Fans look on as Poland crashed out of the European Championships last year
I sat down outside a Warsaw sports hall on a bright October day to eat some lunch. A Polish acquaintance joined me and we had a chat about the football tournament we were taking part in. After a while our conversation drifted to football of a more professional nature. I had just acquired a cable subscription and I pondered which matches I should tune into that weekend. I had the usual pot-pourri of English, Spanish, French and Italian matches to choose from. But the weekend’s Polish matches were of more interest to me. I have spent a long time in Poland in different capacities but its football had never really drawn me in. Here was the perfect opportunity to get excited about the top-level game in my adopted country.
Eager for some more information to fuel my interest, I asked my acquaintance what he thought of the Polish league. I was met with a bitter scowl: ‘I wouldn’t watch any of that, it’s shit’ he replied. Slightly bemused I asked him what he meant by this comment. He said: ‘It’s just terrible, I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me.’ Rather taken aback by his negativity I decided not to continue with my line of questioning and we returned to the more pressing task of eating our Kiełbasa.
Over the last year or so as I have frantically picked up knowledge of the Polish game, I have come to realise my acquaintance’s attitude is certainly not a one-off in Poland. Indeed it is fair to say that it is endemic amongst people involved in the game in this country, from chairman to fans, journalists to coaches. This article will illustrate some of the dynamics of this all-pervasive negativity and argue that, if things do not change soon, it will mean the downfall of the domestic game for good.
It has to be said that Poland’s footballing heyday is long gone. The country’s golden age consisted of a fifteen year period between 1970 and 1986 when its clubs and national team achieved considerable success on the European and world stage. During this period the triumvirate of Górnik Zabrze, Legia Warsaw and Widzew Łódź were all able to reach European semi-finals. Their key players Włodzimierz Lubański, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbigniew Boniek drove the national team to victory at the 1972 Olympic Games and to two World Cup semi-finals in 1974 and 1982. For those fifteen years the Polish game had a bounce in its step. Its teams and players feared no-one and its fans expected success.
Skip forward thirty years and this confidence is nowhere to be seen. There are several clear reasons for this. Firstly the national team seems to be making no progress whatsoever. Poland has played in two World Cups and two European Championships since the fall of Communism but has failed miserably to qualify from the group stages each time. In Euro 2012 Polish hopes were high as the co-hosts of the tournament but a side led by Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski could not win a single game against their relatively weak Greek, Russian and Czech opponents. This lack of success can also be seen in European club competitions. The last time a Polish side qualified for the Champions League group stages was 17 years ago, when a Widzew Łódź side faced the likes of Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Polish fans thus have little faith in their sides achieving success on the international and European arena.
Several other issues have led to declining interest in the domestic game. Firstly the end of Communism removed restrictions on freedom of movement. During the Eastern bloc era Polish players could only play abroad after the age of 30, and then only with the permission of state authorities. The most notable exception to this rule was Boniek whose move to Juventus went through as the Turin club’s gargantuan offer could not be turned down. These days however Polish players leave for wealthier leagues as soon as their star shines bright enough. In certain cases players leave very early, a case in point is Sampdoria’s Bartosz Salamon who left Poland at just 16 years of age to play for the northern Italian side Brescia. Other players take their chances after short promising stints in the Polish league, only to never make it off the bench in stronger footballing countries. These players are lost to the domestic game.
One other factor for the lack of excitement is the fan violence which still lurks in the background of the Polish game. Despite hooliganism being less pervasive than it was in the dark days of the 1990s, the stigma of violence is still very much present in the public discourse surrounding the game. In late August Ruch Chorzów fans travelled to the port town of Gdynia to watch their side in the Polish Cup. While sunning themselves on the beach Ruch fans got into a rather undignified scuffle with Mexican sailors, who were relaxing as their ship docked in the harbour. The ‘Battle of Gdynia’ very nearly became an international incident (not helped by some overly-dramatic reporting from Polish news outlets). In late September UEFA handed Legia Warsaw a whopping 150,000 Euros fine and forced them to play one Europa League game behind closed doors for the use of flares and the unveiling of racially offensive flags. While the ins and outs of these cases are not clear cut, they illustrate why Polish polite society in the main has distanced itself from the domestic game. For many people it is an embarrassment.
Whilst all these issues explain the reluctance of Poles to embrace the domestic game, the attitude of ‘football’ people in this country leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of seeking shafts of light in the darkness, many have turned to that basest of all weapons, irony. Some of the chief culprits are Polish football journalists. Certainly the standard of the Polish league is not superb but many members of the press seem to spend their time making quips about games they are paid to watch. Tune in to Twitter on a match-day and you will find journalists continually complaining of poor games and of the terrible players on display. This constant negativity from the press, with several notable exceptions, grinds the observer down.
