Poland; home to some of the most feared football firms in the world. Think about Britain's big hooligan days in the 80's. Well, that's what it is with Poland today. These firms are feared all across Europe and it was once said on television:
"In the Polish Premier League, the hooligans have a league of their own."
The deadliest groups come from Krakow and I don't know if any derby is as intense as Wisla Krakow against MKS Cracovia. With stadium capacities of 6,000 and 20,000, it's surely not the biggest match in the world.
The Old Firm games are much bigger. However, I doubt even they can compete with the atmosphere at the Krakow derby. Wisla is known as Biala Gwiazda (White Star) and the Cracovia fans refer to them as dogs.
Wisla was owned by the communist police for 40 years, and dog is a common term used for police officers in Poland. Cracovia are known as Pasy (Stripes) or Jews because of their supposed Jewish roots.
The firms are two of the baddest in Poland. You have the Wisla Sharks (Krakow) and Anti-Wisla (Cracovia). You can see the hatred when one firm gives itself a name clearly stating they are against the opposition.
When you have an intense rivalry between two teams, usually they are two separate cities. Not in this case, as both resign in Krakow. The stadiums are only 500 meters apart and the housing estates are nearby one another too.
That means that a Cracovia fan could live next door to a group if Wisla supporters. It may seem silly when the firms take a bus to each others stadiums when they can walk there within a few minutes. It's not called the Holy War for nothing though.
Holy War was first used to describe the rivalry of Krakow's Jewish teams, Makabbi and Jutrzenka. A Jutrzenka defender joined Cracovia later on and during the derby match against Wisla he is supposed to have told his teammates, "Come on guys, let's win this holy war." The phrase was put into a song and has since been popular.
Even the players aren't completely safe in either stadium. In a 1998 UEFA Cup match between Parma and Wisla Krakow, a Wisla supporter threw a knife at Dino Baggio's head. The Italian needed five stitches and the Polish club was suspended from European Cup action for a year.
This summer, I visited Poland for a vacation. Przeworsk is the city I'm from, which has a population under 20,000. A number of my buddies go to school in Krakow and one of them told me a story.
One night when he was walking home, a group of either Wisla or Cracovia boys approached him. They asked, "Which team do you support?". Wisely, he told them that he was even and supported both teams. The group walked away as a result.
You either say you're even or that you don't watch soccer. It may seem funny, but people have been brutally beaten in the past for giving the wrong answer. In Krakow, it truly is a 24/7 war.
War wasn't able to even break these two teams up. On September 2, 1939, the match was supposed to take place but it didn't happen. Due to the German invasion, players were sent to battle and many never came back.
The Germans prohibited all sporting events, but the matches still took place on smaller grounds in the outskirts of the city. Hundreds and thousands attended the match knowing full well that being caught could mean death.
In 1942, the derby didn't take place because the Nazis were informed of the time and place of the match. When the German forces arrived, the game was abandoned. The following year, over 10,000 people came to see the Holy War back in full force.
After the referee gave Cracovia a penalty kick four minutes before stoppage time, Wisla players attacked him. The players, not the fans. Can you believe that? As a result, the whole audience was engaged in a huge brawl.
In the early 1970's, Cracovia began to be relegated into the lower leagues and so the Krakow derby had to be put on hold. Supporters couldn't stand this thought though, so they convinced authorities to have an annual anniversary derby.
The matches had nothing to do with points. It was all about bragging rights. These matches took place until 1990, when possibly the most unbelievable set of events took place in Polish football history.
Police officers went at it with supporters. That wasn't shocking, but the actions of the police were considered too brutal. Therefore, they were counterattacked by supporters of both teams. Wisla and Cracovia fighting the cops side by side.
Eventually, the USSR consulate was trashed that day because some of the policemen ran there for safety. The Krakow derby was banned for good this time, and no Holy Wars have taken place since.
While the Poles know that hooliganism began in England, they claim that's not where they got their inspiration. To them, it's a whole different reality. English hooligans claim to be at their best after a few beers, but the Poles insist that smoking and drinking makes you weak.
Instead, they work out and train when preparing for battle. Clearly, this isn't a joke to them. In a match between England and Poland in 1999, the Poles were more organized and three English fans were hospitalized.
In Poland, there is what's known as the "Poznan Agreement". This is a document which has been signed by all of the firms nationwide that don't use weapons during fights. Wisla and Cracovia are the only firms that haven't signed this agreement.
Weapons are used everyday in Krakow—from knives to farmers tools. Guns and gas guns have been used on a few occasions too. Having a weapon in Krakow can possibly save your life.
During battle, scarves are constantly taken afterwards. They are kept as trophies and eventually burned during matches.
In 2006, the 100 year anniversary match was played between Wisla Krakow and MKS Cracovia. Eight fans died in the events leading up to the derby. Water cannons, riot vans, choppers, dogs, and nearly 1,000 cops were on hand during the game.
Wisla scored a minute into the game and one of the supporters was about to burn a Cracovia scarf. The police took it away, so a battle ensued with the cops. Cracovia fans were in the away section and there was a huge fence to separate the two firms.
At halftime, hundreds of Cracovia scarves were burnt along the fences by Wisla fans. This is while winning, imagine what happens if they lose. Cracovia supporters tried to break through the fence but the police intervened.
Chairs proceeded to be ripped out and thrown at the cops. The match ended 3-0 for Wisla Krakow. The events weren't as bad as some of the previous matches, but the police were prepared that day.
The atmosphere at these derbies is hard to match. It's one of the few games where you can see the whole audience jumping. Whether it's Cracovia's “Kto nie skacze, ten za Wisłą” (Who's not jumping is with Wisla) or Wisla's chants, it's truly amazing.
You can see everyones hands in the air, while constantly chanting onto the pitch. It's simply the game to watch in Poland and preparations are made months before.
Krakow is a beautiful city, but it can also be extremely dangerous if you are not careful.