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Ice and Fire

Updated: Mar 9

The huge tifo going up is the sign I’ve been waiting for. Underneath it, I’d been told, the ultras would right now be changing clothes and putting on their masks before the pyro comes out. It is impressive in itself, a vast checkered flag which then opens like a scroll to reveal a second layer and covers most of the stand. Then it comes back down again and we wait for the pyro. And we wait. And nothing happens. 


 

A few months ago I’d contacted Alex Webber, Instagram’s resident Polish football guru, to ask about the one game I should try to get to this season. Everyone knows Legia and their ultras, but there are no other Warsaw teams in the top division so there’s no local clashes to be found there. Alex suggested instead the Lodz derby (pronounced something like Wuj) between LKS and Widzew, and that sounded good enough for me. 



Walking through town, the graffiti is striking. I don’t remember seeing another place in Europe (a place that isn’t Naples at least - and let’s face it, Naples is a law unto itself) with so much football graffiti. Just like street gangs, it seems fans of the two clubs use it to claim their ground in the city. I’d later learn it’s how the young ultras prove themselves, and there’s a high-profile court case currently going on because someone was stabbed over it in another town. 


One group of a couple of hundred LKS fans has gathered outside a pub opposite the farmers’ market. Riot vans and police in their full gear hover across the street, some looking bored, others looking eager for something to kick off. After a while the group pulls in. A flare is lit, a drumbeat strikes up and, accompanied by the police, this particular arm of the march to the stadium begins its journey. 


The marches, I’m told, are often long, boring, stop-start affairs which aren’t really worth the hassle to an outsider, so I’ve arranged to meet Alex in a pub nearby. This being Poland, the barmaid laughs at me when I suggest a 7.5% beer might be a bit punchy for 2 o’clock in the afternoon and so, after a couple of over-strong pints, we get an Uber to ground.  



We’re very early. I’d checked the kick off time back home and gone by the English time and Alex had been too polite to say anything, but we’re hoping to see the end of the marches. As we wait, a couple of fans walk towards us, doing nothing in particular. Suddenly the police wrestle one of them to the ground then bundle him into the back of a riot van, while is mate is left on his own wondering what on earth happened. 



We move to another area and bump into to Scott, a groundhopper Alex was at the Polonia Warsaw game last night with. Both are still suffering slightly today. Nearby someone is setting off fireworks from a bin. It’s cold, and around 45 minutes before kick off we all decide to head inside. 



It’s already pretty full. Fans are greeting each other and chatting in the usual way pre-match. They then turn their attention to the away fans and start gesturing and singing towards them. A lot of them are wearing hoodies showing a Widzew fan hanging in a noose. Players arrive onto the pitch to a sea of scarves and a deluge of singing. 



At both ends of the ground, the ultras are led by capos at the front. A platform is set up in front of the home end, with drummers and megaphones, while the away leaders just cling to the front of the cage around their section. The fans sing and the noise is good, and after half an hour, when the LKS tifo is passed up the stand, anticipation grows. After about five minutes the flag comes back down, but no pyro follows. We get to half time with no goals and no pyro, but one very impressive tifo. 



Early in the second half, Widzew’s ultras begin the long process of pulling up their own tifo. Presumably for the ease of carrying it to an away ground, it’s not one big flag but lots of thin strips which go up one at a time. In the middle of this process, Widzew score and we get the slightly comical sight of heads popping out from between the banners to cheer. 



It slightly sums up the occasion. Like so many of the world’s great footballing spectacles, it’s not actually the football you come here for. No one turns their back on the Premier League for the quality of the Ekstraklasa. Like the ultras peeping out from behind the serious business of their tifo to acknowledge to minor detail of a goal, it’s really the stuff in the stands we’ve turned up for. 



Soon the tifo is fully in place, while at the other end the LKS fans have pulled up another one. It’s much less impressive, and it’s clear this one serves no real purpose beyond being a hiding place to mask up. The Widzew fans go first. The tifo comes down and a red glow appears in the darkness behind their banner across the front. There’s something sinister, even hellish, about the vision. Soon the stand is swamped in smoke, from the heart of which burns a menacing red fire. 



The LKS fans light their first flares, too. Not a huge show, but enough to start off with. It’s when they put up their third tifo that they really go for it. It’s another impressive one, taking up most of the ultras section. The capos guide the crowd, telling them who needs to pull it up where. Once it’s in place, dozens of flares are lit, ringing the entire emblem in red flame. Obscured behind their masks, they carve their flares through the air. Sparks spill down over the flag and away into the darkness. 



In the away end, some fans begin pulling at the fencing. Heaving it backwards and forwards, baying at the police on the other side. It doesn’t look like it will hold out for much longer when they give up, perhaps not actually wanting to follow through on their threats against heavily armoured policemen. Some people are roughly hauled out and ejected from the stadium, but there are few real problems. 



The game itself is not great. Played at a decent tempo but with a litany of misplaced passes, Widzew score again in injury time to inflict a defeat on their rivals which looks certain to send them down. As much as their fans enjoy the moment, there is probably a note of sadness for them too. We form our own identities by holding them against those of our adversaries. Without that, something is lost. Every fan loves derby day most of all, and next season at least Lodz will go without one, and Poland will lose one of its most colourful fixtures. 



At full time, the LKS players stand before their ultras to be dutifully berated before trudging away to the dressing room. For me it’s time to walk back and try to warm up slightly. The icy night air of a Polish February is too far away from the fire in the stands. 

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