While most of the media attention is focused on dangerous use of pyrotechnics, there's a situation sadly missed by mainstream media. It's the critical congestion behind the north end of the stadium, which left several people unconscious.
Wednesday's Polish Cup Final at PGE Narodowy was always expected to cause some controversy, but the extent is higher than expected. Incident of rockets launched in the direction of opposite supporters was particularly dangerous, causing damages to the stadium roof. It was almost unanimously condemned by the football community, including Arka Gdynia, with the notable and regretable exception of Arka's supporters trust, as of yet.
However, another serious safety threat got almost no coverage at all. In fact, none whatsoever, we've checked all major news outlets in Poland. Before the game a crowd of over 10,000 Arka Gdynia fans was directed to a single gate, Gate 10. With three-checkpoint control, fans first had to go through the initial gate served by 12 stewards, then two more, in effort to prevent them from smuggling pyrotechnics (eventually over 400 items ended up in the stadium anyway).
And already at the first checkpoint things went very wrong. As the crowd of fans was pushing forward, temporary barriers gave way and resulted in aggressive reaction from the security forces at hand. Wielding batons and shields, they created a wall and tried to push the crowd off, while only as few as three people were letting supporters through.
With 10,000 yellow and blue fans and only 120 minutes between opening of the gate and start of the game, the crowd soon became seriously congested. Impatient fans at the back were pushing forward, while those at the gate were either pushed into the stadium's perimeter fence or right at security guards who were trying to push or beat them away from the gate.
We collected over a dozen eyewitness reports, including that of Arka's supporter liaison officer (SLO) Mariusz Jędrzejewski, who described police presence and activity before the game as unprecedented. He is critical of the security strategies implemented. Seeing the crush happening within the crowd, he tried to appeal for securiy to let the people through to the second checkpoint, which would ease the situation.
Not only was it not done, Jędrzejewski claims fans were initially denied any help when asking for it. “I tried to convince officers to provide necessary medical help to fans. Only when I requested one's full name and statement on record about refusing to administer treatment, he changed his mind.” the SLO claims. He counted 5 Arka fans being treated on stretchers, while others only needed water and some breathing room.
From Arka's SLO and fans within the crowd we collected reports of supporters losing their consciousness and being held up by others not to fall and be trampled. Children, disabled fans and strollers were being passed above other people's heads to get them to safety as no-one had control of the situation. You can see a stroller being lifted in the below photo. The word Hillsborough came up several times, as comparison, from the clearly distressed participants.
Official statement of PGE Narodowy's gives a different version of events, not mentioning any safety issues apart from hooliganism. Press officer Monika Borzdyńska puts blame on the situation on fans.
“Already before the game we had a dangerous situation at Gate 10, where Arka fans were being admitted. They stormed the gate and tried to destroy it, got through the security barricade. Police forces reacted to our request for help and rose to the challenge.” Borzdyńska says.
We are unable to confirm her claims or dismiss them, even if parts of the reports seem contradictory (according to our insight, police did not intervene actively, just arrived close to the gate in case of escalation, while fans did not push through the gate).
It's not uncommon in Poland to see organised groups trying to push through gates in a violent, hooligan fashion, even if it's considered largely a thing of the past. However, it should be noted that it's also not uncommon in a situation of surging crowds that officials interpret the action as intentional, while people at the front of the crowd have no control over being pushed by others, who in turn don't realise what their action is causing. In this instance we're talking of 90 minutes of prolonged crisis, in which case the cause of initial collapse doesn't seem to vindicate what happened next.
Images courtesy of Mariusz Jędrzejewski