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.