Poland crowns a new champion

FOR the first time in 28 years, a new name has been engraved upon Poland’s football championship trophy. Piast Gliwice, a team from Upper Silesia, have won their first ever title, outshining reigning champions Legia Warsaw, who had won the Ekstraklasa in five of the last six seasons.

Piast finished four points ahead of Legia, clinching the title on the last day when beating Lech Poznań 1-0 thanks to a goal from Polish under-21 international Piotr Parzyszek.  The club’s Stadion Piast had never known anything like it and was packed with a record crowd of 9,913 to see the Piastunki (the custodians), win the big prize.

Piast’s side, coached by former national team manager Waldemar Fornalik, includes Englishman Tom Hateley, the 29 year-old son of former England striker Mark Hateley and grandson of the late Tony Hateley. There’s also players from Spain, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Denmark, Slovakia and Slovenia in the multi-national squad.

This is a club that has had identity problems in the past, changing its name 22 times throughout its history. The closest they had come to success before lifting the title was the runners-up spot in 2016 (two points behind Legia) and two cup final defeats (1978 and 1983). They have been in the Europa League twice before, but they will now enter the UEFA Champions League for the first time.

The Polish government is keen for the country’s clubs to make an impact in the competition. The Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, recently announced that investment will be made in “football innovation”. He said: “We want a Polish club to play in the Champions League and be able to play against the best.”

There’s a lot going on in Polish football at the moment, underlining the ambition for football in the country. Attendances in Poland have been increasing significantly in recent years, with a 47% increase in the years 2003-2018 – the best growth rate worldwide. In 2018-19, however, gates appear to have fallen, perhaps due to two-phase league programme.

Nevertheless, there is a growing appetite to make Poland a force again in European football. A new state-of-the-art training centre is being established by Legia Warsaw, along with the LegiaLab, which will be dedicated to research and development.

At the beginning of May, Poland hosted a conference on how science and technology could influence and affect football. The Science4Football event brought together speakers from Poland and other parts of Europe to provide some insights around some of the innovations that are shaping the game.

Polish football officials are doubtless aware of the worrying trend among the top clubs – fewer club-trained players in the Polish Ektraklasa squads. According to CIES Football Observatory, 40% of players in the top division in Poland are expatriates, with only 13% club-trained – in other words, reared by the clubs themselves. This is a figure that has got lower in recent years as the percentage between 2009 and 2018 for Poland is 16.4%.

Poland is currently hosting the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with games being played in six locations (Warsaw not being one of them). There’s not a single Piast Gliwice player in the squad and they are also conspicuous by their absence from the senior Polish team.

Polish clubs have been missing from the Champions League group stages for most of the past 20 years and Piast will have to start in the first qualifying round in their bid to have a protracted – and lucrative – run in the competition. Chants of “bring on Barcelona” from beer-soaked celebrating fans in Gliwice are a little removed from the reality of the situation – but you have to let the dreamers have their moment. More sobering is the gulf between Polish domestic football and the likes of Barcelona and the Premier is huge – the average wage of a Polish top level footballer is €92,000 per annum.

Just getting to this stage is a major achievement for a club whose own wage bill is reputed to be one sixth of Legia Warsaw’s. Nobody gave them much of a chance, but it was the 1-0 win at Legia at the start of May that made people sit up and take notice.

Right now, a city that has had a big reliance on the mining industry and a population of 182,000 is enjoying an unlikely triumph that can be compared to Leicester City’s Premier League win of 2016. Another victory for the little man! Enjoy the moment.

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