Can you get any more depressing than this!

Having watched football across Europe for the past decade one country that had escaped my attentions was Poland. I had planned to go earlier in the year on a Warsaw/Lodz (pronounced Woodge – because that is logical!) but a combination of flight delays, poor weather and a better offer from CMF meant that the trip was abandoned at the last minute. However, with West Ham playing one of the most pointless games in the history of football away at Premiership chasing Manchester United (not helped by our fckwit manager Alan Curbishley stating publically that Man Utd deserved to be champions in the run up to the game), there was an opportunity to organise a trip to Poland, especially as I managed to park the little Fuller’s with the inlaws in Newark (the only place in the UK that is an anagram of the word Wa*ker if you didn’t know).

What made it even better was that I was to be joined by not one, but two beautiful angels. Unfortunately at the last minute Charlotte Church pulled out and so Football Jo agreed to accompany CMF and myself. We plumped for Krakow as our location as it would give us the opportunity to see a game, have some decent food and see some of the country and history. Ok, ok I admit it was the chance to get some decent Vodka down my throat and experience some Danny Dyer inspired Polish hooligan-fuelled football. Flights were sorted to Katowice, one of Poland’s most polluted cities and home to the huge steelworks of Chorzow, and a hire car awaited us as we alighted from Wizzair – again another first in the Fuller list of Airplanes we experienced true Polish hospitality. As we would come to see from the next few days the Poles hadn’t yet grasped the concept of Customer Service. Queuing up for passport control, waiting for baggage, exiting customs was all the same. Every passenger was viewed with the same suspicion, fear and loathing.

The plan was to drive down to our hotel, located around 15 miles south west of Krakow, dump the bags and then head into Krakow for some Polish hospitality. We had landed on Constitution Day, one of Poland’s national holidays and we saw how proud the Poles were of their country, with every lamp post displaying a flag and everyone in their Sunday best on their way to church. The drive took longer than we thought, primarily due to Football Jo’s navigating skills. I am sure we all want to know where the battle of Zagbre took place, and where Javok Milojka lived but at the expense of unimportant issues such as “take next left, or head onto the A44” was probably not the best. So our 70km drive became a 90 minute laugh a minute festival – after all we know how easy it to get used to driving an unfamiliar car, on unfamiliar roads, with unreadable roadsigns with two women talking about whether “Angelina Jolie or Madonna is a better mother”. I had promised a real special treat for the hotel – although I had told a lie or two to Jo that it was the same hotel used in the films Hostel and Hostel 2. The Paszowska Palace was a former hunting lodge in the middle of the countryside, and was as impressive in real life as it was from the pictures on the t’internet. With our rooms not quite ready, the very pleasant looking receptionist asked if I would like a drink – assuming she meant with me in her private room once she finished her shift I willingly accepted. Customer service was starting to look up I thought until she shouted to a colleague to show us the bar. If anyone of you have every been to Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania you will know that almost every women could moonlight as a model for Vogue, Loaded or Penthouse..this theory has not made its way south unfortunately and our lovely receptionists colleague turned out to be the spitting image of that fat one who used to be in Emmerdale and You’ve been Framed.

The smell of food was wonderful, and after a long trip from Luton we decided to delay our trip into Krakow until we had eaten. With the “when in Rome eat like a Roman” theory being strictly enforced we opted for a range of soups – Asparagus, Chicken and Beetroot, a selection of local meat, washed down with Vodka. With West Ham already 3-0 down after 20 minutes there seemed little point in following the original plan of finding somewhere to watch the humiliation so we settled down for a few hours of chat (well, the girls continued their thought provoking conversations such as “Gordon Brown should be Prime Minister because he looks like a lost puppy”, “Why there isn’t enough magazines for women” and “Why the News of the World is the only place where the truth is written” – intelligent girls!

We eventually got into our rooms an hour and another Man Utd goal later, and found the swimming pool, fitness suite and Spa…hmmm..The Swimming Pool was being filled from the fire hose and was due to be ready “sometime Tuesday”…the Fitness suite was two bicycles fixed to the floor and some dumb bells and the Spa was no more than a jacuzzi – well a garden pond with a soda stream! Still it would do us fine for a night.

