travelling fans that have bought tickets 24 hours before kick off, in order that checks can be made against any fan with a Stadium ban.  Inexplicably, prosecutors and clubs share such lists of banned fans at the start of the season but seem unable to keep the list updated as the season progresses and further fan stadium bans may be issued.

It therefore falls to one of the unit to compare the names on the list of ticket holders against the Police computer.  A result – Three of the names hit against the stadium ban list, their details will be circulated.

1400 The office is decorated with football scarves, a West Ham United flag doubles as a curtain over a window, an English Police ‘Bobbies Helmet’, a football (of course), and a small aquarium tucked away in the corner bringing a touch of tranquillity to the office.

The last members of the unit arrive, dressed casually in shorts and loose fitting shirts, and sign on duty.  They draw the tools of the job, handcuffs; handguns are removed from a safe, checked and fitted to holsters tucked away out of sight.  Video and still cameras are distributed for intelligence gathering and duties are allocated then it is off to the car park to their unmarked vehicles with blacked out windows.

1410  In the grounds of Police HQ, half a dozen Police riot vans are parked, the old blue and white VW vans look dated alongside the new custom-built silver and blue Mercedes vans. Officers shuttle back and forth loading the vans with equipment.

In one van, an officer sits astride the open door, wearing dark shades, looking as casual as someone can be who is holding a pump action shotgun at 45 degrees, across his chest. In his ammunition pouch are gummi rubber pellet rounds, the Polish Police claim to be the only force in Europe to use shotguns to Police football matches.

1430 (4 hours to kick off) The unit deploys across the city with their cameras to monitor the fans.  One car heads to the Market Square to check out the intelligence, which turn out to be spot on.  Scattered around the square, mingling with the tourists in cafes and congregating in a group under the Mickiewicz statue are dozens of fans wearing the red and white hoops of Cracovia.

But they are not alone, a large blue lorry drives up Grodzka onto the market square at the head of a convoy of Police Riot vans.  Tourists stop and take pictures as the Police water Canon, affectionately know amongst the cops as ‘Typhoon’ parks on the Market square, leaving the Cracovia fans in absolutely no doubt that the third gang involved in todays proceedings, the Police, have arrived.

1440 – The Unit take up observations on the fans, identifying ringleaders and watching as the number swell.  They observe that despite the fact it is a sweltering hot day, the majority of the fans are carrying black jackets, seemingly unnecessary in such temperatures.  A small group of fans are on the café terrace of the Sukinecce and attempt to unfurl a huge banner but it is pulled down quickly.  A Police mobile CCTV unit sits in a corner of the square, its occupants hidden inside are monitoring the growing crowd using the roof mounted camera and feeds from other cameras around the square.  The Police helicopter circles overhead.

There is no doubt that the Police intend to put on a show of force as a deterrent to any violence.

1520 – The unit leave the square in the capable hands of their uniform colleagues, and drive to the stadium to ensure that all is well there and to attend a briefing. One crew are asked to return to the Market Square to monitor the Cracovia fans demonstration march to the stadium.

1535 –  (3 hours to kick off) The crew arrive back in the Market Square, however it seems that the Cracovia fans did not want to wait in the heat, and have already started their protest march, followed by a convoy of over a dozen Police vehicles snaking into ul Anna.  It seems that it has caught out some of the Cracovia fans too as stragglers run from around the square to join their march.

The unmarked car tags on to the back of the Police convoy as it enters ul Anna, at the other end of the street, red flares belch out thick white smoke, the regular explosions of large fireworks are deafening between the tall town houses.

Bewildered locals and tourists hold up cameras and phones to capture the madness. Bizarre scenes as officers in full riot gear, carrying shotguns, walk along the steps of a church as passers by keep themselves as far as possible from the cacophony of chants and explosions, stepping over discarded fireworks and pyrotechnics.  A BBC documentary film crew run to keep up with the action.

As the march progresses the unmarked car makes its way towards the front of the convoy and monitors the fans, who are marching under the close scrutiny of the riot police who surround them with dogs, shotguns and some officers wearing large twin tanks on their backs like scuba tanks, with hoses leading to a pipe held by the officer which is a high volume tear gas dispersal system, looking much like an old flame thrower from a John Wayne US marine movie.

1555 – As the fans arrive at Błonia meadow, instead of turning right to Wisła’s stadium, they carry straight on and stop in a small plaza outside their own newly built stadium.  Here they loiter in the sun chatting as several are making telephone calls, perhaps planning their next move or discussing strategy.  Many still carry their black jackets.

The line of Police with their riot shields stand across the road from the fans, waiting for the next move, of course the water canon is parked directly opposite should the fans forget it was there.

This time however the water canon has a new friend, a shiny police pick up is parked alongside the water canon, on the back of the pick up is a large square contraption fitted with a wire mesh, looking not unlike a patio heater.  The Square device is operated by an officer in riot gear standing on the back of the pickup.

