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Hooliganism mars Euro 2012

WARSAW -- Street violence and alleged racism in the stands at Euro 2012 have thrown the spotlight squarely on the interplay between soccer hooliganism, the far right and organized crime in Eastern Europe.

Even before the start of the first-ever edition of the European championship behind the former Iron Curtain, there were warnings of hooliganism, notably during matches such as Tuesday's fixture between co-hosts Poland and historical rivals Russia.

More than 180 people, mostly Poles, were detained during street brawls in Warsaw, as police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to bringing marauding fans under control.

Inside the stadiums, meanwhile, Croatian and Russian fans have lit flares, and the latter also beat up stewards, while UEFA is investigating claims that black players have been taunted.

Since the communist bloc crumbled two decades ago, the region's stadiums have proved fertile ground for those who lionize England's once-notorious hooligan “firms” or gangs — but have taken things to a whole new level.

“An individual can at the same time be in a far-right group, a hooligan group and a drug-dealer group,” Serbian security analyst Zoran Dragisic told AFP.

In Poland, police estimates put the hardcore hooligan element at up to 5,000.

While that is a minority of the tens of thousands who attend league matches — and a drop in the ocean in a nation of 38.2 million — they still have the potential to sow mayhem.

In reality, Polish hooligans tend to gravitate around clubs, not the national team, explaining why fears of Polish hooligans at the 2006 World Cup in Germany or Euro 2008 in Austria fizzled out.

There was, however, trouble at a 2011 friendly away to Lithuania.

“Real club hooligans aren't interested in Euro 2012,” said Warsaw expert Janusz Czapinski.

“If they had gone into action in Warsaw, the 6,000 police officers deployed in the capital wouldn't have been enough and the situation would have been far more serious.”

The gangs ally with counterparts in other cities and various league levels to draft muscle for “ustawki” — pre-arranged brawls with rivals which have claimed lives in the past.

Long accused of doing too little, and mindful of the Euro 2012 spotlight, Polish authorities cracked down after violence marred the May 2011 Cup Final.

A blanket ban on away fans was imposed for all remaining matches that season, with ad hoc sanctions for clubs in the 2011-2012 season — a broad-brush approach that angered ordinary fans.

Poland has beefed up electronic tagging and slapped stadium bans on some 2,000 individuals.

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