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Poland v Russia: A rivalry most bitter

It may not have the footballing pedigree of some of the game's great rivalries, but in terms of the historical context there are few sporting clashes that can match Russia versus Poland.

Four centuries of bitter conflict and mutual invasions have marked relations between the countries and when they meet on the pitch in Warsaw today, Polish police will be on the look-out for trouble. With both sets of fans known to have hardcore sections prone to hooliganism, this match has emerged as the biggest potential flashpoint for violence at Euro 2012.

Warsaw's most recognisable building remains the monstrously Stalinist Palace of Culture, a permanent reminder of the decades that Poland spent under Communist leadership backed by Moscow. The countries still have awkward diplomatic relations, with Poland suspicious that Russia would like to destroy the nation's sovereignty, and Russia distrustful of Poland's EU- and Nato-oriented foreign policy.

Neither set of fans is known for their restraint. While Polish hooliganism and racism have been in the spotlight in the run-up to the tournament, Russia's fans were involved in its first violence, with scuffles after the final whistle of their side's 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. A small group of fans attacked local stewards mercilessly, putting at least one steward in hospital.

After footage of the incident went viral on YouTube, the fear is that hardcore Polish fans will want to wreak revenge today. Several Russians were also arrested after a bar brawl in Warsaw, while in Wroclaw a fight broke out between different groups of Russia fans which ended in one being hospitalised with knife wounds.

Mistrust and bad blood between Russia and Poland has been stoked over the years by incidents such as the Katyn massacre, when Soviet forces killed over 20,000 Polish nationals in 1940, and subsequently blamed it on the Nazis. Two years ago, the wounds of Katyn were reopened in the most horrific way when a plane carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other officials crashed on landing at Smolensk in Russia killing all 96 passengers and crew. They were en route to a memorial service for Katyn victims.

While there has never been any evidence that the crash was anything but an accident, some politicians in Poland including Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw have suggested that it may have been part of a Russian plot, continuing to fuel hatred between the two.

When the draw was made, it was a nightmare scenario for the Russians. While England fans would have preferred the easy access, Ryanair flights and relatively developed infrastructure of Poland, but instead were dispatched to Donetsk and Kiev, the Russian fans had exactly the reverse situation.

With much of Ukraine Russian-speaking and supporting the Russians as their second team (if not their first), games in Kiev and Donetsk would practically have been home fixtures for the Russians. They would also have been accessible for fans coming in by train and bus, who instead had to book flights and obtain visas to make the trip to Poland.

Nevertheless, several thousand have come here, including a large number of Russian nationalists. Maria Baronova, a Russia fan but also an activist who helps organise protests in opposition to President Vladimir Putin, was in the stadium for the game with the Czech Republic and said many of the people around her were wearing the yellow-white-black colours of extreme Russian nationalists.

The bad blood was not only felt among nationalists, however. Baronova said that she was mugged in Poland and had her telephone stolen, but the police refused to file an incident report, – possibly because she is Russian, she believed. "Poland is now first in my list of utterly awful countries, it's the very first time I've ever come across police that won't even file an incident report," she said afterwards.

As the tensions continue to rise, most worrying for Polish police is a march through central Warsaw planned by Russian fans ahead of the game. Today is Russia Day, a public holiday in Russia, and while in Moscow anti-Putin activists are planning an opposition march, in Warsaw the rally will more likely have an ultra-nationalist character and could attract attention from hardcore Polish fans.

There were also allegations that a section of Russian support racially abused the Czech defender Theodor Gebre Selassie during the match in Wroclaw, although Russia's sports minister has insisted that fans were actually complaining that Czech fans had refused to join in a Mexican wave.

But while the Russians have responded to racism allegations with characteristic flippancy, they are taking the prospect of hooliganism more seriously. In the aftermath of the game, the Russian Football Federation appealed to its own fans to act responsibly and not bring shame upon "yourself, your home country and your team".

In a further conciliatory gesture aimed to relieve tensions ahead of today's game, Russia's Football Union chief, Sergei Fursenko, and the national manager, Dick Advocaat, took part in a Polish wreath-laying ceremony on 10 June to honour the Smolensk crash victims.

Fears that the ceremony could turn into an anti-Russian demonstration did not materialise. Football is outside politics, said Fursenko after laying the wreath. "With this tradition we are supporting people and demonstrating our position. We are just footballers," he added.

Despite the best efforts of officials, however, Russian blogs were claiming yesterday that a section of Russian fans planned to unveil a large banner reading "Smolensk" during the Polish national anthem, and throw paper aeroplanes on to the pitch, in a sick taunt about the tragedy.

Today's game may not be the last symbolic tie for the Russian team, since in the second round they could face Germany, and the date that the game would be played has not gone unnoticed: 22 June, which is seared into every Russian's consciousness as the anniversary of the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the day that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union from Poland in 1941.

Belfast Telegraph