This turns out to be an LRAD, (Long Range Acoustic Device), sometimes know as a ‘sound canon’.  Developed after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, the device is an acoustic hailing device and sonic weapon.  They are used to combat piracy at sea and for crowd control either as a loudhailer able to transmit ‘Highly intelligible speech transmissions over 2000 meters’ or shorter distances over loud background noise such as at rock concerts.

The device is also capable of emitting a high frequency disruptive ‘deterrent tone’ at 149db. It has been used by the American Police against G20 demonstrators to disrupt a protest.

1605 – The Cracovia fans make their move, almost catching the Police on the hop, but not quite. The fans walk en masse onto Błonia Meadow, which separates the two stadia, as the Police rush to cut them off, the fans unfurl the same banner they failed to display on the Sukinecce and there is a brief stand off as the police and the fans line up, facing each other only a few metres apart.

After a few minutes, the riot officer with their shields turn their backs on the fans who take this as their signal to follow on and each begin to walk in line abreast away form the Cracovia stadium along the Park, to the Wisła stadium, as the Police helicopter continues to circle overhead. And the Police CCTV van drives ahead of the foot soldiers recording their every move.

1610 As the mass of fans and Police make their way to the Wisła stadium, a lone figure appears from nowhere about 100 metres in front of the crowd, he is wearing a hood and has a Wisła scarf wrapped around his face masking his identity, he is probably a scout for the Wisła hooligans, but his lone appearance makes him either very brave or very foolish.

He only manages to walk a few steps in the direction of the Cracovia fans when three burly men jump out of a car parked unobtrusively nearby and rush towards him, their handguns and handcuffs strapped to their waist precludes the need to flash their Police ID. The male quickly removes his hood and scarf as the officers ‘have a chat’ with him.

1615 Security inside the stadium is the responsibility of the club who hire a private security firm.  We arrive at the stadium ahead of the approaching fans.  There the security staff are waiting behind barriers, they too are dressed in riot protection gear, only their lack of firearms and the words OCHRONA (security) instead of POLICJA across their backs, differentiates them from the Police.

1520 (3 hours 10 minutes to kick off) The Cracovia fans arrive on the concourse outside the stadium where they come face to face with the security officers blocking their way to the turnstiles.  Here the Cracovia fans are made to wait in an area with large fences either side with security officers barring their way to the stadium and the riot police at their back preventing them from leaving the area, effectively penning them in, until they are allowed entry to the stadium.  The water canon, LRAD and helicopter are ever present.

1720 (1 hour 10 minutes to kick off) Cracovia fans are eventually allowed to slowly trickle into the stadium through the layers of security around the stadium. The 1000 Cracovia fans are confined to one section in the corner of the stadium, the adjoining section is kept vacant as a buffer zone, a sort of no mans land between the opposing factions.  The Wisła stands are filling with the home fans.

1730 (1 hour to kick off) In the CCTV control room, a bank of 20 cctv screens are monitored by security staff, with Police from the anti-hooligan unit looking over their shoulders as the stadium fills with fans.  Other officers use binoculars to scan the crowd.

1755 We took a seat in the stand close to the Cracovia fans to monitor them during the game, as officers remained in the CCTV control room watching the screens, and others used video cameras to film the fans.

1800 Both teams are on the pitch warming up, as the Wisła dragon mascot parades around the pitch waving a Dutch flag in recognition that the stadium is due to be the Dutch training camp for Euro 2012.\

Only 8 security officers dressed in black and wearing balaclavas guard the buffer zone between the two sets of opposing fans.  In the Cracovia section a fan with a loudhailer leads the chants as arms are waved aggressively in the air, whilst rival fans stare each other down across the divide, gesturing and gesticulating at each other.

1810 – Both sets of fans begin throwing fireworks across no mans land into the opposing fans.  As they explode, loudly, some very very loudly, fans dive and dance around the falling ‘bombs’ and then recoil from the noise holding their ears.1820 (10 minutes until kick off).  At the Kraków end the fans unfurl an enormous banner depicting a Wisła Shark, passing it over their heads, eventually covering the entire stand.  At the rear of the stand red flares are lit illuminating the entire length of the stand.  Meanwhile at the other end where the opposing factions continue their stand of, fireworks continue to be tossed back and forward exploding in the crowd, once or twice starting small fires.

The noise and atmosphere is as tense as it is intense, and the game hasn’t even started yet.

1830 Kick Off – As the game starts it is obvious that about 90% of the Cracovia fans have no interest in watching the proceedings on the pitch, as they hurl fireworks and abuse at the enemy a few metres away, or gather into huddles or small groups of activity, amongst the crowd as they obviously are preparing their next move.

1900 – A goal for Wisła as they take the lead after 30 minutes.

1905 – Perhaps in response to the goal, the Cracovia fans unfurl their long black banner for the third time today.  Only this time it’s different, a large group of fans at the front of the stand pass the banner over their heads, so far perfectly normal, however the people on the outside of the banner form a line shoulder to shoulder, forming a human barrier concealing the activity under the banner from the CCTV cameras, and there is much movement under the banner.

One of the Police football unit officers obviously knows what is coming next and says simply, “this is it”.  He was right.

From under the banner the fans who had been wearing the red and white stripes and hoops of the Pasy, emerged wearing black jackets with hoods, balaclavas and dark glasses.  They tried to break down the dividing glass barrier, but to no avail.  Then a large section of the Cracovia fans ran to the rear of the stand, which is where the security gate gives access to the buffer section and try to force the gate open, as the security officers repelled each attempt with CS spray combined with a coloured dye to mark offenders for later arrest.  Cracovia fans begin ripping up seats and hurling them at the Wisła fans.

Not to be outdone the Wisła fans also rushed to the rear of their section and also tried to break down the gate into the buffer zone, security staff ran to the gates to fend them off.  A large flare was thrown and burned brightly in no mans land.

Within 4 minutes of the violence starting, scores of white helmeted Police entered the stadium from both sides behind the goal, and made their way into the sections of both fans. One foolhardy Cracovia fan didn’t get out of the way fast enough and was pushed by an officer, the fan took exception to this and made to attack the officer, big mistake, he was sprayed with CS spray containing an orange dye (to aid later identification), and unceremoniously pushed down several rows of the stand landing in a heap.  He got the message.

The riot Police then formed lines from the front to the back of the stand in both sections of fans and forced them further apart by a few metres either side, effectively widening the buffer zone, as around 50 colleagues watched from the pitchside, ready to assist their colleagues if required.

The Police intervention was swift, controlled and highly professional.  It certainly seemed to have the desired effect and amazingly more of the fans even started to watch the game rather than antagonising their enemies across the stand.

The remainder of the game passed with little incident until half time, when,  as had to happen when the teams changed ends, the Cracovia goalkeeper found himself standing in front of several thousand Wisła fans.

The restart was delayed as 3 or 4 fireworks were thrown by Wisła fans at the Cracovia keeper landing very close to him in his goalmouth.  The referee had a word with both captains which lead to the Wisła captain Cezary Wilk, running to the fence to make an appeal to his fans, as the PA announcer pleaded for the crowd to behave. This seemed to work.It was strange to see the main Wisła stand full of fans deciding to remove their tops, with the large majority of them going bare chested, hands held high singing their war songs.

Just before full time Police snatch squads moved into the Cracovia fans and made two arrests, and aside from a large flare being set off in a tunnel under the stand giving off fairly dramatic light and smoke bellowing up from under the stand exit, the remainder of the game passed pretty much without further incident.

2020 – Full time, neither set of fans seem keen to leave the stadium as they seem to realise that this is the last derby for some time.

The Police eventually allow the Wisła fans to leave, whilst the Cracovia fans are kept in the stadium for up to an hour to ensure that there is no trouble outside the ground

The Cracovia fans are once more penned in as the Police line up outside the stadium behind 6 muzzled police dogs straining at their leads.

2120 The Police do not expect any trouble around the ground or in the city centre, as in their experience fans return to their housing estates and take the fight back to their own territory. At this I take my leave as the Police who plan to move out into the estates and monitor the fans returning from the game.

The deputy commander of the football hooliganism unit, reported that 23 arrests had been made, with 10 of the offenders appearing at court as part of the accelerated justice programme, and 106 fines amounting to 16,370zł. had been handed out. The clubs did not escape either, with fines of 40,000 euro against Wisła, and 25,000 euro for Cracovia, imposed by the Ekstraklasa League Commissions.

“We finished the policing at 4am but it is not the end,”  said the Police commander.

You can view an online album with many more images offering an in depth look behind the scenes of the Policing Operation at the link below.
Policing the Krakow Derby – Online Album

Not all fans are Hooligans !
I have to add that this article reflects the events from the perspective of a major Policing operation, and touches on an admittedly fierce and occasionally violent rivalry between two local teams, not uncommon in local derbies amongst opposing football teams in the same city.  Whilst there is no doubt that there is a continuing football hooligan issue at club level this is not unique to Poland, it happens across the world.

Whilst it may be obvious to many, we want to point out that the large majority of fans at club level are just that, decent football fans, passionately following and supporting their chosen team.

Likewise, at national level, the Polish fans have largely a good reputation, which I witnessed at first hand whilst covering the Poland v. Scotland game at the National Stadium, Warsaw, where the Polish fans demonstrated nothing but respect and friendship to the visiting ‘Tartan Army’, applauding the Scottish anthem, and waiting for the Scottish fans to leave the stadium, applauding each other again and to join in the fun and party together.

  Polish fans applauding the Scottish Anthem
  Scottish and Polish Fans pre-match fun


(An abbreviated version of this article was previously published in Police Professional magazine and the Krakow Post)

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