Is there a tighter race than the Ekstraklasa this season?

THERE are two burning issues about Polish domestic football this season: the strange collapse of Legia Warsaw, the 2021 champions; and the three-way struggle for the title in 2021-22. As the league campaign reaches its climax, three teams are locked in combat at the top: Lech Poznań; Raków Częstochowa; and  Pogoń Szczecin. Lech, probably the favourites, have been champions seven times, while both Raków and Pogoń have no experience of winning the league.

The Ekstraklasa has been won by Legia Warsaw six times in the past decade, so their decline in 2021-22 has surprised everyone, especially as the club has longer-term designs on becoming a European force. That currently seems some distance away – in 2021-22, Legia were beaten in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League and then finished bottom of their Europa League group. Poland has a population of 38 million, making it the fifth biggest by population in the European Union. There is certainly scope for a better showing from its clubs, but they are currently a long way from competing with Europe’s elite.

Legia’s passionate support cannot understand the decline of their club and pressure has been growing on the players from the more boisterous element. The club has made mistake in the transfer market and the conveyor belt of talent from their renowned youth academy has dried up. Yet Legia have made headlines for the right reasons recently, staging a fund-raising game with Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev. Generally, Poland has been praised for its approach to helping refugees from their war-torn neighbour. Wisła Kraków, for example, have been using their stadium as a collection point for donations and the club is also helping displaced people – the city of Kraków has taken in more than 100,000 refugees so far.

Poland’s top league lags behind many of its European counterparts, but prize money reached a record PLN 70 million (€ 16 million) in 2020. The Ekstraklasa is ranked 19th in terms of revenues by UEFA. The country’s record in the Champions League has been disappointing and has been a far cry from the days when a trip to Poland in European competition could be a very daunting affair. Legia made the group stage in 2016-17, only the third time a Polish team has qualified for the groups since 1992-93. Meanwhile, the national team, spearheaded by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, qualified for the 2022 World Cup and will face Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Mexico in Qatar later this year.

The league title race is drawing to a close, but only goal difference separates the top three. With five games to go, Lech, Raków and Pogón are all level on 59 points. Lech are the best supported team at present, with an average crowd of 18,700 , a big improvement on pre-covid figures. Wisła Kraków and Legia also enjoy gates of over 15,000.  The league average of 7,132 is 46% up on 2020-21, but crowds are lower than the last full pre-pandemic season of 2018-19. During the height of the crisis, Polish football lost around 73% of its gate income. Wages also dropped slightly, but still accounted for 66% of income. Polish clubs struggle to be profitable and some are close to insolvency.

Lech’s crowds are starting to reflect the growing belief they can win the league this year. Against Jagiellonia Białystok in mid-March, they drew over 40,000 to the Stadion Miejski. They have been boosted by the goals of Swedish striker Mikael Ishak and Portuguese midfielder João Amaral. Lech’s remaining games are arguably easier than their two fellow challengers. They have just one game (Piast Gliwice Away) against a top half team. Pogón have to play Raków (April 20) and also travel to Lechia Gdańsk who are third and fourth respectively. As well as a trip to Pogón, Raków also host Lechia Gdańsk.

Both Lech and Raków have the chance to complete the “double” as they meet in the Polish cup final on May 2 in Warsaw. Raków won the cup in 2021 and were runners-up in the league. It promises to be a fascinating end to the season in Poland and the chances are those famous Lech Poznań fans will be catching the eye once more.

Poland: From Silesia with hope


ANYONE who remembers the 1974 World Cup will always have a soft spot for Poland, certainly not because they knocked England out in the qualifying group in 1973, but for the way the expressive Poles played when they got to West Germany and how their football, played by such talents as Kazi Deyna and Grzegorz Lato, helped light up the competition.

For many reasons, Poland and the UK have close links – during World War Two, Polish airmen fought for Britain and there’s a war memorial in London dedicated to Poles involved in the conflict. There’s always been a considerable number of Poles in Britain and their presence today is a subject that can lead to heated debate about migration, jobs and cultural chasms.

