SOCCER-EURO-POLISH-CZECHS-RUSSIA:Euro - Fan violence flares in Warsaw, Czechs win
By Martyn Herman
GDANSK, Poland (Reuters) - Violent clashes between Russian and Polish fans forced riot police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets before the two teams were due to play in Warsaw on Tuesday in the first major flashpoint at Euro 2012.
Police stepped in to stop a march by thousands of Russian supporters after bloody fighting on the bridge across the Vistula river leading to the stadium and were pelted with missiles including rocks, flares and bottles.
The match always promised to be a highly-charged affair given centuries of war between the two countries and the Soviet domination of Poland after World War two, with 20,00 Russian fans expected in the Polish capital for the Group A match.
Three hundred km away in the Polish city of Wroclaw the action continued on the pitch with Greece sliding towards the exit door after a 2-1 defeat by the Czech Republic.
The Czechs, who were beaten 4-1 by Russia in their opening match, made a dream start with Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar scoring within six minutes before Fanis Gekas capitalised on a mistake by Czech keeper Petr Cech to pull one back.
With one point from two games, Euro 2004 winners Greece will now have to beat a powerful-looking Russia side in their final match if they are to remain in the tournament.
Poles draped in the national red and white colours were flooding on to the streets and bars of the country's towns and cities in readiness for the day's second match but it was in danger of being overshadowed by events off the pitch.
Russian fans had been allowed by the Polish authorities to march to the National stadium to watch their team take on the co-hosts in a fixture weighed down with historical significance given the complicated relationship between the two neighbours.
Russian fan leaders had promised the march would be peaceful and was organised to celebrate "the festival of football" but once it reached the Poniatowskigo bridge sporadic fighting broke out with the police struggling to contain the trouble.
The violence escalated among the groups of young men, some wearing masks or covering their faces with scarves, and riot police were seen dragging suporters away. Reuters witnesses saw one man hit on the head by an iron bar thrown through the air.
Some Poles displayed a banner saying: 'Polish president murdered in Russia', referring to a plane crash two years ago near Smolensk in western Russia that killed Poland's president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.
Earlier, Poland's president Donald Tusk had urged supporters to behave themselves before and after the match.
"We need to show that Poland is a hospitable place for all tourists and fans, with no exceptions," he told a news conference.
On the pitch, Russia will be virtually assured of a quarter-final berth if they beat Poland in their second group game.
In the early match ,the Czechs, so disappointing last Friday, responded with a dynamic opening burst that left Greece, like their economy, staggering although in the end they were hanging on desperately against the spirited Greeks.
Jiracek rifled in the opening goal before Pilar bundled in the second to send the Czech fans, who vastly outnumbered their Greek counterparts, into delirium but Greece had no luck.
A Giorgos Fotakis goal was disallowed late in the first half and they also lost injured goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias who limped off to be replaced by Michalis Sifakis.
Chelsea keeper Cech offered Greece hope when he let an innocuous-looking ball slip through his hands to the feet of substitute Gekas who swept the ball into an empty net.
But while the football has been very entertaining, off-field issues have continued to dog the co-hosts.
UEFA said on Tuesday it was to investigate alleged racist chanting during Spain v Italy and Russia v Czech Republic games.
Earlier on Tuesday, co-hosts Ukraine shrugged off a match boycott by a number of European politicians in protest at the country's jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
An allegation by Tymoshenko that prison guards had beaten her in April - denied by the authorities - prompted further outrage in the West and many European leaders have said they would not attend the championship games in Ukraine.
However, Borys Kolesnikov, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the tournament, said the absence of senior politicians was not deterring foreign fans from visiting.
"I have attended many world cups and European championships and I've never seen high-ranking politicians at group games," he said. "Attending a national team game is an opportunity but not an obligation for any politician."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman)