The heart of Polish football | Alex Webber

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He moved to Warsaw in the year 2000 intending to only stay a few months, but football loving Alex Webber has been there ever since, travelling the length and breadth of his new home country to cover games from the top to the bottom of the Polish football hierarchy, often risking life and limb.

Legia Warsaw v Rangers, Europa League qualifying playoff, 0-0, August 2019
Legia Warsaw v Glasgow Rangers, Europa League qualifying playoff, 0-0, August 2019. © Alex Webber

“I’ve been gassed more times than I can count,” he said. “Pelted with seats and rocks, arrested, soaked with p*ss, spat on, mistaken for undercover police, and been kicked, punched and chased.

“If you’re taking photos of fans, I think it’s pointless to skulk at the back. You need to be in the thick of the action.”

That obviously comes with “associated hazards,” as Webber lightly puts it.

“Currently, I’m awaiting surgery on a ruptured ACL sustained while escaping from a geezer swinging a plank at me whilst all hell broke loose around us,” he said. 

“Curiously when I collapsed on the floor shrieking in agony after my knee gave way, he dropped his chosen weaponry and was the first to come to my aid! 

“Mate, I wanted to say, one moment you’re going to cave my skull in, the next you’ve gone full Florence Nightingale.”

Slask Wroclaw v Legia Warsaw (photo of away end), top flight, 0-3, December 2019
Slask Wroclaw v Legia Warsaw (photo of away end), top flight, 0-3, December 2019. © Alex Webber

“I’ve been gassed more times than I can count, pelted with seats and rocks, arrested, soaked with p*ss, spat on, mistaken for undercover police, and been kicked, punched and chased.”

Alex Webber
Widzew Lodz v Slask Wroclaw, Polish Cup first round, 1-0, September 2019
Widzew Lodz v Slask Wroclaw, Polish Cup first round, 1-0, September 2019. © Alex Webber

If nothing else, it summed up for Webber what he describes as the bewildering contradictions that he so loves about football in Poland.

“The intention was to stick around for no longer than a year, but here I am twenty-two years later. There’s a heap of Polish clubs that I keep an eye out for, but due to the intricate (and often baffling) system of inter-club rivalries and alliances, I’m not going to reveal them as you never know who you might upset. I’m tediously fond of saying that I’ve got more clubs than Tiger Woods, but I’m actually not joking.”

GKS Tychy v Widzew Lodz, second tier, 1-1, September 2021
GKS Tychy v Widzew Lodz, second tier, 1-1, September 2021. © Alex Webber

“I’m awaiting surgery on a ruptured ACL sustained while escaping from a geezer swinging a plank at me whilst all hell broke loose around us.”

Alex Webber
Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-2, June 2021
Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-2, June 2021. © Alex Webber

Polish football has played a reoccurring key role for Webber since he first began following Bristol City.

“My all-time hero is ‘the Polish George Best’, Dariusz ‘Jacki’ Dziekanowski,” he said.

“Though he spent just one year at Bristol City in the early 90s, he became something of a cultural icon. Blistering (and wasted) talent aside, his playboy lifestyle made him a rare, exotic treasure. 

“I’ve met him several times since moving to Poland, and I’m always reduced to the state of a stammering, starstruck teenager. 

They say ‘never meet your heroes’, but Jacki is an absolute diamond. Unfortunately for him, whenever I run into him it’s the norm for me to babble about my favourite ever match, a game in which he came on against Wolves to score a brace in the dying seconds. 

“Poor bloke clearly doesn’t remember me from Adam, but has heard this so many times from me – the random little drunk dude that menaces him once every couple of years – that he must think that there’s an army of Bristol City fans living in Poland.”

Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-1, September 2022
Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-1, September 2022. © Alex Webber
Moto-Jelcz Olawa v Gornik Walbrzych (away end), fifth tier, match abandoned at 2-0, October 2022
Moto-Jelcz Olawa v Gornik Walbrzych (away end), fifth tier, match abandoned at 2-0, October 2022. © Alex Webber
Cracovia v Pogon Szczecin, top flight, 1-1, March 2022
Cracovia v Pogon Szczecin, top flight, 1-1, March 2022. © Alex Webber

It was Italia 90 that kick started Webber’s football fascination and he recalls vividly every detail about his first match, a 4-2 thriller played out in “the damp and drizzle” of Ashton Gate. 

“It wasn’t the football though that stole my heart,” he said. “It was everything else around it. The sights, sounds, smells and different sensations.”

Throughout the 90s he travelled up and down England with Bristol City. “It was an absolute blast,” he recalled, “though little did I realise that this would later come to be regarded as the last great decade before domestic football sold its soul to the highest bidder. 

“What did I have to show for these years? Nothing – just blurred memories.”

“It wasn’t the football though that stole my heart, It was everything else around it. The sights, sounds, smells and different sensations.”

Alex Webber

Living in Poland has afforded Webber a second chance to savour a nation’s football transformation. 

“Poland is at precisely that same point England was in the 90s – everything from the stadiums to the fans inside them are changing and often not for the better’, he said. 

“I strongly believe that there is a historic and social value in capturing and recording these changes as they occur in real time.

“I’m a bit mindful of coming across as having an inflated sense of self-importance, as there are several people, and far superior photographers, operating in Polish football. That said, I hope my approach is a bit more 360 in its scope.”

Webber says there is a very active community of ‘storm chasers’ that cover the more feisty side of Polish football, but only fleetingly do they present its more benign face. “On the flip side, there are also many fanatical groundhopping bloggers, but only rarely do they cover the more hair-razing aspects of Polish football. It’s my hope that by joining the beauty with the beast, I can offer a more unique, balanced and textured view.”

Sola Oswiecim v Stal Rzeszow (away end), fourth tier, 2-1, April 2019
Sola Oswiecim v Stal Rzeszow (away end), fourth tier, 2-1, April 2019. © Alex Webber
Orzel Przeworsk v JKS Jaroslaw, fifth tier, 0-0, August 2021
Orzel Przeworsk v JKS Jaroslaw, fifth tier, 0-0, August 2021. © Alex Webber

“Poland is at precisely that same point England was in the 90s – everything from the stadiums to the fans inside them are changing and often not for the better.”

Alex Webber
Sarmacja Bedzin v Pogon Imielin, sixth tier, 3-0, September 2021
Sarmacja Bedzin v Pogon Imielin, sixth tier, 3-0, September 2021. © Alex Webber
Mieszko Gniezno v Jarota Jarocin (picture of the away end), fifth tier, 3-1, August 2019
Mieszko Gniezno v Jarota Jarocin (picture of the away end), fifth tier, 3-1, August 2019. © Alex Webber

Webber describes his cameras as “entry level.” 

“A Nikon 3400 and a Nikon 5300”, he says. “Lens-wise, I’m mostly reliant on the default 18-55, though also occasionally break out the 55-200. And, of course, there’s the nifty fifty! To edit, Lightroom has proved a game changer, although I still struggle sometimes to resist the urge to go over-the-top using its bells and whistles.

“I’m a devoted fan of both Mike Bayly (British Footballs Greatest Grounds) and Dave Harry. Looking at their stunning stadium images is like being secretly ushered into a parallel world. I don’t think I’ve seen a single picture taken by either Mike or Dave that hasn’t had me wishing I could somehow find a way to climb inside the photo.”

Webber genuinely believes that by documenting Polish football culture, he is doing something that will ultimately prove valuable over the course of time. 

“I started doing this as a private passion project, to give myself something more tangible than just blurred memories,” he said. “But the internet can be wonderful, and I was amazed (and continue to be) at the positive feedback my little adventure has attracted. 

“With encouragement from complete strangers (mostly from the Facebook page Football Stadia & Grounds), I fell deeper and deeper into what I was doing – the feedback provided the validation and confidence that I needed, and because of the reception that my posts received, creating a website to house my snaps and ramblings was the next logical step. 

“Even the dud games (and these far outweigh the ‘bangers’) are an experience, and I love how this project has taken me to the most obscure corners of the country. This is a point to dwell on – it’s not just about the football. 

“When I go away, I try to ensure I stay in a quirky hotel, or hunt down the area’s curiosities: spooky castles, abandoned asylums, alien abduction sites, a maverick craft brewery and other such things. Football is the centre point, but it’s the wider experience that adds cherries to the cake.”

His first footballing event attended as a photographer was Motor Lublin in the fourth tier in 2017. “It was basically a culmination of happy accidents,” he said. “I had a freelance job on in Lublin earlier in the year that got canned at the last minute, but having already paid for my hotel I figured I’d go there regardless. 

“In a moment of speculative madness I called the local club, Motor, and asked if I could have a look around the ground. I was treated like a visiting Duke. “You’ve got to come back when the winter break ends,” said their PR chap at the end. I promised I would and a couple of months later upheld my part of the bargain.  

“Bringing along my camera for posterity, I loved everything about the day. Definitely, something stirred inside me. For the previous 17 years, every weekend had been spent getting trollied in Warsaw’s murky expat pubs while Sky Sports played in the background. Being back at live football though, something reawakened.”

