Democracy 1, communism 0: The football match that put Poland on the path the freedom

How power of football changed Poland
How power of football changed Poland


    How power of football changed Poland


How power of football changed Poland 04:14

Story highlights

  • The match between Lechia Gdansk and Juventus fueled the downfall of communism
  • At half time the crowd began chanting "Solidarity" -- a party which had been banned
  • The stadium and the match, had become a refuge for protest

Much is made of the power of football: the way "the beautiful game" transcends cultural boundaries, knits together communities and makes grown men cry.

But perhaps football's greatest --and most little-known -- achievement was its role in the downfall of communism in Europe.

When Polish team Lechia Gdansk faced off against Italian club Juventus in the 1983 UEFA Cup Winner's Cup, Gdansk's stadium was packed with Polish supporters. And, while the Italian side may have won the match (a respectable 3-2), the truest triumph belonged to Gdansk.

At the time, Poland was under martial law: soldiers patrolled the streets, the country's borders were sealed and activists were imprisoned without charge. Defiance of communist rule was considered crushed. But here, in this stadium, something shifted.

At half-time, the thousands-strong crowd began chanting the name of revolutionary Polish trade union Solidarity, which, in trying to activate social change, had been banned under martial law. Solidarity's leader, the charismatic Lech Walesa, stood, revered, among the unified crowd. Some years later, he would be president.

Saving the 'Polish Sahara'
Saving the 'Polish Sahara'


    Saving the 'Polish Sahara'


Saving the 'Polish Sahara' 02:57

"I remember the atmosphere," Jarzy Jastrzebowski, says the club's trainer at the time. "It was unforgettable."

He recalls how, at half-time, "In the dressing room we heard all this noise and people were chanting 'Solidarity!' (Then) we saw Lech Walesa getting up and raising his hand (to make) the famous Solidarity symbol."

That Gdansk would rally behind this revolution should come as no surprise: the Solidarity movement began in the city's shipyards. It was the birthplace of an organization that, according to Karol Nawrocki and Mariusz Kordek in their book, "Lechia v Juventus - More Than a Game", 10 million people belonged to in the early 1980s. And, as the match showed, Gdansk was more than Solidarity's birthplace, it was its beating heart.

Rations, curfews, reduced civil liberties and a crumbling economy characterized Poland at this time. But, as Jastrzebowski puts it, "This match gave us a lot. A new ideology and new freedom was born, because people couldn't express what they wanted to freely in the streets."

The stadium, the match, had become a refuge for protest. And it left no doubt that the ruling Communist government had failed to quash its opposition.

State television censored transmission of the game, showing it without sound following the half-time chants, worried the rest of the country would hear the dissension. But it was too late.

Walesa himself has summed up the power of that day, supposing the authorities had only allowed him to attend the match because "they didn't think Solidarity still had any life in it. But they were wrong. That match gave us some strength for what would come next".

What came next was years of struggle that ended with the 1989 Round Table Agreement, in which Walesa played a seminal part. This paved the way for semi-free parliamentary elections in Poland, a Solidarity-led government, and inspired a wave of revolutions that brought down communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Come 1990, Walesa was in office as president.

Not many may know what a football match in Gdansk did for democracy in Europe, but Lechia Gdansk fans will never forget. Nor will the team's current goalkeeper, Mateusz Bak who was born the same year the match took place.

"Still, in 2014, when you play a game here you can sometimes see a flag in the crowds with the 'Solidarity' name on it," he says. "Our fans remember the times because it happened here, you know? Everything happened here."

Send in your best shots from Poland

      On the Road: Poland

    • The Bledow Desert: Poland's Sahara

      Saving the 'Polish Sahara'

      Poland is home to one of only five natural deserts in Europe. CNN's Paula Newton meets those trying to preserve it.
    • John Paul II family house in Wadowice, Poland

      Hometown boy made good

      Pope John Paul II called Wadowice, the small Polish town in which he was born, "the place where it all began."
    • 25 years of change

      CNN's Paula Newton on the "pope effect" and how the country has dealt with huge changes.
    • Cooking up a storm

      Polish cities, attitudes and styles: they've all developed their own distinct identities. But can the same now be achieved with Polish cuisine?
    • A series of photos from Wroclaw's Market Square are stitched together to create an alternative perspective of the Polish city.

      Wroclaw on Instagram

      In this creative age of camera phones and photo apps, what better way to learn about a city from afar than through the lenses of its eagle-eyed street photographers?
    • spc newton polish national ballet_00015210.jpg

      Poland's ballet on its toes

      For Poland's National Ballet, the present no longer means reveling in the fleet-footed legends of past stage glories.
    • Bigger than Banksy

      Poland has become the land of the giants with a recent spate of colossal street art.
    • Get to know Polish lit

      Polish authors might be little known outside the country, but there are reasons why you should discover them.
    • Medieval majesty

      From vast salt mines to gothic castles, Poland has some surprising and spectacular heritage.
    • Bison survival

      Herds of Europe's largest land mammal are doing well in the country's forests, maybe too well.