Warsaw: In Warsaw, you could be forgiven for thinking Poland's army is going into battle with Russia rather than its soccer team.
Polish papers went to town on Monday on references to Poland's victorious 1920 battle against the Bolshevik Army, known as the "miracle on the Vistula," fueling simmering nationalist sentiments on the eve of the European Championship match at the National Stadium. Poles still take pride in the victory, which was seen at the time as halting the spread of communism into Europe.
Tuesday's highly-charged match falls on Russia Day, a national holiday in Russia, and Russian fans plan to march from central Warsaw to the stadium, a move seen as provocative by many Poles. The march will be heavily policed after Russian fans were seen in an online video beating game stewards Friday at their team's first match against the Czech Republic in Wroclaw.
About 10,000 Russian fans have bought tickets for Tuesday's game. Securing safe passage for the marchers will be the toughest task for police so far at the tournament, but Interior Minister Jacek Cichocki has promised to maintain order.
Poland and Russia have a long history of troubled relations, including four decades of Soviet Union dominance under communism, which was overthrown in Poland in 1989.
The Super Express tabloid carried a front page collage of Poland coach Franciszek Smuda charging on horseback, saber in hand, in a 1920 Polish army uniform under the headline "Faith, Hope, Smuda" — a play on an old army motto: "Faith, Home, Motherland."
Super Express went on to warn the Russians against assuming they will win on Tuesday. "In 1920 they also thought that and ... they got a spanking," the tabloid said. "Tomorrow they will get the taste of defeat again, because Poland's team will show them miracle on the Vistula 2," referring to the Warsaw river.
But many Polish football fans believe that Russia has the stronger side and that the media is wrong to raise hopes in vain or build nationalist tension before the match. "The newspapers should not be stirring up emotions, because it is clear we will lose. They are doing a bad job," 56-year-old chemistry researcher Marek Toczynski said.
Newsweek's Polish edition ran a front-page photo of Smuda saluting, in the uniform of Jozef Pilsudski – who was in command of Polish troops in the 1920 battle – under the headline: "Poland-Russia: The battle of Warsaw 2012."
The head of the Polish football association, Grzegorz Lato, tried to play down the political overtones. "We are apolitical, we are not interested in the atmosphere that some in the media are trying to create," he said. "It is simply a sports spectacle and that's what it should remain."
Lato did acknowledge, however, that because of the historical issues between the two nations, there is a heightened risk of trouble between fans. He said police and security forces met on Monday to discuss all possible scenarios. "I'm convinced that the police and the security forces will be able to handle things for tomorrow's match," he told reporters at the National Stadium.
City security official Ewa Gawor discussed the march with Russia fans on Saturday and said they will walk with whistles and drums to celebrate soccer, with no political context. "We will be closely watching events during the march," she said.
The June 12 holiday marks the day in 1990 when Russian lawmakers declared independence from the Soviet Union by giving supremacy to Russian laws over Soviet legislation. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has encouraged Poles to march together with the Russians, to celebrate the day that "finally buried the Soviet Union."
UEFA has launched disciplinary proceedings against the Russia football federation for its fans' behavior during and after the 4-1 win against the Czechs. As well as the assault on stewards, the fans are accused of displaying a nationalist flag and throwing fireworks onto the pitch.
Police in Wroclaw said on Monday that two Russian fans have been fined and banned from games in Poland after disobeying stewards' orders on entering the stadium for the match. Four others will face court on charges of causing bodily harm and material damage during a drunken brawl in the city center.
The Russian federation has pleaded with its large contingent of traveling supporters to show more respect at Euro 2012, and warned that UEFA could punish the team by deducting points if they misbehave again.
Lato said isolated incidents were unavoidable, but he expects the majority of fans to behave. "I think the Poland's fans will support their team in a cultured manner and the Russians will support their team as well, and together they'll create a wonderful spectacle in the stadium," he said.
Russia's players and coach say they are focused solely on the game. A win would put them through to the Euro 2012 quarterfinals with one qualifying match still to play.
"We concentrate on the game and not outside things," Russia coach Dick Advocaat said.