This feature is part of A World of Ultras
VOCAL IN THE STANDS, brutish on the battlefield, rebellious against the institutes; Legia and its Teddy Boys ’95 clan boast all the ingredients needed to be regarded as one of the most fearsome ultra groups in all of world football.
As far as matters on the pitch are concerned, Polish football is a far cry from being the best that Europe has to offer. However, when it comes to passion both in the stands and on the pitch, it is very much near the top. Inside the stadiums, Poland’s biggest clubs create a cauldron of intensity that words often fail to do justice. Outside, a sense that it could kick-off at any second ensures the melting pot of nerves and excitement boil to uncontrollable levels.
The culture of football in Poland is on a completely different scale to the majority of other countries. It should not be forgotten that the nation’s not too distant history penetrates the very core of its people; the fallout of both the Nazi German invasion, and subsequent Soviet invasion, are still omnipresent throughout the population.
You could quite easily argue that the nation’s football supporters are more affected than most. Either way, pride is the beating heart of the ultras – whether it’s for their country, their political views, or simply the 11 men selected to represent their team on any given weekend.
Fighting has been a necessity for generations, therefore it is no surprise that tones of violence have infiltrated the ultras scene. The physical confrontations aren’t limited to the stadium vicinities, as clubs regularly meet up for pre-arranged battles known as Ustawka.
This hooligan pastime isn’t an activity restricted to Poland and is commonplace in several Eastern European countries. However the Polish brawls are regarded amongst the most brutal. Interestingly, the use of weapons is largely frowned upon. Instead, ultras spend hours training with weights or competing in mixed martial arts to enhance their physiques and fighting skills, which only further backs up their reputation as some of football’s most fearsome supporters.
If Poland is to be considered number one in terms of ranking European countries for ultra movement, then surely Legia Warsaw have to be acknowledged as the best club. This is exactly what happened as the Warsaw firm topped the 2013 list comprised by Ultras World. If anything, recent events only further enhance that reputation.
Legia’s Champions League campaign in 2014-15 might have been brief, but its legacy is bound to live on for years in the memories of football fans across the continent thanks to turbulence both on the pitch and in the stands. An administrative error saw the Polish club kicked out of the competition despite annihilating Celtic over two legs during qualification, a decision that left Warsaw fans feeling victimised by UEFA. It’s perhaps something that fans from all over Europe can empathise with greatly.
The reaction from Legia’s fans was simply outstanding as the ultras unveiled a massive tifo depicting UEFA officials as pigs accompanied by the slogan ‘6-1. Because football doesn’t matter, money does!’ in reference to the decision by UEFA. Naturally, the supporters also took great pleasure in mocking Celtic’s subsequent defeat to Slovenia’s NK Maribor. The club was fined €80,000, but the images of that choreography will remain seared onto our retinas for years to come.
Just weeks later, Legia were once again punished by UEFA as fans reacted to anti-Polish chanting from home supporters during a Europa League trip to Metalist Kharkiv. Reprimands from football’s governing bodies are nothing new for the Warsaw club.
Whilst fighting is at the very core of what affords Legia a fearsome reputation that spreads across the continent, the key fact that makes them stand out from the crowd is an undeniable passion for their team. The story of 21st century Legia is a truly fascinating tale that not only demonstrates football’s unrelenting magnitude within the city but also highlights a unique love that can only be attributed to a fanatic’s obsession with a team.
Football isn’t just a sport to the Teddy Boys ’95, rather an extension that infiltrates every aspect of their lives and so it makes sense that they look to defend their club with every ounce of energy – whether that’s in the stands, on the battlefield, or in the boardroom.
For nearly a decade, Warsaw was a war zone thanks to an ongoing battle between the fans and owners. That antipathy regularly threatened to rip this great club at the very seams but, largely due to the undying passion of ultras, Legia somehow remained at the forefront of Polish football.
Back in 2002, mounting debts in excess of 20 million Polish złoty put the Legia’s future in severe jeopardy. President Leszek Miklas soon lost his job, but it would be nearly two years before media giants ITI would purchase the club to finally restore the faith. Unfortunately, though, that joy would be short lived for the supporters as a hike in ticket prices angered fans, leading to mass protests outside the stadium.
A season of anger culminated in scenes of mass violence at the 2004 Polish Cup final as Legia fans rushed the pitch following goading from Lech Poznań players. Having stormed the turf, ultras began to beat members of the opposing team and steal their winners’ medals. The subsequent condemnation from the owners further riled the fans as their relationship hit an almost untenable position.
The relationship between fans and owners was further stretched later that summer when the club purchased one of Lech’s cup winning squad. Defender Paweł Kaczorowski became a target of hatred from the Teddy Boys, facing a bombardment of expletive-laden chants throughout his brief time with the club, and swiftly made his departure after just ten appearances for the Wojskowi.
Hostilities continued over the next couple of seasons with a number of matches being temporarily stopped due to Legia fans hurling flares onto the pitch. None of these incidents were acts of mindless violence, though; rather demonstrations of their stance towards the owners and their decisions.
The ultras continued to display their solidarity by boycotting matches in response to another increase in ticket prices. Whilst the stadium remained virtually empty, the fans congregated outside to show their unconditional support towards the team. After months of discrepancy, fans returned to the terraces at the end of 2005 after reaching an agreement with the owners.
Winning the league that season strengthened the bond but it wouldn’t be long before things took yet another sour turn. The return of Miklas was inevitably met with widespread negativity and speculation that he had purposely shattered the club’s finances to help ITI acquire the club at no cost began to echo around the Polish Army Stadium.
Legia fans were extremely vocal about their displeasure, but it wasn’t until the start of 2007-08 that their relationship with the owners reached its ultimate low. Having slipped to a 2-0 deficit during the first half of their Intertoto Cup trip to Vėtra Vilnius, the travelling supporters expressed their displeasure by instigating a full-scale riot within the stadium. Those events forced the game to be abandoned with Miklas insisting that the club would clamp down on hooliganism, making a swift move by issuing banning orders to supporters and outlawing the use of tifo and choreography. Meanwhile, players were instructed not to mention the fans in media interviews as the owners essentially turned their back on its fans.
Over a thousand fans were banned in total and Miklas ordered a complete lockdown on supporters travelling to away games as the club refused to take their allocations for three years. Despite the fierce rivalries with several other clubs, the rest of Poland united during this time to assign sections of their home stands to the visiting Legia followers.
Around 4,000 Legia supporters were able to make the 2008 Polish Cup final, which the team won on penalties, but the majority of chants and choreography consisted of derogatory comments aimed at the owners, and the game was temporarily stopped due to rioting. Demonstrations of anger continued to follow the side wherever it travelled over the next couple of years, with various breakouts of violence reported. Over 700 were arrested in the derby with Polonia alone as fans reiterated their stance by refusing to cave in.
Unsurprisingly, in the case of the derby, hatred towards Polonia naturally played a part, fuelled in part by their contrasting histories. Legia are associated with the army, a largely right-wing club at its core. Polonia, conversely, were seen as the left-wing academics.
During that period, the root of fan anger was directed primarily at the owners. It was best highlighted when a fan that later became known as “the waiter” interrupted a board meeting to throw cream cake in the face of Miklas.
Just as the situation looked beyond repair, Miklas was replaced as president and his successor immediately instigated attempts to rebuild broken bridges. Eventually, following lengthy negotiations with the Legia Fans Society, a truce was called as the owners agreed to overturn bans and give the ultras their own section behind one of the goals.
With civil war finally over, matters improved on and off the field. The appointment of wealthy businessman and lifelong fan, Bogusław Leśnodorski, as president in late 2012 signalled a fresh start for the team as they raced towards back-to-back Ekstraklasa titles in 2013 and 2014.
In the stands, the ultras can once again flaunt their unique choreography with passion, regularly producing some of the most stunning displays in world football. Not only does this help to create an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors, it simultaneously serves as a constant reminder of the arduous times that they’ve faced and beaten.
On the battleground, Legia are still amongst the hardest fans in Europe and that won’t be changing any time soon. Nevertheless, whilst violence is a constant undertone of football in Poland, it is the unique circumstances surrounding this fantastic set of supporters that sees them earn such high levels of respect across the continent.
You might not agree with their political views, or indeed their acts of hooliganism, but there is simply no denying that Legia Warsaw boast some of the world’s most passionate sets of ultras.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman