Young Polonia fans stare at a protest banner against their former owner Ireneusz Król
On August 25 large crowds witnessed the rebirth of two famous old Polish clubs as Polonia Warsaw and ŁKS Łódź played their first home games since going bankrupt last season. Both clubs have started life in the fifth tier of Polish football. How did it come to pass that two former Polish champions have sunk so low? What does it say about the current state of the Polish game?
Halcyon days and The Loss of Hegemony
Polonia and ŁKS historically have a lot in common. Both started out as the premier football club in their respective cities, only to be eclipsed by a younger and more successful neighbour. Polonia was founded in 1911 and in the inter-war period was the club of Warsaw’s Intelligentsia. While Polonia won Poland’s first post Second World War championship, it was its city rivals Legia Warsaw who came to occupy a dominant position in the capital.
Legia received the generous support of the Polish army whereas Polonia was granted the substandard sponsorship of the Polish railways. For forty years Polonia was thus mired in the Polish lower leagues while Legia achieved success at home and in Europe led by greats such as Kazimierz Deyna.
ŁKS’s origins stretch back even further than those of Polonia. The club was founded by Henryk Lubawski in 1908 and throughout the inter-war period it was the top club in the city. ŁKS’ golden age came in the mid to late 1950s as, after several high finishes, it won its first Polish championship in 1958. Like Polonia, however, ŁKS was also eventually eclipsed by its city rivals RTS ‘Widzew’ Łódź.
Widzew started off as small club; its star only started to shine in the late 60s as the club rose from the 4th tier to reach the first division in 1975. This was only the start of Widzew’s success. Between 1975 and 1983 Widzew, led by the talismanic Zbigniew Boniek, won two Polish titles and knocked the mighty Liverpool and Juventus out of Europe. ŁKS continued to play in the first division, boasting Polish internationals such as Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski, but Widzew became the game’s loved club, nationally and internationally.
A New Era
The end of Communism in Poland offered new opportunities but also asked new questions. In Polish football, state support suddenly meant far less and only one thing now really mattered: private money and whether you could access it or not.
Since 1989 there has been a renaissance in Varsovian football as the nation’s capital has thrived in the free-market era. While Silesian giants like Górnik Zabrze and Ruch Chorzów have floundered, Legia has secured five championships.
For Polonia itself the end of the Eastern bloc was also fruitful. In 1993 the club was promoted to the first division for the first time since 1952, and although it was relegated the next season it returned to the top tier in 1996 and stayed there for the next 10 years. In 2000 Polonia even won its first Polish championship in over 50 years. Despite this Legia was still a far bigger club than Polonia and Czarne Koszule (Black Shirts) fans were dwarfed by their larger and louder neighbours.
Meanwhile Łódź has suffered terribly since the fall of the wall. In the 1990s thousands of people lost jobs as factory after factory closed its doors and the city’s population plummeted. Conversely Łódź’s teams did well in the first post-Communist decade. Widzew won two consecutive titles in 1996 and 1997 and in 1998 ŁKS won its second Polish championship helped by the goals of future Southampton striker Marek Saganowski.
That high was to signal the end of the good times for ŁKS. In 2000 the club was relegated to the second tier of Polish football and only made it back to the top flight six years later. Since then the club has been plagued by two major problems: high levels of debt and a dilapidated old stadium which it does not have the money to improve. Indeed in 2009 issues with debt meant it was not granted an Ekstraklasa licence, forcing it to fall once more to the second tier. Whilst it was promoted again in 2011, debt problems coupled with heavy spending meant further relegation in 2012.
Everything looked far brighter for Polonia in the noughties, especially after it was purchased by millionaire construction magnate Józef Wojciechowski. In 2008, with Polonia in the second tier, Wojciechowski bought the licence of first division side Groclin Dyskobolia, returning Polonia back to the top flight. Wojciechowski proceeded to throw money at the club, purchasing top players on huge wages and hiring and firing managers at whim. When Wojciechowski finally got bored of Polonia in 2012 he sold it to the only bidder, Silesian businessman and former GKS Katowice owner Ireneusz Król.
Król turned out to be a disaster for the club from Warsaw’s Muranów district. He initially sought to move Polonia to Katowice in the summer of 2012 but new Polish Football Association (PZPN) rules outlawed this. Stuck in Warsaw, Król proceeded not to pay Polonia’s players throughout the season, apart from the odd bonus here and there. This unfortunately meant that in May 2013 Polonia was denied an Ekstraklasa licence for the upcoming season. As Król declared bankruptcy, the club was theoretically no more.
The situation in Lódź was far clearer cut. Debts levels there were so high that in April 2013 the ŁKS board was left with no choice but to forfeit its remaining league fixtures. The club had also ceased to exist on the Polish football map.
Of course big football clubs aren’t like normal companies, they don’t just disappear. But how were the two clubs to start again? Luckily the answer was relatively simple. Both ŁKS and Polonia possessed youth academies which operated as separate companies to their senior sides. As a result both clubs sought to enter their academies into the senior football pyramid.
A new question however emerged; where should the clubs be placed in the pyramid? The PZPN was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand it preferred to start the two clubs in the lowest possible tier to avoid legal precedents concerning bankrupted clubs seeking to start again. On the other hand, both clubs were former Polish champions and the PZPN and provincial associations therefore wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to resurrect themselves. After much toing and froing, fan pressure ensured the clubs were placed in the IV liga, the Polish fifth tier, the highest purely provincial level of Polish football.
ŁKS and Polonia’s presence in the fifth tier has created new problems for regional football associations; the primary issue being the murky and violent world of Polish fan rivalry. In Poland fan violence is akin to England in the 70s with groups of organised ‘Hools’ targeting their rivals. This is further complicated by the fact that these larger groups spread amongst the fans of smaller clubs. This means that smaller teams are often ‘fan clubs’ of sides at the top of the Polish pyramid.
This has been especially painful for the new Polonia. Small clubs in the Mazovian province (of which Warsaw is a part) are most often strong supporters of Polonia’s hated rivals Legia. As a result, every Polonia away trip in the IV liga carries the threat of violence: something that was illustrated in its first away game at KS Łomianki who play just 15 kilometres from the centre of Warsaw. Hundreds of Legia hooligans disrupted the game to such an extent that after 38 minutes the match was abandoned. Polonia was eventually awarded a walkover.
Similar issues have arisen regarding ŁKS, with the problem here the club’s own fans. Local teams, without appropriate security arrangements, are deeply afraid of the potential damage the hordes of ŁKS supporters may cause at their respective grounds. To avoid this, teams have preferred to grant ŁKS a walkover, a situation which means the Łódź club could gain promotion due to fear and not sporting excellence.
There have of course been positive aspects surrounding the rebirth of the two clubs. Fans in Łódź and Warsaw have come together like never before to show their support. In the home games played so far, both clubs have had almost full houses. Fans in their droves have been prepared to pay Ekstraklasa prices to watch fifth tier matches. Several of Polonia’s games have even been broadcast live and it’s only a matter of time before ŁKS fixtures receive the same honour.
Who knows what to expect in the future for these giants in the Polish lower leagues. If fan support maintains the levels of the last couple of months, the clubs find responsible benefactors and quick promotions are won, former successes can be achieved. The nightmare scenario is one where both clubs are mired in the lower echelons of the Polish league pyramid for years to come.
Only those with a lack of civic pride would want such an outcome.
Wielki Widzew by Marek Wawrzynowski and ‘Polska Piłka Nożna’ by Józef Halys.
‘From Old Trafford to Orlęta Cielądz?: The tragic fall of Łódzki KS’ by Ryan Hubbard