Rakow Czestechowa v Spartak Trnava (away end), Europa Conf League, qualifying round, 1-0, August 2022
Rakow Czestechowa v Spartak Trnava (away end), Europa Conf League, qualifying round, 1-0, August 2022. © Alex Webber
Slavia Ruda Slaska v Rakow Czestechowa B, fifth tier, 3-2, June, 2019
Slavia Ruda Slaska v Rakow Czestechowa B, fifth tier, 3-2, June, 2019. © Alex Webber

Webber has five favourite pictures from his back catalogue, each with its own anecdote.

“First, Lechia Gdansk v Jagiellonia Bialystok in the Polish Cup Final, 2019,” he said. “I couldn’t get accreditation for this match, so ended up buying a ticket for the family zone and having to smuggle my camera gear in. There’s nothing unusual about a photo of a dad and lad celebrating a stoppage time winner, but this was the first time I had managed to catch a moment like this myself. I was buzzing to realise I’d manage to capture this split second moment of unbridled joy – I think there’s a basic human goodness to this picture. 

Lechia Gdansk v Jagiellonia Bialystok, Polish Cup Final, 2-1, May 2019
Lechia Gdansk v Jagiellonia Bialystok, Polish Cup Final, 2-1, May 2019. © Alex Webber

“Second, is this pyro display at a fifth tier Unia Oswiecim game. Pyro makes for fantastic pictures, and in this instance the colours were outstanding. The hazmat suits, incidentally, aren’t a style statement – despite common misconceptions, pyro is illegal in Polish grounds and the punishments are severe. To avoid identification, those wielding the flares will always don ninja masks and disguises to prevent getting collared. 

Unia Oswiecim v Beski Andrychow, fifth tier, 3-1, April 2019
Unia Oswiecim v Beski Andrychow, fifth tier, 3-1, April 2019. © Alex Webber

“Third up, I love this picture of an old bloke having a fag on a pile of rubble – it seems to almost capture the sedate spirit of the lower leagues (I can almost imagine him saying, “I’m just here to get away from my Mrs”). The game finished 15-2, but I was so enchanted by this ground I missed fifteen of the goals – possibly a world record! 

CKS Czeladz v Zaglebiak Tucznawa, seventh tier, 15-2, May 2021
CKS Czeladz v Zaglebiak Tucznawa, seventh tier, 15-2, May 2021. © Alex Webber

“Fourth, the ritualistic flag burnings you get are extraordinary to photograph and are conducted in a thrilling atmosphere of hateful glee. Such is the spite, they bring to mind the footage of the Nazi era book burnings. It’s worth, also, just explaining the significance of this ‘flag stuff’ because it seems to baffle most Brits. 

Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-1, September 2022
Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-1, September 2022. © Alex Webber

“Out here, hooligans go to matches to actually fight – there is no drinking, so there is no pre-game pub culture. So with no pubs to attack, the big hooligan prize isn’t smashing a rival’s main pub, but seizing their flags. These are protected tooth and nail, and losing one is to bring shame on your club. When one is lost, the next time the clubs meet, ceremonial burnings take place as a final gloating taunt. 

“Lastly, this picture taken at Ruch Chorzow I think accurately conveys the mayhem that you can still find on occasion inside the grounds. This was a wild derby cup match that took you back in time – it’s a real challenge to shoot photos while bottles and flares whizz over your head, so I was pretty happy with my images from the evening. More so as I was on crutches at the time so far from my most agile!

Ruch Chorzow v Gornik Zabrze, Polish Cup, September 2022
Ruch Chorzow v Gornik Zabrze, Polish Cup, September 2022. © Alex Webber

“I’m hugely fortunate to live in Poland – despite determined attempts to transform it, the country’s football culture has remained remarkably resilient in the face of these changes. 

“Saliently, because Poland remains in this half-way house between ‘old school’ and ‘new school’, it is at its most visually intriguing. I love how you’ve got a solid range of world class stadiums contrasted against bygone relics from the communist era, not to mention shattered grounds with brutal looking away cages. It’s delicious on the eye. 

steward at Olimpia Warsaw v Marcovia Marki, seventh tier, 1-0, June 2019
Steward at Olimpia Warsaw v Marcovia Marki, seventh tier, 1-0, June 2019. © Alex Webber
Motor Lublin v Ruch Chorzow, third tier, 1-3, August 2021
Motor Lublin v Ruch Chorzow, third tier, 1-3, August 2021. © Alex Webber

On the power of football to bring people together…

“The way football can connect people is truly beautiful – imagine some random foreign fella sticking a camera in your face in the middle of nowhere. There is no way I should get away with it, but instead the hospitality I’ve been shown has been absolutely fantastic. Take one village match, for example – when word got around some English bloke was roaming around with a camera I was hoodwinked into getting plastered with a pack of 70-year-old farmers on their moonshine while sitting on a tractor – how can you beat that? 

