The new Polish football season began last night, but I was barely aware that it was upcoming until I saw an advertisement for the sports newspaper Przegląd Sportowy last Tuesday which mentioned the new season beginning on Friday August 6th. The season did not exactly begin with a bang, as 3,000 people watched GKS Bełchatów beat Polonia Bytom 2-0 at home, while a more respectable crowd of 9,000 watched Górnik Zabrze on their return to the Ekstraklasa. However, the majority of the fans would have gone home disappointed as the home side lost 2-0 to Polonia Warszawa. I have lived in Poland for over one year now and have found it difficult to maintain interest in Polish football, even though in general I am a big football fan. It seems to me that the quality in the league just does not warrant much support or interest from a ‘regular’ football follower (as opposed to those committed to following their local side, for example).
I watched keenly as the results arrived this week from Polish teams playing in European club competitions, and it was no real surprise when all of the 4 sides playing were defeated on aggregate. Lech Poznań performed quite well in their first attempt in the Champions League for 17 years, but when up against a moderately big side, they lost out 2-0 on aggregate to Sparta Prague. Ruch Chorzów did well to qualify for the Europa League ahead of Legia Warszawa but were defeated easily by FK Austria Wien. Jagiellonia Białystok were understandably delighted to play in their first ever European club games in the Europa League after winning the Puchar Polski last May, and they can take some honour from losing 4-3 on aggregate to Aris Salonika on Thursday. However, the most surprising result(s) came as Wisła Kraków were defeated at home and away to lose 4-2 on aggregate to Qarabag of Azerbaijan. This leaves Lech Poznań as Poland’s sole representative’s in Europe, as they drop from the Champions League to the Europa League as a result of losing in the 3rd qualifying round and they will be playing Dnipro from Ukraine to try to qualify for the group stage of the Europa League, as they did three years ago. This years performances by Polish sides in Europe mirror similar ones from the past few seasons, and must give fans of Polish clubs cause for concern as their sides tend to struggle against teams that are not exactly European powerhouses. It seems that the only possibility for Polish club fans to see top European sides playing their side might be in friendly competitions. This evenings game between Legia Warszawa and Arsenal, played to open Legia’s newly completed stadium, is a good example.
Legia’s new stadium – foreign teams allowed in only by friendly invitation
Another possible reason for gloom and doom within the league is the quality of players on show. Players which would have been seen as star names such as Robert Lewandowski and Jan Mucha (Slovakian international goalkeeper who played all four of his countries games in the World Cup) have left for foreign lands, and while Lech Poznań at least received €4.5 million (approximately 18 million zl) for Lewandowski, Mucha left on a free transfer to join Everton in England as his contract expired with Legia. With some big-name players leaving, Polish sides have seemed to focus on older, former Polish national stars coming in to fill the void. Ebi Smolarek has joined Polonia Warszawa after many years playing in Germany, Spain and England while Artur Wichniarek returns to his home town of Poznań to play for Lech after 10 years playing in Germany. It remains to be seen if these former national team stars will be giving all of their effort in the Ekstraklasa – or rather if they will settle down to a nice comfortable ‘pension’ with a Polish club at home after many years abroad.
Who will be the new star on Poland’s cover for the FIFA 11 game?
However, one of the interesting areas in which Polish club football seems keen to develop is with the hiring of managers. Jose Maria Bakero joined Polonia Warszawa as manager about 9 months ago. The former Barcelona and Spain star seemed a strange appointment but he managed to help Polonia avoid relegation and he also lead them their first victory over local rivals Legia for 10 years. Further to Bakero, it has been speculated that Wisła Kraków will appoint a foreigner to replace Henryk Kasperczak after he was fired following defeat in the Europa League on Thursday evening. Some of the names being mentioned as possibilites for the role include former Celtic, Barcelona and Sweden player Henrik Larsson and former Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Argentina player Diego Simeone. Both are inexperienced as managers, but could possibily use the Ekstraklasa as a training run for later positions.
Foreign former stars – the future of Polish club management?
However, while the clubs work to bring back former top Polish players and foreign managers, they still need to consider investing in youth to continue finding the future Lewandowskis, Smolareks and Wichniareks that can make their clubs (and the Polish national team by default) successful once more. Only once has a Polish club played in a European club final with Górnik Zabrze losing the European Cup Winners Cup final of 1970. And the Polish national team feels like it is a long way from the 3rd place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 World Cup finals. The clubs in the Ekstraklasa look like they will need to improve their grass-roots organisation and youth development to hit the same heights again.