#08 sport
Dariusz Lapiński (Łapiński) / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Interview: "We Have to Channel the Football Fans' Energy"

Riots, pyrotechnics, racist slogans – football fans may often appear violent and nationalistic. At the same time, the organisers of huge football tournaments typically promote the events as shining celebrations of intercultural understanding. Dariusz Lapinski was the Polish fan coordinator during the European Football Championship in June 2012. According to him, football fans aren't typically racist or violent, but they need good and lasting guidance. Then football can really be a source of friendship. He tells how fan relations can even result in the construction of orphanages.

What is the task of a fan coordinator?

Hundreds of thousands of people from different nations meet at a European football cup. A fan coordinator has to ensure that they have positive and unforgettable experiences. To this end they need reliable information, logistic support and a certain amount of guidance to provide an open and safe atmosphere. You know, football can be seen from very different points of view: it is business to UEFA and football clubs, it is a security issue for the state, and it is a passion for many supporters. Organisers of major football events always try to combine these elements.

Managing the emotions of fans sounds very complex!

Well, my original job description was in fact much simpler. My employer is PL.2012 – the institution that ensures the implementation of all warranties that were given to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in order to be named host of the Euro 2012. The UEFA asked for social programmes and Fans' Embassies from Poland. I was employed to manage the fan embassies - information points organised by fans for fans during the championship. But I suggested expanding fan relations far beyond just organising these embassies.

You lived in Germany for a long time, where fan relations has a long tradition and is well established....

Germany was my inspiration. The country has a well-organised and active network of professional Fan Projects. I always thought that wouldn't be possible in Poland, where football is clearly connected to violence. But when Poland was named a host of the Euro 2012, I realised that this could be the time for a change. I suggested a fan coordination strategy inspired by the German one and told the organisers that we had to start working in advance if we wanted sustainable effects. So my job emerged out of the obligation to offer Fans' Embassies on the one hand, but also out of the will to do sustainable fan work on the other.

The preconditions are different in Germany and Poland though. Polish fans don't have a reputation as being easy to handle.

Yes, unfortunately the Polish fans don't have many friends – they were even perceived as a potential threat. Therefore, participating in the Euro 2012 was a great opportunity. It was the moment for Polish fans to take responsibility. Our projects are aimed at helping them to take this responsibility and fight the stereotypes.

In recent months, you have been working closely with fans and fan organisations from all over the world. What do you think – do football championships boost violence?

Football doesn't boost anything. Every society has some problems with violence that are pushed into a social niche. That could be a geographical place, it could be religion, a subculture – or it could be football.

But why has football become a niche for violence while swimming has not?

There is one crucial difference between football and most other sports: football has fan groups, with their own identity, strong local roots, and will to compete with others. Sadly, fist fighting is one manner of competing. But there are other options too. For instance, one of our projects was to offer a rugby tournament near where the Irish fans were hosted. This is competition too, but it's not violence.

Wouldn't the best solution be to simply forbid fan activities?

Definitely not. In my opinion, that would be a total waste of potential. The fan's will to compete is the source of tremendous energy. Fans are willing to do so much for their club and their city! Many private sector companies struggle hard to establish these sorts of emotional ties to their customers or employees to no avail. In football it is possible, and it is a great source for activism. We just have to channel this energy the right way.

If the media is correct, Poland has a serious problem with football-related violence. Is there anything you can do at all about – for instance – hooligans?

The truth in the media only randomly corresponds to real life. Poland had a massive problem with violence back in the 80s and 90s, yes. But this is long over, and since then violence has steadily decreased. There are almost no hooligans left – it is a group of 40 or 50 men in per club.. The main problem at the moment is probably the big group of youths ages 12 to 17. They will never become hooligans. But they are looking for someone to compete with, and when they don't find anyone, they push over rubbish bins. I certainly cannot negotiate with hooligans. But of course, I can talk to these youngsters. What they are actually looking for is recognition from the other members of their group, not violence. With them, fan projects can really make a difference.

So fan work seeks to address these young people and ensure they assume responsibility. What sort of projects do you try to attract them with?

First we started the "Football Fans in Their City" initiative. We organised a cycle of workshops with 20 to 30 participants each – football fans as well as local authorities, NGOs, institutions related to football, and even representatives of German fan projects. This was designed to increase cooperation between the fans and local authorities. Second we implemented fan projects called "Supporters United". We created reunion points where they could meet and spend time together, led by two full-time employees. This is perfectly normal in Germany – the country has around 50 fan projects. In Poland we have now established four at least. These activities also turned out to be a good opportunity for recruiting staff for the Fans' Embassies: the fans' associations we cooperated with chose volunteers from among their members. Fans' Embassies are meeting points that offer information, guidance or professional assistance to football fans during the championship. The host country's embassies are stationary, while other nations install mobile embassies that travel from city to city, following their national team.

So the embassies are not just a fan project – they support the city administration in practical matters, right? Did you cooperate with former football championship host countries in order to be well prepared?

We are in very close contact with Germany, which served in many ways as a model for our work. During the Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland we organised a mobile Polish Fans' Embassy to test things out. I noticed that good cooperation between the organisational committee and Fans' Embassies is crucial. I had the feeling that the local authorities didn't make use of the full potential of Fans' Embassies in many cases. In Poland we improved matters: the municipality and Fans' Embassies worked perfectly together.

Yet despite all your good work, there were serious riots after the Poland-Russia game. Why was this match so problematic?

That was somehow really astonishing. Until just one week before the game there were no signs of any kind of mobilisation. Then in just one week, team spirit turned ugly. The media probably contributed to that, making a big deal of this match. But another major reason might have been the attitude of the Polish fans. Some of them are very patriotic, and they feel that they have to protect their country from a communist invasion. What came across to the Russian fans, of course, was that they were not welcome.

This is probably an example of how football brings any existing antipathy and nationalism to light. These incidents only make matters worse though...

Riots certainly do only add to the problem. But what most people don't know is that two days after the game, a Polish fan association organised a Polish-Russian day. It was a very controversial idea; many people were afraid. But in the end, it was a completely non-violent meeting where both parties told each other very frankly – although somewhat rudely at times – what they thought of the other. This is a step forward in intercultural communication, and football made it possible.

Can you give an example of a time your work actually helped people refrain from violence?

In the beginning, I often joined fan meetings to present our projects. Once I visited a group that had obviously just had a fight a few days before. They weren't at all interested in what I had to tell them. The only thing they wanted to check out was whether I could give them any money. So they stayed. I invited them to the workshops and we did fan projects – I tried to recruit them. Four years later, they had completely changed. They were the first Polish group ever to submit an application for project funding from the EU's "Youth in Action" programme. Their fans' association supports a league for orphanages.

So is football then also a means for building up cooperation and mutual understanding?

Of course! The whole Euro 2012 is a shining example of that. During the championship, when the Polish streets were full of people from all over the world, you could feel this positive spirit everywhere: football can definitely be a common language, a point of understanding and friendship between people. But I can also give you an example of a successful fan project: In a club of fans with disabilities, one member could speak Czech and offered lessons to the other members. Demand was so great that he now has to offer courses on three different levels. Fans were only interested in learning more about the Czech language and culture, for they have a close friendship with a fan group from the Czech Republic.

The Euro 2012 is over – what is going to happen next?

To me it is very important to stress that getting through the championship itself is not our ultimate target, though it was our motivation. Our work must go on, of course, and it has to have the support of many people if it is to lead to a long-term cultural transformation.

What recommendations would you pass on to other fan coordinators of future host countries?

First, they need a lot of patience. Fan coordinators don't really have a say since the championship is mainly a business event. Second, they shouldn't start with ready-made approaches. They need to listen to people to find out what they want and need before developing their fan coordination concept. Many amazing projects have failed due to a lack of patience. And many do-gooders didn't succeed in making people happy simply because they did not listen to them.

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