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.

England v Poland: When the lights went out on the home of football

MALCOLM ALLISON, the wayward, some might say eccentric, Manchester City coach, said the period between 1967 and 1972 was the last golden age of English football. Allison, whose team was one of the leading lights during those years, was talking about the post-1966 era when the game received a boost as the nation celebrated England as World Champions. But it was also a period in which defensive football came to the fore in many quarters and hooliganism continued to emerge as a social menace. So it wasn’t all gold, but it was an age of great players, memorable characters and some legendary games.

But it all came to an end in 1973-74 as football and Britain lurched into crisis. While the economic affairs of the country improved over the coming years, the English game began a slow death spiral that would last a decade, so much so that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, if you were a football fan, you were almost embarrassed to say so.

All roads lead to…

Leeds United, who has acquired the tag of “eternal bridesmaids” after blowing a succession of league titles in 1970-1972, fairly well romped to the league title in 1973-74.  It was no more than they deserved, but it was really the final flush of Don Revie’s family-run “machine”.  Unlike in the past, when Leeds were accused of function over form, the 1973-74 model played a much more expansive game. They went 29 games without defeat at the start of the season and there was never any doubt they would win their second title. The Leeds team – Bremner, Giles, Lorimer et al – was a seasoned bunch and lost just four times in the 42-game programme, five points ahead of Liverpool. The latter won the FA Cup, beating Newcastle 3-0 in the final. So, one could be forgiven for assuming that it was business as usual. But on the international stage, all was not well.

We’ve got him now

England made a mess of their World Cup qualifying group, the first time they needed to go through this stage since 1961. On paper, nobody expected Wales or Poland to cause them much harm, but being in a three-team group meant there was no margin for error. Furthermore, while the core of the 1966 team had continued to fill the England side up until Mexico 1970, the new generation of England players – had yet to convince. England won just once in their four qualifying games, 1-0 in Cardiff. But the return game at Wembley saw Sir Alf Ramsey’s men clumsily draw 1-1. The summer game in Poland was to prove England’s undoing. They trailed to an early goal and then the normally reliable Bobby Moore slipped up on the halfway line allowing Poland to break away to score in the opening stages of the second half in Kattowice. To make matters worse, Alan Ball was sent off in the closing stages. The writing really was on the wall for England.

Ramsey’s relationship with the media was not good and some sections of the “fourth estate” seemed to revel in England’s discomfort. England had to beat Poland at Wembley in October to qualify. A 7-0 win against a poor Austria side was misleading and despite Brian Clough – who was making headlines of his own – dubbing Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski “the clown”, Poland refused to read the script. The Poles, who had even lost to a very average Welsh side, took the lead through Domarski – after another defensive error, this time by Norman Hunter, who had replaced Moore. England levelled, from the penalty spot, and bombarded the Polish goal, but couldn’t score. There was an air of disbelief at the end of the game – England were out of the competition before it had started. As for Poland, they went on to finish third in the 1974 World Cup with a confident, free-flowing team.

Predictably, the media went for Ramsey’s throat. “We’ve got him now,” said one journalist in the press box as the hacks scurried around the corridors at Wembley. They had, and by the summer, Ramsey was gone. His acolytes and loyal comrades of ’66 have always considered Ramsey to be unfairly treated. The late Alan Ball, for example, who missed that fateful night at Wembley, commented just before he died: “This was the man who gave us our only World Cup win. He should have been put on a pedestal. But no, we threw him to the dogs.”

Candles in the wind

Going to the dogs was one way to describe the UK economy in 1973-74 as the nation entered recession in 1973 and didn’t come out of it until 1975. This was blamed on the 1973 oil crisis, which started in October 1973 after OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo. The country was stricken by industrial action and power cuts were a feature of daily life. The “three day week” also came in, reducing the income of millions of households. Inflation touched 20%. Unemployment peaked at 9%. Students studied by candle-light.  In short, it was a grim time for the UK. This had a profound impact on football, resulting in midweek fixtures being played in the afternoon, reducing the game of the masses to a county cricket-type audience.

