Two Polish tabloids came under fire on Thursday, June 5, for declaring a front-page war on Germany ahead of the two nations' Euro 2008 clash in Klagenfurt this Sunday.
Off with their heads: The Polish tabloid montage at the center of the scandal
The two dailies, Fakt and Super Express, which ran a doctored picture calling for the heads of German striker Michael Ballack and coach Joachim Loew, were blasted by Poland's coach Leo Beenhakker and Warsaw's ambassador to Germany and also criticized by high-brow Polish media.
"We apologize to the German people," Beenhakker told reporters in Austria, where Poland meet Germany in their opening game in Group B. "We want to distance ourselves totally from these weird, dirty and sick people," he said.
The Poland-Germany match on Sunday, June 8, is regarded as one of the most sensitive of the 16-nation tournament -- not only because of the enduring bad blood of World War II, but also because of their on-the-pitch record.
The two sides have met each other 15 times since 1933 with Poland yet to manage a victory, the Germans having won 11 of them with the other four finishing in draws.
Photo montage shows decapitated Ballack and Loew
Fakt and Super Express ran a series of photomontages that haven't pulled any punches -- something which is common currency in countries such as Britain, but which still causes raised eyebrows in Germany.
Super Express showed Dutchman Beenhakker carrying the severed heads of Germany star Michael Ballack and coach Joachim Loew. The headline reads: "Leo, bring us their heads!"
Beenhakker without the heads of either Loew or Ballack
Fakt, meanwhile, portrayed Beenhakker as a sword-wielding warrior about to a deliver a death blow to Ballack, urging him to repeat the feat of the Poles who smashed the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, turning the tide of Polish-German history.
Ironically, Fakt belongs to the German media group Axel Springer.
"This shows an idiotic lack of taste. I wish them the worst," Poland's ambassador to Berlin Marek Prawda was quoted as saying in Germany's Die Welt. "I think it is particularly bad that this is published at a time when fans are coming into contact. It's completely unnecessary and really should be ignored," he added.
The photo montage was described as "an absolute scandal" by German deputy Peter Danckert, chairman of the parliament's sports committee, who called for an "appropriate reaction" from the Polish government.
Tabloids slammed for "crossing the line"
The Polish broadsheet Rzeczpospolita, meanwhile, chastised its mass circulation rivals, commenting: "Unfortunately, tabloid editors often cross the line, and not only in Poland".
The tensions between the nations rise on and off the pitch
"Polish-German relations are difficult and full of tension, which the tabloids exploit to boost their sales," Rzeczpospolita said, adding that such behavior was "scandalous".
It is not only the Polish tabloids which have been turning on the heat, however.
Zbigniew Boniek, a Polish soccer legend from the 1970s and 1980s, for example, has said that the country's squad are "16 times more intelligent than the German players".
Poland midfielder Jacek Krzynowek -- who plays for German club VfL Wolfsburg -- said the squad was taking things in its stride. "There's been a psychological war going on for some time, but at the end of the day everything will be resolved on the pitch," he said.
European soccer's governing body UEFA was quick to distance itself from the scandal. "It is certainly not something we welcome," UEFA spokesman Robert Faulkner said in Basle. "We believe we should be speaking about soccer...We hope the focus will be on events on the pitch."
Memories of World Cup hooliganism still fresh
There are fears the tabloid rhetoric may fan the flames of hooligan rivalry which have been simmering between sections of the countries’ soccer supporters for decades.
German and Polish fans clashed in Dortmund in 2006
The last time they bubbled to the surface was during the 2008 World Cup. The two sets of fans combined to create one of the few extensive outbreaks of hooliganism at the tournament when their teams clashed before and after the final Group A match in Dortmund.
Police detained more than 300 people in the worst outbreak of violence the tournament had witnessed at that stage.
German fans threw bottles, chairs and fireworks at police as they tried to move fans out of the center of the city and riot police then chased several dozen fans through the city.
Police said those detained included 120 hooligans already known to authorities and around 60 Polish fans. In separate clashes nearby, smaller groups of drunken German and Polish fans brawled and set on each other.
Some of the Poles were carrying potentially dangerous items, and others were on a list of known hooligans. Police said some people had been hurt by the missiles thrown, but no one had been seriously injured.
The Germany-Poland match had been identified by organizers as a security risk because of organized clashes in November 2005 between about 100 German and Polish supporters in a forest near the border.