WARSAW (Reuters) - A thrilling 1-1 draw between old adversaries Poland and Russia was marred by the worst fan violence of soccer’s European Championship so far on Tuesday, with 123 fans arrested after running street battles in Warsaw.
Riot police were pelted with missiles including rocks, flares and bottles, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at fans in response after bloody fighting broke out on the bridge across the Vistula river leading to the national stadium.
The match always promised to be a highly-charged affair due to centuries of conflict between the two countries and the Soviet domination of Poland after World War two.
Around 20,000 Russian fans were in the Polish capital for the Group A clash, held on Russia’s Independence Day, and before kickoff a huge flag was unfurled with the highly inflammatory slogan “This Is Russia”.
An estimated 100,000 Poles gathered in the city’s main square to watch the match but their hearts sunk when Alan Dzagoyev put Russia ahead after 37 minutes.
Poland skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski equalized after 57 minutes with an unstoppable shot to earn the co-hosts a second consecutive draw which means they will reach the quarter-finals if they beat the Czech Republic in their final Group A game.
“For sure the fans are supporting us in a great way,” Poland coach Franciszek Smuda told reporters, perhaps unaware of the chaotic scenes in the city before kickoff.
“We have four days to prepare for the Czechs. The players need to rest and we will fight till the end with the Czechs.”
Russia top Group A with four points and a draw against Greece in their final game will seal a quarter-final berth while Poland must beat the Czechs to progress.
In Wroclaw, Greece slid towards the exit door after losing 2-1 to the Czechs who had lost 4-1 to Russia in their opener.
With one point from two games, Euro 2004 winners Greece must now beat Russia in their final match to have any chance of surviving.
Poles draped in the national red and white colors flooded on to the streets and into the bars across the country ready for a party but events off the pitch threatened to overshadow it.
Russian fans had been allowed by the Polish authorities to march to the National stadium to watch their team play in a fixture weighed down with historical significance given the complicated relationship between the two neighbors.
Russian fan leaders had promised the march would be peaceful and said it had been organized to celebrate “the festival of football” on Russia Day. However, when the supporters reached the Poniatowskigo bridge sporadic fighting broke out.
The violence escalated among groups of young men, some wearing masks, and riot police had to drag supporters away. Reuters witnesses saw one man hit on the head by an iron bar hurled through the air and 10 people needed medical treatment.
Some Poles displayed a banner saying ‘Polish president murdered in Russia’, referring to a plane crash two years ago near Smolensk in western Russia that killed Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.
“You could see on both the Polish and the Russian sides that it was organized groups of hooligans, quite small groups,” said Polish fan Maciej Kowalski.
A film on YouTube showed a Polish fan lying unconscious on the bridge surrounded by police and reporters although media reports of a fatality were denied by Poland’s Interior Ministry.
On the pitch 300 km away, the Czechs stunned Greece with two goals in the opening six minutes, the fastest 2-0 lead in European Championship history, but had to hang on desperately at the end to secure all three points.
Petr Jiracek rifled in the opening goal before Vaclav Pilar bundled in the second to send the Czech fans, who vastly outnumbered their Greek counterparts, into delirium.
The sporting Gods did not favor Greece, however.
A Giorgos Fotakis effort was disallowed for off-side and they lost goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias who limped off to be replaced by Michalis Sifakis.
Czech keeper Petr Cech offered Greece hope when he let an innocuous-looking ball slip through his hands to the feet of substitute Fanis Gekas who swept the ball into an empty net.
While the matches have provided great entertainment, off-field issues have dogged the co-hosts and UEFA said it was to investigate alleged racist chanting during the Spain v Italy and Russia v Czech Republic matches.
Italy striker Antonio Cassano also issued an apology on Tuesday for comments about homosexuals.
Asked at a Euro 2012 news conference earlier in the day about media reports there were two “secret” gays in the Italy squad, he said: “That’s their problem. I hope there isn’t one in the national team.”
He later said he was “sincerely sorry”.
Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris