Poland’s Catholic churches rarely want for colour, but even the gaudiest frescoes and stained-glass windows struggled to compete with the sea of striped hats and scarves on show at the 14th-century Jasna Góra Monastery, as fans of football teams from across Poland gathered there in January. This is Poland’s holiest shrine, and the crowds were here to celebrate faith, family and football.
As in other European countries, pockets of nationalist and white-supremacist football fans have long been a presence on the margins of Polish society. In recent years, they have grown in number, as many Poles turn their backs on what they regard as the unfulfilled promises of a liberal European future.
Although much international attention has been given to Poland’s authoritarian turn since the election of the populist-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party in 2015, nationalist and xenophobic sentiment had been on the rise for some time. It was accelerated by a frustration with Poland’s uneven economic growth and fears relating to the refugee crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As nativist sentiment has risen, so have the fortunes of the parties to the right of PiS. This poses a dilemma for a party that styles itself as the natural home for Polish “patriots”, in contrast to its pro-European rival, Civic Platform.
In the run-up to the Uefa European Championship in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, Poland’s then Civic Platform-led government (which was headed by Donald Tusk before he became president of the European Council in 2014) clamped down on organised hooliganism. It was feared that violence or instances of racism could disrupt the tournament and damage the country’s reputation abroad.
That provided an opening for far-right and right-wing politicians to adopt the nationalist fans’ cause, portraying them as ordinary patriots enduring harassment from a liberal government hostile to “traditional” cultural values. Their cause has also been adopted by hardliners within the Polish Catholic Church, who share PiS’s view that the country’s values and identity are under sustained attack by decadent, Western cosmopolitanism and the racial diversity imposed from above by Brussels.
This alliance is cemented each year by the “Fans’ Patriotic Pilgrimage” to Jasna Góra. At the latest meeting in January, Holy Mass in the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was presided over by Father Jaroslaw Wasowicz, a cleric with connections to the fanatical supporters of the Ekstraklasa league team Lechia Gdansk.
My report from Częstochowa for the New Statesman can be found here.