United they fall

Equally surreal was the continuing saga of Manchester United and George Best. United’s post-Busby decline came to a peak with the club’s relegation in 1974. With McGuinness and O’Farrell both deemed failures, Tommy Docherty churned things over in a bid to save the ailing Reds. George Best’s early retirement, accompanied by his “on-off” relationship with United, ended with a bearded and sad Irishman playing his last game for the club on New Year’s Day 1974 at QPR (a 0-3 defeat) and finally walking out in an alcoholic haze. United put their faith in some useful youngsters and developed a harder edge to kick their way out of trouble, as epitomised by the gap-toothed Jim Holton. “Six foot two, eyes of blue, big Jim Holton’s after you,” was the song. It didn’t work, United were relegated on the final day, but not by Denis Law’s back-heel for neighbours City in their 1-0 win at Old Trafford – the damage had already been done. Just like Wembley in October 1973, there was a sense of confusion about United’s fall from grace, but it had been coming since 1970.

A delivery from Red Star

While Leeds were pushed by Liverpool towards the end of 1973-74, it was not until two years on that a period of total domination would begin. Liverpool had high hopes of a good European Cup run after winning the title in 1972-73, but they had a rude awakening when Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia beat them home and away by 2-1 (4-2 on aggregate). The manner in which Red Star outplayed Bill Shankly’s side – adopting a Slavic version of total football – was an eye-opener, not just for an open-mouthed Kop, but also for Shankly and his boot room colleagues, who had their own “road to Damascus” moment. The Anfield politburo realised that in order to be successful beyond the hit and hope world of the Football league, they needed a fresh approach, one that would eventually lead to triumph in Rome in 1977. There was, however, a growing realisation that English football was falling behind the rest of Europe, further underlined by Tottenham’s defeat in the UEFA Cup against Feyenoord, a team that would provide a big chunk of the Dutch squad that reached the World Cup final in the summer of 1974.

The wisdom of crowds

The harsh realities of the economy, crowd violence, poor quality football and then the downturn in fortunes of the England team had their affect on attendances in 1973-74. The fact is, it also had a lot to do with the relative decline of some of the larger clubs and the rise of other clubs that had a lower level of support. Whereas the past decade had belonged to big fish, the new breed of smaller clubs who had suddenly found themselves with a decent generation of players, came to the fore.

The average attendance for Division One in 1973-74 was 28,294, a 6% fall on the previous season and the lowest since the post-1966 boom began. Almost all the major clubs saw their gates fall significantly: Manchester United was down 12%, Manchester City 5%, Liverpool 12%, Arsenal 25%, Chelsea 13% and Tottenham 19%. The decline in London was reflective of their changing fortunes on the field – within a year relegation was the word on the lips of most of the capital’s top clubs rather than trophy hunting, a stark contrast to 1971 when London’s triumvirate won everything. At the same time, clubs like QPR (av.22,867), Ipswich (22,381), Stoke (21,587) and Derby (27,788) were enjoying the best of modern times. That said, the prizes still went to the traditional heavyweights.

Where to next?

The 1973-74 season was the beginning of the end of the old football model in England. Crowds would slump until the Division One average fell as low as 18,000 in 1984. A decade of sharp decline. This was followed by a ban on English clubs in Europe due to hooliganism and the continued change in fortunes of the national team. It was not until 1992-93 that it all changed, the creation of the bubble that is the Premier.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images

Poland 1972-1974 – the World Cup’s lost champions

WHEN England crashed out of the 1974 World Cup in the qualifying tournament, considered a major shock at the time, Poland, their conquerors, were seen as also-rans, a relative minnow that had audaciously knocked-out the 1966 champions.

Yet if the British media had been as informed as they thought they were, it would have realised that this game, which ended 1-1, was almost as significant as Hungary’s 1953 triumph at Wembley stadium. The Poles didn’t win, but they were, like the Magyars, reigning Olympic gold medallists. Hungary won the Olympic tournament in 1952, Poland 20 years later. In 1954, Hungary finished runners-up in the World Cup, in 1974, Poland were third. Both teams had other things in common, not least that they were both beaten by West Germany.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Polish club football provided some tough opponents in European competition, especially on their own turf. Like many Eastern Bloc nations, there was an air of mystery about clubs from Poland, Hungary and East Germany, to name but a few.

Górnik Zabrze, for example, provided Manchester United with a difficult hurdle in the 1967-68 European Cup, with United only narrowly going through on their way to winning the competition. Górnik, and Poland, had an excellent forward in the form of Wlodek Lubanski, but he would miss out on his country’s finest hour in the World Cup through injury.

Emergence

Poland’s resurgence 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, in front of 80,000 people. Even then, nobody expected Poland to qualify for the 1974 World Cup – they had England in their group, after all. But England, undoubtedly, paid little attention to Poland’s Olympic success and underestimated Górski’s team.

The qualifying group also included Wales and when Poland were beaten 2-0 in Cardiff in March 1973, there seemed little chance they would emerge from the three-team group. However, a 2-0 victory against England that summer in Chorzów changed the dynamic of the group. By the end of September, England were under immense pressure as the Poles were now on top and needed just a draw to qualify. In the end, they got just that and England were out.

History has been written to some extent, because Poland were not highly-rated in 1973, but their performance in West Germany served to reassess their qualities and also put England’s exit into some context. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as they say.

But Poland had a tough group in West Germany, including Argentina and Italy as well as Haiti. Two countries with a World Cup pedigree would surely be too strong for the Poles – at least, that’s how the script was written. Without Lubanski, Poland would struggle. How wrong the pundits were.

Poland had a number of trump cards that most people were unaware of. In goal they had Jan Tomaszewski, the keeper that was dismissed as a “clown” by Brian Clough but was responsible, more than most, for denying England a place in West Germany. At the heart of the defence was Jerzy Gorgoń, a giant centre half who could also score goals. In midfield was the jewel in Poland’s crown, Kazimierz Deyna, a visionary player from Legia Warsaw. Deyna’s performances in 1974 made him one of the most coveted players in Europe, but the communist regime in Poland prevented him from moving abroad.

Poland’s forward line had few equals, comprising Grzegorz Lato, Andrzej Szarmach and Robert Gadocha. The balding Lato looked older than his 24 years, but his speed and finishing made him one of 1974’s stars. He played for Stal Mielec, a club from a small town in south-eastern Poland that was synonymous with aircraft manufacturing. Stal were surprise Polish champions in 1972-73, with Lato their leading scorer. With Lubanski unfit, Poland’s goalscoring hopes rested with him. By the start of the World Cup, Lato had won just 13 caps for his country. His partner up front was 23 year-old Szarmach of Górnik Zabrze, a player who had a very cavalier look about him and possessed pace and sharp finishing skills. Both Lato and Szarmach benefitted from the wing play of Robert Gadocha of Legia Warsaw.

Formation of Poland’s national football team before the match against Yugoslavia (2:1) during the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany: Kazimierz Deyna, Jan Tomaszewski, Jerzy Gorgon, Zygmunt Maszczyk, Antoni Szymanowski, Henryk Kasperczak, Andrzej Szarmach, Adam Musial, Grzegorz Lato, Robert Gadocha, Wladyslaw Zmuda.

Surprise package

Poland began their 1974 campaign with realistic expectations. The favourites for the competition were West Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands. Italy and Argentina were among the next bracket so Poland had a considerable challenge. The first game, in Stuttgart, saw Argentina needlessly give the ball away to the hungry and fleet-footed Poles, who scored twice in the first eight minutes. In the seventh minute, goalkeeper Daniel Carnevali dropped the ball at the feet of Lato from a corner and the number 16 had the simple task of scoring. Then Szarmach made it 2-0, breaking free and sending a left-foot shot drive past Carnevali. Argentina pulled a goal back on 60, but Lato took advantage of a poor throw-out by Carnevali to make it 3-1. Babington’s scrambled effort in the 66th minute reduced the deficit again, but Poland were worthy winners and made a few people sit up and take notice.

A 7-0 win against Haiti (who Italy had made hard work of in the first group games), underlined the goalscoring power of Poland, with Szarmach and Lato sharing five goals. Then it was Italy, an azzurri team that included Dino Zoff, Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti, Fabio Capello and Pietro Anastasi. Poland went 2-0 ahead thanks to a header from Szarmach and a superbly-taken first-time shot from Deyna, and future England manager Capello netted five minutes from time for the Italians. Poland were the only team to come through their group with a 100% record, and they’d scored 12 goals in the process – they were now being taken very seriously.

