City of Knives by Sarah Begum
Politics with Ukraine and Russia currently have Poland on edge. I was exposed to a different kind of conflict.
Krakow is known as the most dangerous city in Europe, divided by ruthless football gangs. “The Sharks” and the “Jude Gang” have been at Holy War with each other for over twenty years. The “City of Knives” marks its stories in graffiti on the buildings of every district. I walked past the language on the walls, digesting history whilst inhaling fumes of violence. In the notorious neighbourhoods, the tension was apparent even without a soul in sight.
To understand the football culture here, I had to visit the two biggest rival football teams, Wisla Krakow and Cracovia. Fortunately for me, both teams were playing that weekend. During the Cracovia versus Korona Kielce match, I sat in the commentator’s booth for the first half, brushing up on my Polish football knowledge. “Wisla and Cracovia hate each other! But the violence is within the gangs. Not the football teams” said one source. After walking around the stadium a few times, it was hard for people not to spot me. I was the only “exotic” English woman from press in a pool of men! At half time, I stumbled into a different entrance only to be greeted by a four star General, connected to the owner of the Cracovia team. With affection, he whispered in my ear, “You look like just my daughter”. He kindly helped me gain entry to the VIP lounge where I sat soaking in the sun rays as the ball travelled from right to left on the pitch. I was introduced to a sponsor for both teams. For him, business has no room for division. The match concluded in a draw; 1-1.
I interviewed the player who scored the goal for Korona Kielce in the second half, Michal Janota, who admitted the other team were generally better. I tried to catch Cracovia’s best player, Saidi. He literally tiptoed quietly and vanished out of sight! The press officer laughed at me, “How can you miss Saidi? He’s the only black player on our team!”
The very next day at the Wisla Krakow versus Górnik match, I met a sports journalist who gave me an insight into the rivalry between Wisla and Cracovia. Football teams were disconnected from hooligans and did not in any way want to be associated with their gangs. The final score; 2-3 left Wisla players and fans in despair.
After the match, I was in the press conference and decided to walk out to where the Górnik fans were gathered, half naked and chanting, as one would expect them to. I walked as close as I could until my face was almost pressed against the sheet of glass that separated us. The whole group turned their attention from the pitch to me. I took the opportunity to wave and smile at them. They responded. But then, they started waving their hands in the air with huge smiles spread across their faces, chanting. Stunned then stunted by the language barrier, I asked a local journalist what they were saying.
The translation was, “Show us your boobs!” Some things are just universal. Whilst waiting for the players to come out, I told the press assistant what had happened. He replied, “That’s their language for ‘you’re beautiful’.” I chuckled.
To fill the hunger that almost burnt a hole in my stomach, I sat in one of the oldest restaurants where the Wisla hooligans hang out, eating the most traditional dish they had to offer; meat, salad and chips. Every woman I set eyes on was either related to the hooligans in some way or a love interest. Except me.
On October 20th 1998 during a Wisla vs Parma match, a 19 year old fan of Wisla Krakow threw a knife at the Italian Midfielder, Dino Baggio who then needed five stitches to the head. The team were then banned from the UEFA and European soccer for a whole season. The attacker was identified as Pawel Michalski and this man walked into the restaurant where I was indulging in my Polish meal. A few shady characters lurked about. I found it difficult not to look around and I was definitely catching eyes. A muscle bound wrestler walked in and out of my gaze as I finished my food. Dancing with danger.
Later that week, I met a guy who promised to show me around the most dangerous neighbourhood in Krakow. I jumped into the car at the agreed time and we headed off. Graffiti was a huge part of the gang culture, commemorating spots where hooligans had died. I caught sight of purple eyes sunken in skinheads, draped in grey and white tracksuits, a hint of gold shimmering in the sunlight, image topped with a whiff of smoke. They look dehumanised, I thought. The driver wouldn’t stop the car even thought I insisted. From the Wisla neighbourhood, we entered where Cracovia dominated. I was driven through a street where Wisla supporters lived on one side and Cracovia the other.
Another football gang revealed itself, the “Hutnik”. Glimpsing their stadium, I walked into their fight club. Muscle bound men trained in MMA and kickboxing. I enquired. Walking through the narrow passage that led me to a room in the deepest part of the club, I walked straight into workout. To my right were a couple of men sitting down, energising. I glanced around me. Stares bounced straight back. Not sure what they were thinking. The men on my right connected me to the instructor. A kickboxing session was in place and I was invited to play. I pointed to my black leather knee high boots and Levi denim body suit with one eyebrow raised. They all gathered around, smiles suggesting I take it all off. Again, no surprise. We all laughed and shook hands. I thanked them for the offer and kindly rejected, making way back to the car. Successful contact.
Heading into a gym in search of the “Sharks”. I had to get through the little girls’ gymnastics first. I was allowed to look, maybe touch but definitely not allowed to film. I walked in alone at first and met a heavily built man who kindly answered a few questions for me about the training. I couldn’t help but notice the “Sharks” tattoo on his arm. I looked around and noticed nearly every man had a similar emblem on their body or on their clothes. I asked him about it. Immediately, he changed his tone deciding not to talk about it. There was a dent on his arm. He explained it was from an axe. With his permission, I rode my fingers gently into the groove of the scar and only imagined the excruciating pain it must have caused him. Then I looked at his physique before realising what he was capable of taking. “They killed my best friend. I must avenge this!” It’s a vicious circle. I was redirected to a “The Chef”. This person seemed unavailable. I explained who I was and what my intention was. Then I stepped into the receptionists’ area and typed my website onto her computer. She acknowledged me and said she would show “The Chef” when he arrives.
With that, I left in perfect peace and of course, in one piece! Respect for privacy is important. Not everything can be played with. Without respect, credibility ceases to exist. A city divided by football gangs, blackened by death. I wanted to dive into the hearts of these gangs, gain an insight into their lives and capture their realities.