Polish 'King of Fans' eyes parliament as football feels heat
(WARSAW) - With just days left until Poland's general election, Andrzej Bobowski works the crowd, shaking hands and holding babies like any vote-hunting politician.
But forget sharp suits and telegenic ties: Bobowski sports a football-decked crown and regal robe.
Despite his oddball image, the October 9 ballot is serious for Poland's "King of Fans", amid broad-brush moves by the government to stem hooliganism before the country hosts the 2012 European Championships.
The fan-friendly image of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, an ardent supporter and Sunday league player, has been tarnished as anger spills from the hardcore to the mainstream football fan over the scale of the crackdown on bad behaviour in and around grounds.
"I'm the candidate for ordinary fans," said Bobowski, 71.
He is running for the small centrist Polish People's Party which is in coalition with Tusk, but he dislikes the government's sweeping approach to the hooliganism problem.
Bobowski's honorary title was earned by attending a record 225 Poland matches, over a thousand at top-flight Legia Warsaw, nine World Cups and five European Championships.
The government says the nation of 38 million has 3,000-5,000 hooligans, in gangs modelled on England's once-notorious "firms".
Bobowski agrees troublemakers should face the full force of law, but warns against "paranoia".
"More than than 95 percent of fans are perfectly fine. The hooligans are a tiny minority," he said at Warsaw's national stadium, where Euro 2012 kicks off next June.
Legia fan Piotr Baldowski, 22, said Bobowski talks sense.
"He's got a different perspective to typical politicians," he said. "He represents us all."
On the campaign trial, the centre-right Tusk has been dogged by irate supporters. Last week he met with fan figures including Bobowski.
"This isn't a matter of collective punishment," the premier said afterwards.
Tusk, 54, insists he understands fans' boisterous culture.
"I know a stadium's not a theatre," he said. "But we have zero tolerance for hooliganism and criminality. Enforcing the law and ensuring security is my number one priority."
As its opinion poll lead over the conservative Law and Justice party melts, Tusk's Civic Platform has used footage of brawling hooligans in a campaign broadcast with the slogan "They are going to vote. And you?"
The first-ever edition of Europe's top footballing showcase behind the former Iron Curtain, Euro 2012 will be a calling card for Poland and fellow host Ukraine.
Hooliganism, long a simmering concern, has been spotlighted solidly since May's Polish Cup Final, when fans of Lech Poznan and winners Legia invaded the pitch and brawled with security forces.
At the time, Tusk issued dire warnings that hooliganism posed a risk to Euro 2012, officials chastised police for alleged serial mishandling of trouble, and Poland's PZPN football association and clubs came under fire for a slapdash approach.
A police dragnet swept up dozens of hardcore fans from a swathe of clubs. The PZPN banned away supporters from the remaining first, second and third division games of the season.
Clubs and the authorities now have new rights to blanket-ban away fans, while police have increasingly deployed powers to order matches to be played behind closed doors -- moves Bobowski opposes.
Before the crackdown some 1,800 Poles were already serving attendance bans imposed by justice authorities or clubs -- but the latter have sometimes backtracked on high-profile fans after match boycotts.
"Speaking frankly, the problem was the weak application of existing rules," said Bobowski.
Other measures include a fan identity card system, controversial elsewhere in the past, notably in Britain where plans were dropped.
"The fight against stadium violence and hooliganism is essential," said Law and Justice's Zbigniew Ziobro, 41, justice minister in 2005-2007.
"But the government's thrown everyone into one big bag, declaring war on the fans," he said.
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