European Football

Warszawa – a long way from low

P1100116.JPGWARSAW is a city that is still haunted by the past – in many ways. Arguably no other city suffered as much as Poland’s capital during World War Two and around 80% of its buildings lay in ruins in 1945. An astonishing 90% of Poland’s Jews were killed in the holocaust – some three million people. In fact, Poland lost 20% of its entire population in WW2. After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite and one of the mysterious Iron Curtain nations. Until the Solidarity movement, the Poles were possibly the most closely linked people to the Russians – or so we thought.

Given its history, it’s no surprise that pock-marked buildings can still be found around Warsaw – despite the amount of impressive regeneration going on – and you can always catch a glimpse of WW2 documentaries on TV. There always seems to be a tragic anniversary to be remembered.

2016 is the 70th anniversary of the first post-war Polish football championship, won by Polonia Warszawa. The championship was essentially a knock-out competition among regional champions with a mini-league of four teams – Polonia, Warta Poznan, AKS Chorzow and LKS Lodz – to decide the title.

Polonia included international defenders Edward Brzozowski and the talismanic Władysław Szczepaniak who was at the veteran stage of his long career. At the opposite end of the field, Polonia were boosted by the goals of young strikers Jerzy Szularz and Tadeusz Swicarz. The club’s achievement was all the more remarkable as their ground at Konwiktorska Street, which was very close to the Warsaw Ghetto, lay in ruins.

During the Soviet years, Polonia’s name was changed to Kolejarz, which translates to “railway workers”. This came at a time when the Stalinist regime wanted to give sports clubs an identity that was linked to the army, militia or industry. Furthermore, the club’s rather ominous black shirts were also abandoned in a bid to erase anything of pre-war Polonia. It was Polonia’s misfortune that they were attached to one of the areas of Soviet Poland’s economy that had little, if any, money for mere football teams.

The state was able to find money when it needed it, however. In the early 1950s, as a demonstration of sporting muscle, Poland decided to build an “Olympic” stadium for the city of Warsaw. Of course, it was unlikely that Warsaw would ever host the games, but the Communists liked to construct huge “socialist bowls” and this one held more than 70,000 people. The stadium, rather symbolically, was built mostly with the rubble from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. In 1968, it was the site of the self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec, who set himself alight in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia. Siwiec had been part of the Polish resistance movement during WW2.

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Polonia’s city rivals, Legia, became known as CWKS (Central Military Sports Club Warszawa) but Legia was already closely associated with the military and was formed in an officer’s casino in Warsaw in 1920. Legia became known as the army club and their ground today is the Polish Army Stadium. During the cold war, Legia Warsaw, like many state favourites, were feared, not least because of the sight of so many uniforms at their stadium and a rather lop-sided policy regarding the acquisition of the best players.

Legia were the first Polish side to make a market in European competition and in 1970, they reached the last four of the European Cup, losing to Feyenoord, the eventual winners. In the 1970s, they had some highly talented players in their ranks, such as the ill-fated Kazimierz Deyna, one of the stars of the 1972 Olympics and 1974 World Cup, and Robert Gadocha. And let’s not forget the “clown”, as dubbed by Brian Clough, Jan Tomaszewski, who played for Legia between 1970 and 1972.

deyna_kazimierz800Deyna remains the quintessential Polish football legend. He died tragically young and there’s a statue outside the Legia stadium in his memory. And he’s buried in the Polish cemetery alongside heroes of the uprising. Deyna, along with the likes of Grzegorz Lato not only demonstrated they were fine footballers, but they also proved that players from the Communist states were not just very fit and efficient. Deyna was a gifted playmaker and became a target of Western European clubs like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, but the regime didn’t allow him to leave Poland. In 1978, he finally signed for Manchester City and became something of a cult figure at Maine Road. He died in a car crash in the US in 1989, aged just 41 – Legia duly retired his favoured number 10 shirt.

While Legia was the army outfit, Gwardia was the police team. Founded as KS Grochow, they adopted the Gwardia name in 1948. Its  police affiliation meant Gwardia benefitted from good facilities and access to decent players, sometimes to the cost of other clubs. Ironically, the Polish police, who own the club’s stadium, were partly responsible for the sharp and painful decline of Gwardia.

Gwardia’s place in history was secured in 1955, however, when they took part in the inaugural European Cup, even though they were not Polish champions. The Harpagony, as they were known, which means “the Harpies”, won the Polish Cup in 1954. Gwardia were a top four side in 1954 and 1955, so they were no fools, but they were not the premier club.

In more recent times, they have become nomadic, thanks to being locked-out of their ground by the police, and money has been scarce. They’re barely alive by all accounts.

Legia are very much alive, although the antics of their extremist fans have earned them an EUR 80,000 fine and they’ve got to play their UEFA Champions League group game against Real Madrid to an empty stadium. It’s a blow to the club as they were the first Polish team to reach the group stages for 21 years. But then it has been a disappointing start to 2016-17 for Legia, so much so that they recently sacked their coach Besnik Hasi after they were thrashed 6-0 at home by Borussia Dortmund. Hasi had only been in charge for a few months and gates at Legia had fallen by some 30% as the 2015-16 champions struggled.

In Hasi’s place came Jacek Magiera. The former Zaglebie Sosnowiec coach made all the right noises and hand signals (the “L” sign with his thumb and forefinger) and told the media at his unveiling, “I’ve returned home after a short spell away. Legia have always been in my heart…I hope it is the beginning of something positive.”

Legia were beaten 2-0 at Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League in his first game, but in the Ekstraklasa, they beat Lechia Gdansk 3-0. This was certainly all very positive as Gdansk were second in the table. Two goals from the Brazilian Guilherme and another from Nemanja Nikolics, a Serb, gave Magiera the perfect start in front of his own fans.

Talking of supporters, Polish football has been in the ascendancy when it comes to attendances, although this season they seem to be slightly down on 2015-16 when they rose by more than 9%.

  Average Highest club Legia Polonia
2016-17 8,954 Lechia Gdansk (16,089) 15,186 1,449
2015-16 9,103 Legia Warsaw (21,209) 21,209
2014-15 8,325 Lech Poznan (18,999) 16,614
2013-14 8,338 Lech Poznan (19,575) 17,010
2012-13 8,409 Lech Poznan (22,640) 17,906 4,116
2011-12 8,849 Legia Warsaw (20,928) 20,928 3,652

A crowd of 18,000 watched Legia beat Gdansk, which serves to highlight the gap between them and Polonia. Although they are the oldest club in the capital, Polonia had almost disappeared from view, but not to the extent that Gwardia have declined. Happily, Polonia are making a comeback after being banished to nomansland due to financial difficulties. They are now in Liga II, the third level of Polish football.

Ten years ago, Polish attendances were under 7,000 and Legia were playing front of 10,000 people. A combination of factors has introduced some momentum to Polish football. Perhaps it is driven by the country’s economy – Poland continues to thrive and in the second quarter of 2006, GDP grew by 3.1%. It looks like a country that is going through transformation.

It would no doubt have been boosted by co-hosting Euro 2012, one of the visible signs being the magnificent national stadium that sits like a huge crown on the opposite side  of the Vistula to the old town. Although it holds 58,000 it looks massive, thanks to the design and red and white (silver, actually) façade. It has a retractable roof and is well served by Warsaw’s increasingly impressive infrastructure. When you look across to the ground from Stare Miasto, the scene of so much devastation during WW2, the contrast is striking.

Poland needs a half decent team to become a regular European Champions League participant – whether that is Legia remains to be seen. The days when trips to Warsaw were very daunting may be over, but being among the elite would help to raise Polish football’s profile as well as the finances of its major clubs. Poland also needs a competitive national team, certainly one that can look the likes of Deyna and Lato in the eye. They do, of course, have Robert Lewandowski, a Warsaw-born player rated among the world’s best strikers, so there is always the hope of the unexpected. Not many people had heard of Deyna and Lato before 1974…

www.gameofthepeople.com

 

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