Polish fans are just as bad. It seems to be an accepted part of Polish fan culture to make fun of their national league. On Facebook the page Oglądam Polską piłkę dla beki (which roughly translates as ‘I watch Polish football for shits and giggles’) has over 12,000 ‘likes’ with memes and photos taking the mickey out of the Polish league. Some of the jokes are admittedly funny, but behind the humour is a stark reality. Most Polish fans feel the league is only worthwhile as a source of merriment.
Football lovers in this country have, in the main, sought to escape from their domestic game. The principle way of doing so is watching wealthier Western European leagues. Many Polish journalists and football bloggers spend their time focusing on foreign leagues, whether it be the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga. One example of this is the erudite Michał Okoński who blogs about football and simultaneously is the assistant editor for the excellent Polish weekly paper Tygodnik Powszechny. Michał writes wonderfully eloquent pieces about football but unfortunately, his work exclusively concentrates on the Premier League and his chosen side Tottenham Hotspur. When asked about the Polish league however he draws a blank. In mid-September Cracovia played Wisła in the only current top-flight inner-city derby. It was by far the biggest match of the weekend in Poland and took place in Okoński’s native Kraków. Okoński did not however tune in, or even, if Twitter is anything to go by, have any idea what the result was. Instead he was focusing on what was happening in England. Intelligent voices like Okoński’s have been unfortunately lost to the Polish league, perhaps for good. Other top journalists almost seem to be yawning while covering Polish matches, awaiting the Spanish late evening games so they can once more wax lyrical about Lionel Messi’s latest hat-trick.
Polish fans have also looked abroad for their football kicks. Indeed, many are obsessed with European super-teams. Borussia Dortmund, for example, are incredibly popular in Poland due to the presence of the Polish trio of Robert ‘Lewy’ Lewandowski, Jakub ‘Kuba’ Błaszczykowski and Łukasz Piszczek. Polish fans in their thousands turned up at pubs to cheer their heroes on in May’s Champions League Final. Others express their undying love for Barcelona. Poland went especially Barça-crazy at the end of July as the Catalan giants played a friendly against Lechia Gdańsk. Lucky television viewers were subjected to interview after interview with Polish Barça-addicts parading dogs named Leo and proudly showing off their pendant collections.
A gaggle of Polish Barcelona fans in Gdańsk
Indeed, Polish foreign football-o-philia sometimes goes to extreme lengths. There are, for example, a host of very well run Polish-language football sites which cater for Polish fans of foreign clubs. At the time of writing the Polish Real Madrid website has over 58,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook and a Polish Barcelona page has over 20,000. There is even, (oh ye Gods!) a fully functioning Polish Bolton Wanderers’ website.
Now there is nothing wrong with Poland’s obsession with foreign clubs, indeed there are a growing number of English fans watching continental leagues. Variety is the spice of life and all that. The problem here is that the Polish game at a lower level is heavily neglected as a result of Polish fans’ flights of fancy. There is little interest in the Polish local game and clubs find it almost impossible to raise revenue. All this while thousands of intelligent and passionate fans are pouring their hearts, souls and pockets into foreign clubs which at the end of the day do not really need their support.
So is there any way the domestic game in Poland can be saved, or is it doomed to vegetate forever? I see several possible ways of improving the attitude to the game here. Firstly clubs should seek to get involved in their local community more via active social media and public relations’ policies. If Polish clubs interact more with their supporters, fans will hopefully feel more valued by their clubs. One way of doing so would be promoting the idea of supporter ownership in Poland, something which has to this point been almost non-existent in the country. Recently, bankrupted club Polonia Warsaw took the step of inviting the British organisation Supporters’ Direct to advise them on how a supporter-run club could work – more of these kinds of initiatives are required.
Another way of progressing would be for journalists to attempt to write more in-depth articles about what is going on in the Polish league. There are a lot of intelligent and thoughtful journalists out there, they should try to avoid falling into the trap of sneering criticism. When everyone else is making jokes, they should take the less-travelled route and ask interesting questions instead. There are many fascinating football stories about the game here. Polish journalists need to write more about them.
The final path is perhaps the most difficult. Polish football is desperate for success, and to achieve that a Polish side have to get into the Champions League group stages and the Polish national team have to impress their expectant fans. Legia were achingly close this year to ending Poland’s 17 year wait for the group stages. Perhaps next year they will get there, and the sneering in the domestic game will end. Optimism is in short supply in Poland but where there is life there is always hope.