What is it like being a socially distanced fan at a football match?
- Credit: Casey Cooper-Fiske
Polish football fans are known around Europe for their passion, and the deafening noise within the country’s stadiums.
But, like every arena around the world, those stadia have fallen silent for three months as Coronavirus has transformed the sporting experience.
Fortunately for Polish football fans, the country has seen one of Europe’s lowest coronavirus infection rates, meaning it has been one of the first to get people back into grounds.
Travelling with a Polish friend, I took a trip to Warsaw to see what football looks like during a pandemic.
Fans were allowed back into grounds from June 19, albeit with a capacity of 25%.
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I was among the 7,680 fans at Legia Warsaw’s 31,000-seater Polish Army Stadium on Sunday.
And while the crowd may have been smaller, it was a chance to celebrate, with their game against Pogon Szczecin seeing them crowned Polish champions for the 15th time.
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Before all that though there was the task of getting a ticket.
Legia’s season ticket holders and members were allowed to purchase tickets on open sale from the Monday before the game, with the public able to pick up the leftovers on Wednesday.
After some negotiations over appropriate ID, my friend managed to secure a pair on the phone. Phew - my Polish would not have been up to the job.
On match day, the pre-match atmosphere was familiar - fans enjoying a chat and a drink outside the stadium just as they had pre-lockdown.
When I entered the stadium however, things began to look a little different.
I was given a nerve-wracking temperature check at the ticket office, before joining a socially distanced queue at the turnstiles.
As I entered the ground, stewards checked my ID and gave me a squirt of hand sanitizer before the usual frisk for any prohibited items.
Once on the concourse, supporters were required to wear masks when moving around and can only take them off while seated, with supporters well distanced.
From our point of view, there were around four or five empty seats between each group to the side, and one empty seat in front and behind.
It felt strange to be sat apart in the ground - but safe - and it didn’t stop the fans making some noise.
Once the game was under way, that Polish roar was in full effect, and there were times you forgot the stadium is usually brimming with nearly 25,000 more of the Legia army.
Away goals were greeted with the odd polite clap from the home support during their 2-1 defeat, with no away fans currently allowed in.
When Legia did pull a goal back in the 93rd minute, there were only muted celebrations - perhaps owing to the fact it was awarded by VAR.
My friend, Ewelina Maj who has lived in England for the past six years, tries to watch the team whenever she is back in Poland. She said the experience was still worth it.
“I think the experience is great, even though only 25% can come in at the moment, I think everyone did an incredible job chanting and supporting the team.
“It doesn’t really feel that much different to usual. Safety-wise stewards do a great job reminding people to keep their masks on when walking around and I can definitely say I felt as safe as anyone can during this time which is obviously hard for everyone.”
During the match we were constantly reminded of the rules on the stadium’s two big screens, including an in one door out the other system for toilets (people still shuffle past to go mid-game just as they had pre-COVID).
Eagle-eyed stewards enforced the mask policy strictly and on the whole the experience felt safe and just as exciting as any match pre-lockdown, helped by Legia’s passionate ultras who are still able to create a cauldron of noise led by their drummer.
Norwich City’s season ends on Sunday and I, like many other supporters, can’t wait to return to Carrow Road.
It seems that it will be baby steps to get to where Poland currently is, with a reopening date for stadiums in England still unsure.
But if my Polish trip is anything to go by, even a small number of the Canaries faithful can enjoy a game safely.