So we headed into Krakow, and amazingly through Jo’s directing – “Oh look there is an Ikea – do you think they do meat balls?” and “Is the No Entry sign the same in Polish?” – we found the Reyna Park which seperates the two football grounds in the west of the city centre. We had a walk around the Wisla stadium, where we would be returning the following day. The stadium is what you would expect from the country. Huge barbed wire fences, crumbling terraces and Stalinist architecture. Grafetti covered all of the walls and every accessible window had been smashed at some point. We then crossed the park and within 5 minutes we were outside the home of Cracovia with its smart red and white seats. As with all of the stadiums in eastern Europe, three of the stands were open air and behind each goal the basic terraces had become overcome with weeds. We are now used to modern all seater stadiums in England, and although there is a growing call for a move back to some sort of terracing, having seen the state of the grounds in Poland, and the issues they have with hooliganism it is enough to push our thinking back to 100% seating.

We headed into the city centre, past the wonderful Astro hotel which sat squarely next to Cracovia’s stadium. The hotel is one of the relics of the Communist ages – a huge concrete block with an interior that was a slate shade of dull grey, and I would imagine customer service to match. What made it all the better was that it was located opposite the Radisson SAS, with its impressive glass exterior and Mercedes lined up outside. Hmmm – in the age of customer choice what would you go for??

We wandered around the old town for a while, with its huge square similar in design (and crowds) to St Marks or Grand Place in Brussels. With only a couple of hours to spend in the city we needed to get the most out of our visit so we chose to take one of the Golf Cart tours of the city. Chosing one who spoke absolutely no English we set off at a pace, with the two girls sitting behind our driver and me sitting right at the back of the vehicle facing backwards – which initially was great as I got the views as we wizzed through the crowded back streets. Every so often we would stop, the speaker above our head would crackle into live and an American voice would give us a line of commentary about a particular building, punctuated by our driver pointing at something in the distance. All of this was fine until we headed onto the ring road and started driving at top speed (around 25mph in a cart). Hanging on the back of a golf cart with no protection was bad enough, but having Polish lorry drivers accelerating towards you was enough to scare anyone. We spent 90 minutes driving around the sites of the city, including a visit to Oskar Schindler’s factory. Well, we assume it was his – after driving through some of the most unattractive industrial estates in Europe, with factories boarded up left, right and centre we arrived at a derelict building with a temporary sign saying that this factory belonged to Oskar Schindler and it was currently closed for refurbishment. I can only assume that based on the state of repair it will be 2050 before it sees light of day. After driving around for over an hour, seeing some lovely buildings, some strange commentary and some near misses with pedestrians we were all feeling a little bit tired, but passing down the outer ring road Jo sprang to life – “Look – porn shops”..For those of you not familiar with Football Jo see the entry for Fuerth in September 2007.

Back at the Palace in the country we ate a full Polish banquet featuring at least four different types of dead animals, we hit the sauce….The girls had decided to try some local wine, but any attempts at ordering any resulted in either Vodka or water – very impressive girls – and if you have never heard of someone trying to describe Chateaux Neuf de Pap to a non-English and French speaker then get yourself over to Poland sharpish – almost Sid Jameseque!

Sunday morning was initially going to be a leisurely visit to the spa before heading off to Auschwitz. However, as the swimming pool was still being filled from the cold tap, and someone was already in the garden pond one was company and two let alone three would have been a crowd so we headed west to the scene of the biggest crime ever committed against humanity.

I am not going to dwell on the visit there in much detail. I had expected a peaceful place full of reflection but what we found was dozens of tour buses, full of snap happy tourists taking pictures of every element of the camp. The site is divided in two – Auschwitz was the original camp, and is very much still in tact as it was when liberated in 1945. All of the buildings were still in place and exhibits had been set up in most buildings. However, with the sun shining, people wandering around in shorts, children laughing and playing the mood was completely different to what I expected. What you cannot be prepared for though is the immense size of the second camp – Auschwitz Birkenau which is located around a mile away. Whilst most of the buildings were destroyed after the way it was here that you could still see the sheer size of the camp, and what horrors went on here.

Whilst I did not particularly enjoy the visit due to the atmosphere, I was glad that I had been there and coming in a week where there had been speculation around the removal of the Haulocast from the schools curriculum I fail to see what benefit this would give anyone. There is no denying the horror that went on there and whilst we can try and forgive we can never forget and this should be the same for all generations. However, my overwhelming memory of the day wasn’t the conditions, the sad stories but a lonely man sitting on the steps of one of the detention blocks with his head in his hands. Now I could have read the situation completely wrong and that he was overwhelmed with the camp but bearing in mind he had a Leicester City shirt on, and 10 minutes previously their relegation from the Championship had been confirmed I would suggest it was due to this. But why on earth would you chose 1) To come to a place like Auschwitz on such a day and 2) To wear a Leicester City shirt in the first place. Poor man – I assume he is now in councilling.

We left the camp, heading across the road for some more classic Polish customer service in a restaurant. This time you ordered at the till and then waited around until someone held up a place and shouted something completely different, whereby there would be a scrum to get to the dish. The waitress would then shout No a few times and give it to the meakest person in the crowd. I gave up being forward and left it to the girls to get our food by smiling sweetly – and sure enough within minutes we were tucking into our strange grey looking meat – mmm lovely. Whilst my macabre side is never far from the surface I did wonder what sort of cruel punishment it was to set up a fast food restaurant across the barb wire fence from a concentration camp.

We headed back east to Krakow in time for the Wisla game. Whilst I am a seasoned traveller, I am sometimes suprised at the location of some places. Before I visited Slovakia I had an impression it was further east. Macedonia further south and Luxembourg interesting! However, less than 2 hours drive eastwards from Poland is Lviv – one of the biggest cities in Ukraine…Ukraine is almost in a different continent and here it was on a roadsign in front of me. I almost had a Thelma and Louise moment and considered driving on past Krakow and heading for the land of Chernobyl, Dynamo Kiev and tall stroppy blondes, but being the responsible Father I felt for the little Fullers who would have probably been fed of up “You would have laughed” stories from my sister in law.

We parked in the same spot – quite literally – on the north of the park and with the sun still shining headed to the centre of the grass to have a sit, a beer and enjoy the weather. So this was where Danny Dyer thought it was “gonna get a bit naughty”. Wisla fans, families and couples sat around enjoying the weather not running amock as Greenwich’s finest had described. However, one fact did ring true – we had not seen a single non-white face (apart from the tourists at Auschwitz) in the city. Racism in Polish football is a real problem, and with so little integration of non-Whites you can see why.
This became evident when we entered the stadium. We headed off to the stadium with a few minutes of sunshine left in the day. The queues from the ticket windows were non-existent, as if the fans had simply decided to boycott the game in favour of a BBQ (well we would do this in England!). With my Polish now coming along in bounds (well I had printed a map of the stadium, written the number 3 on it and an arrow to where we wanted to sit) I acquired the tickets for less than £10 in the main stand, although with the redevelopment of the stadium 50% completed, the main stand is nowhere near as luxurious as it sounds.

The stadium is hoping to become one of the venues to be used in Euro2012. At the moment the organising committee have selected Poznan, Gdansk, Warsaw and Chorzow as their four venues, but with only Poznan having a stadium even remotely started, the Poles have applied for permission to use a 5th venue, which will be the Wisla Stadium. It will be a modern fully functional stadium when complete, but for now you have to make do with two modern single tier stands that run down the side of the pitch, the old main stand (the pitch was rotated 90 degrees when building work commenced) is an open air affair which for our visit was more than adequate in the early evening sunshine with cramped seating. At the far end the away terrace had seen better days to say the least and actually was one of the most inhospitable sections I have seen for many a year – crumbling terrace steps, barbed wire and high fences. That in itself was not an issue as LKS Lodz had only brought 17 fans!

