Slow Progress: Corruption in Polish football

Rightbankwarsaw’s second guest post comes from Ben Wheatland and is a fascinating tale of the murky world of corruption in Polish football.  Is it really getting better?  Ben suggests it is.  Highly recommended.

Wdowczyk 2

Former Celtic and Reading defender Dariusz Wdowczyk in court for charges of match-fixing.  He was found guilty of the charges against him in September 2009

Match fixing in the UK hasn’t traditionally been seen as a big issue, perhaps due to the reluctance of the relevant authorities to face up to the issue. Certainly, recent match fixing scandals in the UK suggest that there is a widespread fear of directly facing up to the challenge. However, in Poland, it has long been right at the very top of the agenda. In this article, I explore why Poland has suffered from corruption problems, and whether there is a way out of the mire.

Poland’s football history is a rich one. A 1972 Olympic gold medal, Jan “The Clown” Tomaszewski’s Wembley heroics and the subsequent third place finish in the 1974 World Cup, another third place in the 1982 World Cup and Zbigniew Boniek and Robert Lewandowski attest to that. And while a less than convincing display at Euro 2012 and failing to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 hint at a decline in Polish football both domestically and internationally, a far worse problem has been lurking in the background; corruption.

The 2007-08 season was not a good one for football in Poland. It saw the largest cases of corruption in Polish football come to public attention. Zagłębie Lubin, the champions of the previous season, were forcibly relegated by the Polish authorities due to corruption allegations. The team relegated along with tham that year was Widzew Łódź who, while suffering demotion through performances on the pitch rather than by way of a punishment, were also under charges of corruption and match fixing.

These charges were severe enough to prevent both teams returning to the Ekstraklasa the following year, despite Widzew finishing second in the I Liga, which would have usually guaranteed a promotion place. Despite the fact that these are the most high profile match fixing scandals in Polish football, corruption and match fixing have been a feature of Polish football as far back as the early 1990s.  Its roots however go back to the Communist era when it was common for clubs and players to make money on promotion and relegation issues.  Corruption and match fixing is so prevalent in Poland that fourteen teams in total, including Widzew, Korona Kielce and Zagłębie Lubin have been punished for it. In fact, it gets worse. The list of clubs suspected to have been involved in corruption mounts up to 75. Seventy five. A full list can be found on the fabulously informative pilkarskamafia.blogspot.com website.

 Corruption in football tends to manifest itself in the form of match fixing. Indeed, it is sometimes tempting to lump match fixing together with every sports fan’s pet hate; cheating. However, there is a distinct difference between match fixing and cheating. Declan Hill explores the differences in depth in his excellent book, The Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing in Football.

 “[M]atch-fixing is not cheating. If match-fixing is where one person agrees to help one side lose by putting in less than a 100% effort: then cheating is trying to win with 110% effort, where the person uses unscrupulous means to win.”

 This makes sense: there is a clear difference between Ashley Young diving for a penalty to help his team win, and, say, a goalkeeper deliberately conceding a certain number of goals.

 Therefore, match-fixing must involve some kind of payment, be they between players, referees, betting syndicates or club owners. These payments don’t have to be made in cash, with some players’ future careers being used as blackmail against them. Prostitutes as well can be used as payments. This means that players who are not on astronomic wages are relatively easy targets, as they are much more likely to be enticed by large amounts of cash. To cover all bases, and to account for those players or referees who are at the beginning (or end) of their careers, prostitutes and blackmail tend to also be persuasive, as well as the promise of a large pay out.

In Poland this is exacerbated by the tendency of clubs to not be entirely reliable when it comes to the payment of players. This point specifically is not a problem exclusive to Poland, however, and can be seen throughout eastern European leagues, with the possible exception of Russia. This may go some way to explain why football in these countries, and Poland in particular, suffers so regularly from match fixing. Certainly, it is no surprise that allegations of match fixing in England, Germany and France, three countries with lots of money and clubs who regularly pay their players, are much less frequent than allegations of match fixing in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus or Romania.