But Poland is a country that is on the rise, with an economy that is still growing, almost counter-cyclical to the malaise that has stymied progress in Europe since 2008. And it is forecast to grow by more than 3% in 2016. Some of that growth is attributable to Euro 2012, when the country co-hosted – with Ukraine – its first major football competition.

Poles that went in search of a better life over the past decade are returning to their homeland, impressed by the level of infrastructure regeneration that has taken place in the intervening years. Warsaw, for example, looks a far different place than it was a decade ago. Moreover, with Brexit a concern, some people believe that a lot of Poles – there are currently around 850,000 in the UK –  will decide to relocate to continental Europe.

Football has long been part of the Polish psyche. The game first appeared in the late 19th century and clubs such as Lechia Lwów (1903), Czarni Lwów (1903), Pogoń Lwów (1904, KS Cracovia (1906) and Wisła Kraków (1906) were formed thereafter. The country’s golden age was undoubtedly between 1974 and 1982 in terms of worldwide success, two third places in the World Cup, but currently, there are hopes that the Poles are building something significant both domestically and internationally.

The rise and fall of white Pele

Poland’s football heritage has not been easy for recent generations to live up to. It really started in 1970 with the appointment of Kazimierz Górski as coach. Górski played just once for Poland in his career, in 1948, but his coaching abilities were never in doubt. The fruits of his work came to the fore in the 1972 Olympics in West Germany, where Poland played some stunning football. They scored 19 goals in six games before reaching the final against Hungary, winning 2-1 in Munich thanks to two Deyna strikes. Even then, nobody expected Poland to qualify for the 1974 World Cup – they had England in their group, after all.

While Deyna went on win the headlines in 1974, there was one name missing from Poland’s finest hour – Wlodek Lubanski of the country’s leading club at the time, Górnik Zabrze. From 1957 to 1972, Górnik, from the industrial heartland of Poland, Silesia, won 10 league titles and six Polish cups. Lubanski made his bow in 1962-63 and was capped as a 16 year-old, scoring his first international goal in September 1963 against Norway. From 1966 to 1969 he was the top scorer in Poland and in 1967 and 1970, he was named Footballer of the Year. By 1970, when Górnik reached the final of the European Cup-Winners Cup, Lubanski was one of the Eastern Bloc’s star players. When his club toured South America, journalists in Brazil dubbed him “the white Pele”. Real Madrid were among the clubs to take notice of Poland’s top player and made a USD 1 million bid to take him out from behind the Iron Curtain. But the Communist party, undoubtedly wanting to keep their prize asset at home, denied him the chance to move abroad.

Lubanski played his part in Poland achieving Olympic gold, but by the time the 1974 World Cup came along, the Górnik striker had been sidelined, injured after a challenge by England’s Roy McFarland in the qualifying tie in front of a raucous crowd in Chorzow. Lubanski had scored Poland’s second goal in the 47th minute, but seven minutes later, he was fouled and carried off the pitch with photographers crowding around him. Poland’s talismanic forward, who had all but ended Bobby Moore’s international career when he robbed the England skipper in midfield and sped past him to shoot in off the post, would not play for his country for four years.

Lubanski was absent when Poland qualified for West Germany, but that didn’t stop the team from being the surprise package of 1974. They eventually finished third, undone by a waterlogged pitch in Frankfurt, which saw West Germany beat them 1-0 to claim a place in the final. Even luminaries such as Franz Beckenbauer had to admit the Germans had been fortunate to overcome a free-flowing Polish team that had been unable to reproduce its most effective style in the sodden Waldstadion.

Any suggestion of 1974 being a fluke was soon proved wrong, for in 1978, against a hostile backdrop, Poland went close to repeating their success, adding Zbigniew Boniek to their squad and finishing a loosely calculated fifth in Argentina. Four years later, they finished third again. Interestingly, they never managed to make an impact in the European Championship.

By 1990, Polish football had declined, though, and in seven World Cups since 1986, Poland have qualified just twice for the finals.