The game itself was a cracker – 7 goals, 5 of which went to the home team but what was the overwhelming memory wasn’t the comical defending on both sides, or the unbelievable decision by the linesman to award a penalty to Wisla for a handball that a) hit the defender in the chest, b) was from a forward in an offside position and c) was at least 2 yards outside the penalty area, but was the racial abuse dished out to one of the away team’s substitutes as he warmed up. My colleague to my left said it was the same for every team – even Wisla had booed and chanted at their own players who were mixed race. With four years until they host a major tournament you have to wonder how these same fans would re-act at seeing the likes of Micah Richards, Thierry Henry or Ryan Babel playing in these stadiums. Recently the BBC did a report from Legia Warsaw concerning this issue, and the so-called “experts” from our media said that seeing such players as Henry and Drogba (does he actually realise that he plays for Ivory Coast, who as far as I am aware are not part of UEFA!) would turn them immediately into non-racists! Oh how live must be rosey in the offices of the Independent!

I had expected something a bit more lively from the home crowd. There was no flares, co-ordinated chanting or banners. Perhaps it was the weather or the end of season meaningless of the game but the fans acted like they were on medication! Perhaps I had come on the wrong day, but my impression of Polish football was more like that from the League of Wales!

So, after an eventless drive back to Katowice (both girls asleep and thus no talking bollocks about Kerry Katona) we came to the end of another cracking weekend away. Marks out of ten for Krakow as a weekend venue – 8. Marks out of ten for Polish football – 2. To coin a phrase from Bob Hoskins in the Long Good Friday – “Polish Hooligans – I’ve shit ’em!”…and Mr Dyer – in future trying visiting some of these games in the summer when people are a tad more relaxed and not worried about losing their fingers due to frost bite! And finally, for my depressed Leicester fan from Auschwitz, don’t worry – next season when Nottingham Forest play their local derbies against Derby County, you can start new rivalries with local teams such as Northampton Town and MK Dons.

About the Stadion Wisly
The Wisla stadium has been home to Wisla Krakow since May 1953 when a 35,000 capacity stadium opened its doors, replacing the smaller Oleandy arena was finally closed. The new stadium was a converted speedway track, with simple mud mounds placed behind the goals and two simple stands along the side of the pitch.

Very few changes took place with the stadium until the arrival of Polish millionaire Boguslaw Cupial in the late 1990’s. He started a slow but thorough redevelopment of the stadium that saw each side being rebuilt to form the smart stadium we see today. However, plans have been drawn up for a more ambitious redevelopment that will see a new 35,500 seater stadium rise from the ashes of the current stadium. It was first thought that the new stadium could be built to hold 40,000 and host both clubs from Krakow but opposition from both sets of fans saw this idea soon dropped. Today the stadium has gone through a 50% development with the pitched turned through 90 degrees and new side stands complete with roofs added. The traditional main stand is still being used but the crumbling open air terrace has now been condemned. Work will only progress when funding (see below) has been secured.

Currently the stadium is on the reserve list for 2012 – at the moment only 8 cities have been included in this list, with Gdansk, Warsaw, Poznan and Chorzaw being chosen for Poland. However, the Polish FA have petitioned UEFA to increase the venues to 5 each for Ukraine and Poland, and if accepted (as it was in Euro2004 in Portugal) Krakow would become the final venue.

Who plays there?
The Wisly is home to one of Poland’s greatest ever teams, and certainly one of the most famous – Wisla Krakow. However, for long periods of their history they were known as Wisla Towarzystwo Sportowe, only changing their name back to the much more pronounceable Wisla in 1997. The “White Stars” joined the first ever Polish Championships in the 1920’s, winning the title in 1927 and 1928. During the next decade they could not add to this title count but did finish runners up on three occasions as well as winning the Polish Cup for the first time.

