Polish police and Euro 2012 security personnel were on high alert Monday, fearing violence and hooliganism that could take soccer back into its dark ages and even cost Russia a chance to host the World Cup.
The Group A matchup between co-host Poland and Russia in Warsaw on Tuesday is seen as being the most likely of all 24 group games to spark serious crowd unrest, due to the tense history involving the two nations and several outbreaks of soccer hooliganism surrounding fans of both sides.
Up to 10,000 Russian fans plan to march across a bridge in Warsaw's city center and on to the stadium to celebrate a national holiday ahead of a match where victory could seal its team's place in the quarterfinals.
However, the Russian soccer federation is facing action from European governing body UEFA after its supporters hurled abusive racist chants at the Czech Republic's Theodor Gebre Selaisse on Friday. The fans also lit fireworks, displayed imperialistic banners and were allegedly involved in violent attacks on match stewards.
Such antics have naturally cast a shadow over Russia's successful bid to host the World Cup in 2018. Yahoo! Sports has learned from a source within FIFA that the soccer's world governing body will demand that a "wide-ranging program" aimed at eradicating the social ills still pervading Russian soccer is implemented before the end of this year.
FIFA has come under heavy criticism for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar, and it is desperate to avert more negative publicity. FIFA will insist the "strong evidence of serious improvement" in relation to racism and hooliganism is displayed over the next few years, the source said.
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A statement from Russia's football association made it clear that its hierarchy knows it cannot afford crowd problems to continue. "We urge all football fans now in Poland to remember that they represent Russia," read the statement. "Please respect yourselves, your country and your team."
Meanwhile, federation president Sergei Fursenko, said from Poland: "It is important for us to show our best face, with the World Cup coming before us. Nothing must detract from this."
Soccer hooliganism and racism is also a problem in Poland. Ten Polish fans were arrested following a brawl with Republic of Ireland supporters in Poznan on Sunday night. Given the historical tension between the countries and the strong links between hooligan groups and ultra-nationalism, security experts are deeply worried that problems could flare.
"Preparations for the match constitute the biggest challenge for law and order in the capital," Poland interior minister Jacek Cichocki said. "We will keep a constant eye on any possible threats."
Russia, spearheaded by two goals from exciting youngster Alan Dzagoev, brushed past the Czech Republic in its opening game and is the favorite to top Group A. Poland went ahead in its first match against Greece but allowed its opponent to secure a 1-1 draw despite being reduced to 10 men by a red card.
For the Poles, defeat would put it in serious danger of elimination and be a huge blow to a country determined to make its mark on the soccer map after a long barren period.
"It is a huge game for the country for many reasons," Poland star striker Robert Lewandowski said. "But for us the most important thing is to get one step closer to qualifying for the next stage."
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