“I think it’s vital to engage with the locals when shooting football – it opens doors for future visits, while in the short-term, establishing rapport, or just understanding the mood of a place, can really make a set of images come together. But forget about the photography aspect, most importantly it’s also bloody great fun that can really elevate a trip to the realms of something special.

“While my mates at school were commissioning the class thief to nick porno mags from WH Smith, I was hiring him to pinch stadium books! Next to me on my desk, I’ve still got the first edition of Football Grounds of Great Britain inscribed with the fading message: “stolen for Webber for a fiver by Lee”.   

Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-2, June 2021
Gryf Slupsk v Pogon Lebork, fifth tier, 2-2, June 2021. © Alex Webber
Kartofliska v Grom Warsaw, second round of provincial cup, 0-7, August 2018
Kartofliska v Grom Warsaw, second round of provincial cup, 0-7, August 2018. © Alex Webber
Proch Pionki v KS Warka, sixth tier, 1-1, September 2021
Proch Pionki v KS Warka, sixth tier, 1-1, September 2021. © Alex Webber
Polonia Przemysl v Ekoball Sanok, fifth tier, 1-0, August 2021
Polonia Przemysl v Ekoball Sanok, fifth tier, 1-0, August 2021. © Alex Webber
Czuwaj Przemysl v MKS Radymno, sixth tier, no idea of the score, September 2021
Czuwaj Przemysl v MKS Radymno, sixth tier, no idea of the score, September 2021. © Alex Webber

Webber’s obsession with stadiums continues to this day. “Poland has a brilliant array of oddities to seek out,” he says. “True, there are many that are little more than mundane piles of industrial plastic, but when you look deeper there’s some jewels to uncover. 

“Poles aren’t so nostalgic about their old grounds as Brits, in fact many feel ashamed of their sub-par facilities. When I’m in some magnificent ancient ruin, people will often think I’m taking the mickey if I say that it’s beautiful. 

“There’s also a rich paradox at play – always leading the most vociferous calls for new stadiums are a team’s hooligans, even though a brand new stadium will often prove to be utterly hooligan-proof. “

Webber is still coming to terms with Polish football Culture.

“I’m still far from understanding it, and it’s possible I never will,” he said. “It is hugely different from the English scene and is fascinating to explore. And really, I reckon Polish football fans were born with an extra set of lungs – always, I urge people to never criticise the relatively low crowd figures: for ‘real feel’, you need to add a zero to the attendance. Sometimes a couple. 

“Over the course of my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to be shown an immense amount of hospitality, and more than a few times I’ve become firm friends with people engaged in the more ‘active’ side of the lifestyle. 

“I do not want to be seen as condoning their actions, but neither is it my place to condemn them. They belong to a very brutal underworld, but like with everything in life, viewing things in terms of black-and-white or good and bad is counter-productive.”

Cisowianka Drzewce v Orion Niedrzwica Duza, sixth tier, 2-1, August 2021
Cisowianka Drzewce v Orion Niedrzwica Duza, sixth tier, 2-1, August 2021. © Alex Webber

Webber regards himself to be still at the learning stage when it comes to his photographic prowess. 

“I remain stuck in the ‘aspiring’ bracket myself,” he said. “The one thing I was told from the outset by one of my friends is ‘practice, practice, practice’. It’s cliché, but it really is the best and most effective way to improve your game. There is no such thing as taking too many pictures.”

For anyone fancying having a crack at photographing Poland’s football culture, Webber’s advice is to always be transparent.

“Where the lower leagues are concerned, I will usually message the relevant Ultra groups beforehand to explain who I am and what I am doing – and to underscore to them that all faces of any Ultras will be vigorously scrubbed out! 

“When dealing with more ‘volatile’ fans, I always do my best to appear cheerful and confident but always respectful. And if people don’t want their photo taken, remember that no really does mean no.”

Mieszko Gniezno v Jarota Jarocin, fifth tier, 3-1, August 2019
Mieszko Gniezno v Jarota Jarocin, fifth tier, 3-1, August 2019. © Alex Webber

Keep up with Alex and all things Polish football on his website www.alexwebber.life.

If you enjoyed that, you may also like Napoli fan culture, as Andrea Ardolino travels throughout Italy and Europe to compile a 15 year dossier of memorable moments.

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