A history of the Warsaw derby: Polonia Warsaw vs Legia Warsaw

On Saturday Polonia and Legia Warsaw will meet in the next instalment of the Warsaw derby at Polonia’s stadium Konwiktorska 6.

In the last Warsaw derby in September Polonia came away from Legia’s Pepsi Arena with a creditable 1-1 draw. The match however was more notable for the actions of Legia fans who fought with their own security guards and caused 200,000 PLN damage, including the burning of seats and destruction of toilet doors. This incident has provoked a battle between Legia ultras and their own club, reducing the attendance figures at the Pepsi Arena in what has otherwise been an impressive season for Legia. Tensions between fans of the two clubs have been high since Polonia returned to the top Polish league after a 40 year absence in 1993. This piece will however mainly focus on battles occurring on the pitch in what is one of Polish football’s greatest rivalries. And yet, for many years the two teams did not play each other, the rivalry being more symbolic than anything else.

Polonia and Legia are two of the oldest and most venerable Polish club sides. Polonia’s beginnings go back to before the First World War when Poland did not exist as a state, being divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The first stirrings of football in today’s Poland came in the Austro-Hungarian Empire where gymnastic clubs took up association football in the first years of the 20th Century. The first Polish football powerhouses emerged in the cities of Kraków and Lwów (now L’viv, Ukraine). Football in the Russian partition of Poland, in which Warsaw was situated, took a while to catch up. By the end of the first decade of the century Warsaw’s schools started to organise football teams. As a result the first annual inter-school football tournaments were held in the city in 1910 and 1911.

1911 saw the birth of Polonia Warsaw due to the unification of three Warsaw school teams Korona, Stella and Merkury, although the club was not officially registered until 1915. Polonia quickly became the city’s premier team in the early post First World War period as Poland finally gained independence after 123 years of rule by foreign empires. Many Polonia players went on to play for the Polish national team during this period, the most renowned of which was the winger-cum-full back Wladyslaw Szczepaniak who played 34 times for the Polish national side and over 700 games for Polonia itself.

Legia’s origins go back to the First World War. Many Polish sportsmen found themselves fighting for Russian, German and Austrian armies during the conflict. In Piłsudski’s Polish legions (permitted by the Austrian government) soldiers came up with the idea of forming a football side. It was named ‘Legia’ to hark back to the legions of the Roman empire. The team played several games at this time but was disbanded in 1918 as soldiers left for home at the end of the war. In 1920 the army once more decided to set up a football club but the ‘Legia’ moniker only returned in 1922. Legia’s most renowned inter-war player was Henryk Martyna, a defender who played 32 times for the Polish national team.

 Henryk Martyna

Henryk Martyna, source: nac.gov.pl

In the immediate post-war years Polonia were without doubt the strongest side in the capital of the newly-independent state. Between 1921 and 1926 the czarne koszule finished top of the Warsaw provincial league and represented the city in the national championships which at the time were organised in small round-robin groups. In 1921 and 1926 Polonia managed to finish as runners-up in these championships. In the first competitive match between Legia and Polonia on 10 June 1921 the czarne koszule hammered the wojskowi 8-0! Before the founding of the Polish top league in 1927 Polonia came out on top in seven games against Legia with the latter achieving only two victories. However it must be noted that Polonia-Legia was not the most keenly fought Warsaw derby at the time. That honour goes to Polonia’s games with Warszawianka, the city’s third top division side. Warszawianka were Polonia’s youth team and, after a series of disagreements, they decided to set up their own club in 1921. This meant games between the two sides were often tense affairs.

Things improved for Legia with the establishment of the Polish top league in 1927. From this moment onwards Legia consistently finished higher in the league standings than Polonia, although neither of the two teams finished any better than third. Legia’s results against Polonia also picked up. Indeed in four games between the sides from October 1930 to May 1932 Legia scored 22 goals to Polonia’s meagre six! The highlight of these results was an 8-1 Legia win on 20 June 1932. Both clubs however suffered problems during the 1930s with Polonia relegated twice and Legia once. Legia’s relegation in 1936 prompted the Polish army to withdraw its support from the club and in the autumn of 1938 the side ceased to exist. In the last season before the onset of the Second World War Polonia finished in 7th in the Polish league.

The combined Nazi-Soviet invasion in September 1939 brought an end to the Polish league system. Despite this underground leagues took place in various Polish cities. This was the case too in Warsaw and Polonia won several city championships at this time. This meant they were in good shape when the war came to an end. Indeed in the first post-war championships (run once more on a round-robin basis) Polonia were victorious, winning their first ever Polish championship. Their success was powerfully symbolic as Warsaw lay in ruins after the unsuccessful uprising of 1944-5.

Polania Polish champions 1946

Polonia’s Polish championship winning side of 1946, source: http://ksppolonia.pl

The immediate post-war era also saw the reactivation of an Army Sports’ club which from June 1945 once more bore the name ‘Legia.’ Both Legia and Polonia were part of the resurrected top Polish league in 1948. The two sides would play against each other regularly until 1952. During this period the two clubs had a relatively even head-to-head record with Polonia’s attendances being slightly higher.

The rivalry between the clubs would however soon take a long hiatus. The explanation for this can be found in the reorganisation of Polish football after the imposition of Communist rule in 1945. Poland’s Communists decided to use the system that existed in the Soviet Union, i.e each team would have a state-body as a ‘benefactor.’ Legia were much luckier in this regard. Whilst Legia had the strong financial backing of the army, Polonia were sponsored by the far poorer Polish railways. The imbalance in resources caused Polonia to fall from the Polish top league in 1952. It would be another 41 years before they were able to make it back to this level. In one last hurrah Polonia defeated Legia 1-0 in the 1952 Polish cup final in front of 15,000 spectators at Legia’s Polish Army Stadium. The winning goal was scored by their striker Zdzisław Wesołowski.

Polonia win the cup in 1952

For the next 40 years Polonia alternated between the Polish second and third divisions while Legia became unquestionably the largest football club in the Polish capital. Legia went on to win the Polish league four times during the Communist period and the Polish cup eight times. They also regularly appeared in Europe, the height of their success being reaching the European Cup semi-final in 1970 with Feyenoord. On the way to the semis Legia defeated Romania’s UTA Arad, the French champions Saint-Étienne and Galatasaray. Legia possessed special players too, the most prominent was the mercurial Kazimierz Deyna who performed so brilliantly for Poland in the World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978.

Kazmierz Deyna

Kazimierz Deyna, source: Legia.com

When Polonia finally made it back to the ekstraklasa in 1993, they were by far the smaller club, with an unimpressive fan base and a dilapidated old stadium. The first game between the two sides in 38 years took place in November 1993 at Legia’s Polish Army Stadium, with Legia coming away with a 2-1 victory. Polonia were once more relegated to the second division in 1994 but made it back to the ekstraklasa in 1996. This time the czarne koszule had a wealthier backer in owner Janusz Romanowski who had just pulled out of financing Legia. As a result of Romanowski Polonia remained in the top Polish league for the next ten seasons and were able to renew their rivalry with Legia.

Unfortunately Polonia-Legia games were affected by the rise of hooliganism in Poland in the mid-1990s. The clearest example of this was the Płonące derby (Burning derby) of 19 April 1997. 5,000 Legia fans descended on Polonia’s Konwiktorska stadium for the match and during the second half things quickly got out of hand. Legia fans fought pitched battles with police called in to maintain order and Polonia’s club shop ended up being burnt down. Somewhat surprisingly the Polish FA punished Polonia for what happened that day. For the next three seasons away fans were banned from Konwiktorska and the derby at Polonia was played behind closed doors.

During this period Polonia achieved its first league victory over Legia in fifty years, and what a victory it was! Polonia were heading towards their first league title since 1946 when they faced Legia at the Polish Army Stadium on 20 May 2000. Second half goals from their Nigerian (and soon to be Polish) striker Emmanuel Olisadebe, his strike partner Maciej Bykowski and midfielder Tomasz Wieszczycki brought the league championship to Konwiktorska. In future seasons Legia went on to dominate matches between the two clubs. It would take until May 2010 for Polonia to record another victory over Legia. The wojskowi’s most convincing victory in this period came on 27 March 2004 when they hammered Polonia 7-2 with Marek Saganowski scoring a hat-trick (at one point Legia were winning 7-0).

Legia-Polonia

Since 2010 Polonia have generally held the upper hand in the Warsaw derby, indeed Legia have only one win in the last nine encounters between the two clubs. So how does the rivalry stand today? Both teams sit in great positions in the Polish league with Legia four points clear at the top and Polonia eight points behind in third. Behind the scenes Legia are however in a much stronger position than their city rivals. Legia have by far the strongest squad in the Polish league and look to be preparing for a Champions’ League challenge next year. On the other hand Polonia are in dire straits under the chaotic ownership of Ireneusz Król but thankfully have in Piotr Stokowiec an intelligent young trainer who is prepared to take risks. A clear example of the contrasting fortunes of the two sides was the transfer of two key Polonia players across the city to Legia in the winter transfer window. The two players, left back cum-winger Tomasz Brzyski and Georgian striker Vladimir Dvalishvili are part of a select group of players to have been transferred between the two clubs. Brzyski and Dvalishvili’s presence on Saturday should be sure to add an extra frisson of tension to the derby. The stage is set for a classic encounter. Almost a century after a ball was kicked between the two sides in anger, a famous old rivalry is certainly going strong.

This article originally appeared in the wonderful Ekstraklasa Magazine edited by the amazing Ryan Hubbard and Michał Zachodny.  Check it out and follow them!

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6 thoughts on “A history of the Warsaw derby: Polonia Warsaw vs Legia Warsaw

  1. Interesting article! thanks for giving me a little history lesson about Warsaw football.
    “For the next three seasons away fans were banned from Konwiktorska and the derby at Polonia was played behind closed doors.” Were they banned from all the matches or only from Polonia vs Legia matches?

  2. Great blog! keep up the good work! Will you write sth about the derby and the tense mood between Polonia fans?
    best!

  3. Pingback: Planning a football trip to Warsaw, home of Legia Warsaw & Polonia Warsaw – Football Trip Scout

  4. An excellent page, and a great article Chris. On my first trip to Warszawa in 2005, I always wondered why everyone I met supported Legia. In a city that big, there should be more than one top class team. Liverpool has 2, Manchester has 2, London has between 6 – 10. A good insight. Best wishes. Jonny (Northern Irishman in Poland)

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