Poland 1974, their men and matches

    Arg Hai It Swe Yug WG Bra
3-2 7-0 2-1 1-0 2-1 0-1 1-0
2 Tomaszewski, Jan * * * * * * *
4 Szymnanowski, Antoni * * * * * * *
6 Gorgoń, Jerzy * * 1 * * * * *
9 Żmuda, Władsław * * * * * * *
10 Musial, Adam * * * * * *
12 Deyna, Kazimierz * * 1 *1 * *1 * *
13 Kasperczak, Henryk * * * * * * *
14 Maszczyk, Zygmunt * * * * * * *
16 Lato, Grzegorz *2 *2 * *1 *1 * *1
17 Szarmach, Andrzej *1 *3 *1 * * *
18 Gadocha, Robert * * * * * * *
11 Ćmikiewicz, Lesław S S S S S S
19 Domarski, Jan S S *
5 Gut, Zbigniew S *
21 Kmiecik, Kazimierz S
20 Kapka, Zdzisław S

Beaten at water polo

In the second stage, Poland were in the same group as Sweden, Yugoslavia and West Germany. It was, arguably, the easiest of the two, for the Dutch and Brazilians were in the other section. There were no semi-finals as such, although the media expected that the meeting between the hosts and Poland on July 3 in Frankfurt would decide who would qualify for the final.

The two teams worked their way through the group, West Germany beating Yugoslavia 2-0 and Poland 1-0 winners against Sweden – a Lato close range header – on June 26. Four days later, the Poles beat Yugoslavia 2-1 (Deyna penalty and Lato) and West Germany won 4-2 against the Swedes. The group was shaping-up as predicted.

July 3 was a stormy day in Frankfurt. The skies were apocalyptic, almost Wagnerian. The Waldstadion pitch was sodden, putting the game between the two best teams in Group B in doubt. The kick-off was delayed while the groundstaff tried to remove the excess water. It eventually got underway, but the surface prevented Poland from playing their normal game. Sometimes, the ball stopped dead on the puddled pitch, on other occasions, it merely skidded. If the game had been played in 2018, it would probably have been abandoned. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining contest, with both teams going for victory – Poland had to win, while the Germans would qualify with just a draw.

Sepp Maier, West Germany’s imposing keeper, was at his best to prevent Deyna, Lato, Gadocha and Henryk Kasperczak from scoring. At the opposite end, Uli Hoeneß missed a penalty kick, his weak effort saved by “the clown”. With 15 minutes remaining, Rainer Bonhof’s run into the area ended with the ball rolling loose to Gerd Müller, who scored with a low shot. It was enough to send West Germany through to the Munich final. They were relieved, in fact, West Germany’s Paul Breitner claimed that Poland were the best side in the 1974 World Cup. On the eve of the final, Poland secured third place, beating Brazil with Lato’s seventh goal of the competition, winning him the golden boot.

Legacy

Poland’s near-glorious summer opened the world’s eyes to some of the outstanding players that were shining behind the Iron Curtain. Deyna, for instance, was courted by a veritable A-Z of European football, but most players were prevented from moving until they turned 30. Deyna eventually joined Manchester City in 1978 and sadly, died in a car crash at the age of 41.

As for Poland, they were narrowly denied a place in the last eight of the European Championship in 1976, having the misfortune to be in the same qualifying group as the Netherlands. But they were back in the World Cup in 1978, opening the competition with a 0-0 draw against West Germany in Buenos Aires. They won the group and reached the second stage, beaten by Argentina and Brazil. Their team, which was largely the same as 1974, with a few additions, now included Zbigniew Boniek. They finished third again in 1982.

1974 will always be remembered for being the World Cup of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, but it was also the summer of Poland and a wonderfully skilful, expressive team. They have had their heroes since in Poland, but the team of 1974 is the benchmark that every Polish team has to live up to. It’s a tough task.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA