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How power of football changed Poland
04:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: 25 years since Poland’s first partly free elections, CNN’s On the Road series visits the country looking at how it has been transformed since the fall of communism while taking a deeper look at its customs and culture.

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

CNN  — 

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.

“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.”

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