It took until after the end of the Second World War for the team to start to dominate again, winning the league in 1949 and 1950 before they went into a period of decline that even saw them relegated on a number of occasions. They reached the top division again in the mid 1970’s and captured a single title in 1978 which allowed them to enter the European Cup for the first time. In a remarkable run they reached the quarter finals where they lost surprisingly to eventual finalists Malmo. The turning point in the clubs history came in 2000 when they were runners up in the league and the cup. The club hurt from this double defeat and increased their level of effort the following season, winning the league at a canter. Since 2001 they have not finished out of the top two, winning the title for three consecutive years in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Unfortunately they have not yet been able to translate domestic honours into European success. On four occasions the club have been knocked out of the qualifying rounds of the Champions league – although in 2005 they took Panathinaikos to extra time in the final round before losing 5-4.

How to get there
The Wisly Stadion is located on the north side of the Blonia open grounds, and about a kilometre away from rivals Cracovia which is visible from the south side of the stadium. It is no more than a 15 minute walk from the old town – simply head westwards down Szewska from Rynek and then turn left into Krupnicza. This road will then become ul Reymonta and the stadium is on the left hand side immediately after the park. Tram lines 15 and 18 terminate just to the south of the stadium.

Getting a ticket
Tickets can be purchased in advanced but only from the ticket windows on the north or south sides of the stadium. On match day the queues for tickets can be long and so unless you arrive an hour or so before hand it is prudent to get your pre match day. Tickets start from 30Zloty in the open stands to 120Zloty in the covered main stand.

About the Stadion Cracovia
Stadion Cracovia is nowadays more commonly known as the Jana Pawla II stadium – the John Paul II stadium after the previous Pope who was born in the city (and rumoured to be a Cracovia fan. It is very similar to a number of stadiums in Poland with one single semi-covered stand, and three sides of open air seating. Since the stadium originally opened in 1912 there have been few changes, apart from the conversion to all seater. With the redevelopment of the Wisla Stadion across the park still not finalised, the club have submitted ambitious plans for their own redeveloped arena – as you can see below.

Who plays there?
The Cracovia is home to the team of the same name – the oldest club side in Poland. They can trace their roots back to 1894 although the current club were officially formed in June 1906. The club were one of the few travelling ambassadors for the club, travelling far and wide to play friendlies against clubs in Budapest, Vienna, Paris and even London.

In the early 1920’s Polish football began in earnest with the first ever national championship. Cracovia won this in 1921 to gain another “first”. In 1928 they won the title again, by this time known as the Polish National Championship. They won it again in 1932 but less than two years later they managed to get themselves relegated.

After the end of the war, the two teams fro Krakow surprisingly led the war in post war Polish football. In 1948 the club won the championship for the last time after holding off a strong challenge from Wisla Krakow. Since then they have floated between the top two divisions, falling further behind city rivals Wisla. In fact they have even fallen as low as the fourth division at some points during the past 20 years. It does seem today that some consistency has returned to the club after successive top half table finishes, the last one in 2007 being in 4th place.

How to get there
The stadium is located on the western fringes of the old town, alongside the busy Al Focha road. From Rynek it should take no more than 10 minutes to walk to the stadium. Alternatively catch buses 109, 134 or152 which terminate at the stadium. The stadium is located across the park from bitter local rivals Wisla Krakow, which does lead to problems on occasions when both teams are at home on the same day.

Getting a ticket
Tickets can be purchased from the ticket windows around the ground on a matchday. The most expensive seats in the covered main stand cost 200Zloty. For a seat in the uncovered part of the stand you will pay between 100 and 125Zloty. For a place in the uncovered stand opposite then a ticket here will cost 90Zloty. See the stadium map below for more details.

Tickets can be purchased in advanced from Sklep Kibica in ul Wielicka 101 from 9am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday. With an average attendance of less than 4,000 you should have no difficulty getting a ticket for most games.

Getting around
The centre of Krakow is compact – full of narrow cobbled streets and wide open squares and plazas where walking is definitely the best option. Trams and buses run outwards from the edges of the old town daily from 5am to 11pm. Tickets can be purchased from newsstands and some stops with automatic ticket machines. A single ticket for either bus or tram is 2.50Zloty, a day travel pass is 10.40Zloty.

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