As alluded to earlier, many people involved in football in the UK seem to regard match fixing as something that happens elsewhere. This is dangerous, as a quick glance at the state of the Polish Ekstraklasa tells us. There, despite the obvious disparity of profits in the UK and Poland causing many players to leave for more lucrative careers, corruption has caused major damage. Qualification for the UEFA Champion’s League (and even the oft maligned Europa League) has become so lucrative that teams frequently throw money at their teams, attempting to qualify. The same is true for the domestic league title.

When the stakes of qualification are so high, the stakes for missing out become even higher. Spending money usually puts a club in with a better chance of winning and therefore qualifying, but even this is not a guaranteed method. So then, why not make sure you win the league another way, by paying referees to give a favourable decision in a crucial game, or paying rival players to throw games. This is what happened with Widzew and Zagłębie in 2007-08, and both Legia Warsaw and ŁKS Łódź in 1992-93, where they both lost out on the title to Lech Poznań after having match results disqualified for match fixing.

Legia Warsaw’s 6-0 win at Wisła Kraków on the last day of the 1992-3 season was wiped out due to match-fixing

This disrespect for the competition has had a damaging effect on attendances at league games in Poland. While a sensational comeback, like Newcastle’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal in 2011, or Sunderland conceding three own goals in seven minutes in 2003, to a British football fan seems like irrefutable proof that football really is the beautiful game, to a Polish fan this stinks of match fixing. Without the belief that sensations in football can be legitimate, in their own league at least, Polish fans have started staying away from games, preferring to watch the English Premiership or the Spanish Primera Division.

Indeed, Poland has some of the largest organised supporters groups for foreign teams, especially Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.. In 2012-13, The eventual Polish champions Legia attracted an average of only 19,498 to their home games, a figure not quite two thirds of their stadium’s capacity. In addition Legia were one of only five teams (out of 16) to regularly attract crowds of double figures. Now there are various other reasons that contribute to this ( stadium safety, quality of football etc), but dissatisfaction with corruption certainly plays an important role.

This is true to such an extent that clubs of the top two divisions, the Ekstraklasa and I Liga, have become very conscious of their public image. Thankfully, they have begun to acknowledge that being perceived to have been corrupt is highly detrimental to their ‘brands’ and reputations. This perception further breaks the bond between the fans and the clubs, and leads to declining match day attendances, something that the clubs can no longer afford.

Above, I stated that it is worth fixing games to gain the financial advantage that winning the league and qualifying for Europe provides. However, put simply, corruption is no longer ‘worth it’ for teams who wish to remain competitive in Polish football, as the TV money that is awash in the elite European leagues is not available in Poland.

This, coupled with the fact that no Polish team has reached the group stages of the Champions League since Widzew in 1996 (and everyone knows the group stages are the most lucrative, with potential money spinning ties against giants Real Madrid or Manchester United), means that to throw money away to ensure a league win is no longer worth it. Talent has left Poland regularly in recent years, and the strength of teams in the Ekstraklasa means that this is unlikely to change soon, as shown by Śląsk Wrocław’s 9-1 aggregate humiliation by Spanish side Sevilla in this season’s Europa league qualifiers.

However, despite all the doom and gloom, Polish football has shown signs of recovery in recent years. An increased level of professionalism, related to a desire to re-attract disillusioned fans, has meant fewer cases of corruption or match fixing, since the high point of the mid-2000s. The Polish FA (PZPN) also seems to have woken up to the issue, and have been handing out punishments with (slightly) more conviction. There is still a long way to go, as far as regaining the support and trust of Polish fans goes, but for now, it is simply good news that corruption allegations seem to be gradually becoming a thing of the past.

Many thanks to Ben for this post.  Follow him here

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2 thoughts on “Slow Progress: Corruption in Polish football

  1. Pingback: CALCIO: Presidente donna e match analysis, la sorpresa Nieciecza nel campionato polacco - East Journal

  2. Pingback: Poland and the Champions League: The Twenty-Year Journey | Football Radar

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