Losers can be heroes, too

HOW often do you hear today, that somebody declares they deserve success because they want it so badly? Wanting something doesn’t mean you deserve to be rewarded, “want” is often a symptom of greed, of entitlement and more than a touch of arrogance. Success has to be earned and the problem for the aggressively-driven folk in society, they are up against similarly-minded people that also feel they “deserve” accolades because they crave the recognition. In a world where instant gratification, impatience and the need to win attention seems to dominate so many people’s lives, life has become a competition. It may have always been like that, but now we have the means to command and control that attention.

The Great Uncrowned can be bought here

Football is such a game of narrow margins that success balances on a tightrope. I always recall somebody, when referring to a club stalwart of an under-achieving club as a “born winner”. My response was, “how can he be, he’s played for this single club all his career and won nothing of significance. Don’t you mean, he wants to be a winner?”. Everyone in football wants to be a winner, from the humblest club to the behemoth that needs to win something every single season. It cannot be done, because one goal can change a match, a final, a season, a career. Simple fact: not everyone can be a winner, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

In recent times, we have seen two incredibly talented teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, slug it out at the top of the Premier League, thrashing minnows, winning game after game. It is Liverpool’s misfortune that City are that little bit better, hence denying them what would normally be a period of dominance. Although Liverpool haven’t won the Premier League more than once, their current team will be remembered forever as Champions League winners, but also as the team that ran City close.

It is getting harder and harder for “nearly men” to get the plaudits they deserve because the focus is on winning those prizes we deserve because we want them so much. This intense belief that only the word “success” will do extends beyond sport, where ludicrous expressions like “deferred success” are used to pacify and appease those that cannot reach the level they need. In corporate life, so often the real issues are kicked down the road because people just don’t want to tell someone they are not up to the task, they are underperforming or simply the wrong person for the job.

Somewhere we have lost the ability to see near-success as anything other than failure, the team that reached the final but ran out of steam or the over-performing side that just wasn’t good enough. Does losing the league title by one point or goal difference make the team that came top so much better? It’s true that league tables rarely lie, but they can also illustrate there is more than one very decent team.

Knockout competitions and World Cups are different, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

While leagues invariably deliver silverware to the best teams, cup competitions are exposed to the luck of the draw, the misfortune of the goalkeeper with oily gloves or the defender who slips up at a vital moment. A game of 90 minutes can change history – how would football have developed, for example, if teams like Austria 1934, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974 and 1978 and Brazil 1982 had triumphed instead of losing in heartbreaking fashion? The world wept with these losing sides, for they epitomised the beautiful game.

At Queens Park Rangers and Ipswich Town, clubs that have never had bulging trophy cabinets, their most revered teams are those that didn’t win the prize they coveted. Rightly so, for these teams played wonderful football that excited neutrals up and down the country.

Do we focus too much on winning and allow just a tiny fraction of teams onto the podium? Consider that there are 92 Premier/Football League clubs, a huge number. How many of these can be successful in any given season, and by that we mean, trophies and promotion?

If you count qualifying for Europe as a prize, and it should be, then 18 clubs of the 92 (20%) can look upon the 2021-22 season as a year of success. Others will consider staying in a division due to their circumstances as an achievement. Do we need more “winners” or does creating a community where, to quote the 1970s band Hot Chocolate, “everyone’s a winner, baby”, merely dilutes the essence of success?

The Great Uncrowned (ISBN: 9781801501774), published by Pitch Publishing, is the story of some of these footballing bridesmaids. It’s not meant to be definitive, although readers will recognise some of the very fine sides featured, but it is most definitely meant to be a tribute to the players and teams that should have been more decorated. To buy the book, click here

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.