Post-wall woes

Like all Eastern Bloc countries, the fall of old Communist regimes had a profound impact on domestic football. Poland was never an easy place for clubs to visit in European competition in the 1960s and 1970s. Aside from Górnik reaching the ECWC final in 1970, the closest any Polish club came to notable success was Legia Warsaw and Widzew Łódź, who reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1969-70 and 1982-83 respectively. Crowds were passionate and intimidating, especially in the industrial cities that would often be characterised by smoke and mist from the mines and factories.

Football played its part in the fall of the old order and in 1983, in Gdansk, the spirit of change was evident in and around the Lech Gdansk football stadium, which was one of the few places in the old ship-building city where anti-system sentiment was permitted. The Solidarity movement, which had been the catalyst for resistance and change, had been outlawed with many members thrown in jail. General Jaruzelski introduced martial law.

Lech Gdansk are not one of the clubs that spring to mind when you think about Polish football, but in 1983, they faced Juventus in the European Cup-Winners Cup. Gdansk had lost the first leg 7-0, so the tie was unimportant, but the occasion has become legendary.

Solidarity decided to take advantage of the fact their game was to be televised as a demonstration of defiance and to remind the public that the under-pressure movement was still alive. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was present among a crowd of 35,000.

During the first half, spectators started to slowly sing, “Solidarnosc! Solidarnosc!” and the TV cameras immediately focused on Walesa. In no time at all, the whole MOSiR stadion was chanting. The Polish TV attempted to thwart this grand statement by delaying coverage of the second half and then blocked out all sound of the crowd. Walesa left the stadium early, but the point had been made. As Poland went from social crisis to social crisis, thousands of Poles left the country every week. The system began to fall apart, ultimately contributing to the end of the Iron Curtain.

Given that sport in Poland was underpinned by the state, the collapse affected domestic football in a dramatic way. The transition to capitalism was painful for the Poles. Many of their traditional heavy industries, such as mining and metallurgy, fell apart. This shock therapy, driven by Leszek Balcerowicz, resulted in a 30% unemployment rate and severe slumps in social and economic standards. But by 1995, Poland had got back to pre-1989 GDP levels and its economy was in reasonably good condition.

At the same time, Polish football seemed to disintegrate. The old national stadium, Stadion Dziesięciolecia, a vast Communist bowl constructed in 1955, fell into disrepair and became Europe’s largest open-air flea market. In 1993, domestic football was hit by a match-fixing scandal that arose involving LKS Łódź, who needed to  beat Olimpia Poznan by three more goals than Legia Warsaw’s winning margin over Wislaw Krakow to lift the title. Łódź won 6-0, Legia 7-1. The Polish FA fined the four clubs and eventually awarded the title to third-placed Lech Poznan. It wouldn’t be the last time that corruption would scar the game in Poland.

By 1994-95, league attendances were averaging 4,200 and fell further by 1997 to 3,800. Internationally, clubs were no longer competitive in Europe and with the onset of the UEFA Champions League, the likes of Legia Warsaw and Widzew Łódź, became continental also-rans. Clubs like Górnik and Ruch Chorzow, both of whom had prospered during the Communist era, fell away from the forefront of Polish football. Górnik’s last title was in 1988 and Chorzow’s 1989. One of the clubs that rose to prominence was Wisła Kraków, who have won the Ekstraklasa seven times since 2000.

During this period, more match-fixing revelations became public. In 2005, the Financial Times revealed that the sport was “rotten to the core”. The Polish FA launched a campaign to clean-up the game. Polish football was, by this time, attracting prestigious sponsors such as Puma and new investors. Then the owner of GKS Katowice told the media that he had paid off players and referees in an unsuccessful attempt to keep his club in the lucrative first division. “I have had enough of football where I have to pay money to buy matches for the team so that it occupies the top position, so that the players can stay in the league and have jobs, when they cheat me and sell games,” he told a newspaper.  Further damage was inflicted by a series of match-fixings linked to second division club Arka Gdynia, resulting in mass arrests and the involvement of around 500 players.

Crowd violence, not dissimilar to that experienced in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, was also prevalent in Poland, along with suggestions of racism. Robert Blaszczak, a Polish journalist based in the UK, in a presentation on Polish football at University of London, said the inherent xenophobia that prevails at some clubs is partly due to the fact that, in relative terms, Poland is not a cosmopolitan society. The statistics confirm that of Poland’s 39 million people, almost 94% are Polish.

