Before last weekend regional authorities in Poznan demanded that Lech fans clear stairways at their fanatic stand. Meanwhile after the weekend police in Stettin made numerous arrests only for that same behavior – blocking stairways. Why did this become a major life threat all of a sudden?
In late august Greater Poland voivode Piotr Florek demanded that Lech Poznan clears stairways at the Second Stand of their stadium. This is where fanatic fans gather, creating a thick crowd, regardless of the seating layout.
Lech was obliged to intervene with stewards or through loudspeakers, which holds its relevance. According to existing Polish legislation disobedience to stewards or the public announcements may be treated as a criminal offence.
As the fans saw police at the stadium planning a potential intervention onto the stand for two days, even lack of support was considered. In the end the Sunday game passed rather calmly, with numerous chants addressed at the voivode’s threats. Stairways were still blocked, though.
Arrests in Stettin
While fans in Poznan didn’t face any intervention, those of Pogoń Szczecin weren’t equally lucky. Police made numerous arrests after Saturday’s clash against Wisła Kraków, all based only on the issue of blocking stairs. Some supporters were reported to be in custody for days, brought to court in expedited mode.
As the fan trust of Pogoń reports, supporters were advised to plead guilty and accept a hefty 2,000 zloty fine (a monthly salary for many Poles) and stadium bans. Still, the argument about standing on stairs and not moving despite being asked by the announcer didn’t stand in court, the judge refused to punish them. Seeing this, the prosecutor brought new charges, finding fans guilty of not taking their designated seats.
Why the sudden strictness for blocking stairways? We asked the press office of Greater Poland voivodeship (overseeing police strategy on this issue) for a legal basis to the, but still haven’t received any response in almost a week. We thus decided to ask independent experts for their views on whether blocked stairways are a realistic problem or not.
Minor issue or life threat?
“Of course it is easier to work as a police man or as a steward if the stairways are held free. And if you try hard and use your imagination you might be able to come up with a scenario, where blocked stairways can be a threat to life”, says Jonas Havelund of Syddansk Universitet (South Denmark University), renowned specialist for stadium safety in Denmark. “To start a fight over something that has been a standard situation for many years is not be the best way to solve the situation. Of course supporters need to be aware of the potential risks of blocking stairways, but a mutual agreement and understanding of the situation is a much more appropriate way of handling things”, he continues.
Another expert, this time from the UK, also sees thinks fans should be persuaded to clear the way rather than forced to do so. “Because it wasn't done the right way from the start, when the stand was first opened, today the situation is tense. Introducing change is always difficult, managing change is a challenge. This should be a process, done by persuasion and education”, he says and goes on to explain why fans should reconsider their habits.
“Fans should remember to keep the way clear. If they can handle it themselves and allow stewards or rescue teams to easily access every place, that's great. Many clubs have a cooperation in this matter and it's working out fine, fans understand it's for their safety, not against them. I know that many ultras understand this and leave stairways clear”, he continues.
Mistakes of Poznan
The British safety specialist sees the situation in Poznan as a mistake by the club, authorities and fans as well. For the club and authorities it was a mistake to allow supporters to act in an inappropriate way ever since the stand was opened several years back. And for fans it’s wrong to consider the stand theirs literally. As much as it may be the heart of Poznan’s chanting, it’s still the club’s responsibility.
“The fans should never expect to be given a stand of their own, where normal rules don't apply. Once they buy tickets they're allowed to access the stands and support, but not occupy their section and introduce their own rules".
"What happens, when someone breaks a leg? Will they hold responsible the ultras or the club? Of course the club is responsible for everyone's safety and fans need to understand where the line is".
"To my knowledge there were no stewards at that very stand for a long time. If they are there now, it's a good sign. You cannot say that fans can take care of everything, it doesn't work like that".
The UK specialists also questions comparison made by Lech president Karol Klimczak, who indicated the Suedtribune at Westfalenstadion as a place where ‘almost 30,000’ people enjoy the game safely without clearing the stairways.
"I saw the comparison with Borussia Dortmund, which is very wrong. The top part of the Sudtribune is rail seating, which is a different system. The bottom part is terracing and has no stairways, so they cannot be kept clear. Instead, the entire stand is divided into 12 separate sections. Each has its own entrance and the entrances are kept clear at all times. In the bottom part, no fan is more than 5 meters away from their entrance. The crowd density in these sections is not excessive, allowing medical teams to enter and move around with ease, should there be such need".
Waving a big stick or more considered approach?
Our British interlocutor sees today’s tension as the outcome of previous negligence in addressing the issue with supporters. And since there was no serious accident over the years, many fans may still not realize that there is a problem.
Still, does this problem require tackling with police forces and tough penalties? "In principle the idea of clearing stairways is right, but how it should be introduced is a different thing. Is it the Polish way to do things by waving a big stick, or to take a more considered approach?"
Havelund from Denmark also sees a problem in the measures that are considered, though not fully introduced so far in Poland. “Policemen in action in riot gear in the stands can also be a threat to life or at least create more risky situations than the ones they try to avoid…”.
According to Jonas Havelund it should be done by attempting to create an understanding. But how could this be reached with fans and police seeing one-another as worst enemies?
“The police’s problem with dialogue is that they need to change from a simplistic way of seeing power and right on their side to a more dynamic and negotiated perspective where what is right and wrong is partly negotiated, of course within certain limits. By going into dialogue they lose control and that creates uncertainty for them. But sometimes it is a good practice for the police to lose control and share it with the citizens who they’re actually made to serve and protect”.
Of course this sounds simple, but with years of antagonism between both sides. “What is needed (and truly easier said than done) is police men and fans with courage. Because it takes a lot of effort to change the relationship between fans and police – especially when politicians and hooligans are part of the equation”, Havelund continues.
But once both sides are there to talk, he sees great advantages of such dialogue. “Part of the Danish dialogue concept is a training program, where the Danish police officers are given an introduction to football supporter culture. We have often used well educated ‘ultra supporters’ (who like pyrotechnics, but not violence) to do the presentation and have discussions face to face with the police. It has been eye-opening for the policemen”.