The hooliganism that has plagued Polish football really gathered momentum after the fall of the old regime and was partly attributable to the declining social environment and mass unemployment. Polish football entered the second decade of the 21st century in a mess, on and off the pitch – and many people had lost faith in it.

Football brings us together

Poland was not the only country with corruption issues – Italy have long suffered from problems of this nature and it effectively cost them any chance to bid for the 2012 European Championship. In 2007, Poland and Ukraine were awarded the mandate to stage the competition. While some sceptics pointed to the infrastructure of both countries as a problem, Poland pledged to make 2012 a success and the catalyst for change. “It was a pivotal moment in Polish football,” says Blaszczak.

It certainly prompted mass investment, some of which is still in progress. Poland had to build three new stadiums – Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw and reconstruct another in Poznan. The tournament coincided with a drop in unemployment to 12% and tourist expenditure of some EUR 240m.

On the field of play, Poland didn’t live up to expectations, despite possessing one of Europe’s top strikers, Robert Lewandowski. But Euro 2012 still delivered some “feel good factor” for the nation.

There have been changes behind the scenes and some fresh-faced and energetic marketing. “Football brings us together” has been something of a mantra and Poland has also looked to sweep-up any player with Polish heritage in order to improve its national team. The aim is to avoid the situation of players like Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski going to play for their adopted country.  Greater emphasis has also been placed on youth football and on developing the game for women and a new national model has been implemented.

The benefits have been manifold – not least a EUR 5bn boost for GDP since 2012. There has also been greater interest in the Polish Ekstraklasa, although Blaszczak believes there is still some way to go. Polish crowds are now averaging 9,000 after a 9% increased in 2015-16 and the momentum has continued into 2016-17 with a further 4% rise to 9,469 per game. One notable element of Polish crowds is the demographic, which appears to be far healthier than, for example, English football. “Polish clubs are being very creative in reaching out to younger fans,” said Blaszczak.

He considers Polish football is still underperforming, though, although there are some very positive signs. The league is now sponsored by Lotto to the tune of PLNZ 10 million per year. Lotto replaced T-Mobile who sponsored the league between 2011 and 2015. Over half of Extraklasa revenues are shared between the 16 member clubs and the rest is divided up according to final league placing for the season, a five year ranking and European participation. There are no parachute payments for relegated clubs.

Getting it right on the domestic front is merely the first step towards reinvigorating Polish football, however. “The Ekstraklasa needs more heroes and a European presence,” says Blaszczak.

Neither task is easy as Polish clubs have long been “sellers” of those “heroes”. And to make a splash in Europe, the Ekstraklasa is up against stiff competition. At present, the finances of the league make it comparable to say, Austria and Denmark and similarly structured competitions. Polish clubs have been curiously absent from the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, with Legia Warsaw making it in 2016-17 to become the first since Widzew Łódź in 1996-97. However, Legia’s performances, which have been blighted by crowd problems, suggest Poland has some ground to make up.

Legia probably represent Poland’s best bet of breaking into Europe’s premier competition on a regular basis. As Blaszczak says, Legia epitomise the good and bad of Polish football. There have been internal power struggles at the club, evidenced by an uncomfortable relationship between Legia and its supporters. The club accounts for a large chunk of Ekstraklasa revenues and in 2015-16, averaged more than 20,000 fans per game. They’ve won three of the last four titles, although 2016-17 didn’t start well and crowds are well down on last season.

A return to the spotlight?

Poland reached the last eight of Euro 2016 although their displays failed to really convince. Nevertheless, this was their best ever performance in the competition. The signs are that their qualification for the 2018 World Cup is on track. With domestic football also attracting rising crowds, it appears that the Polish FA’s attempts at rebirth are reaping rewards. The question is whether some of the problems, such as hooliganism, xenophobia and an unfortunate history of corruption, can be banished from the game in Poland to allow it to really flourish. If that can be achieved, Poland’s “rich potential” to quote Robert Blaszczak, might finally be realised.