I answered some questions for the excellent French language website Footballski.fr which deals with football in Eastern Europe. I present the English version here – it was a chance for me to clarify my views on a number of different issues, the Polish FA, fan culture in Poland and the enigmatic Zbigniew Boniek. Read on for more.
How did you get interested into Polish football and why did this passion develop?
Well I’ve been fascinated with Poland and Polish culture for a very long time. I first came to live in the country to teach English in 2003 but since then, although I lived in my home country England between 2006-10, I’ve constantly been in contact with the culture. Until 2012 I wasn’t at all interested in football here really but then I started a blog on the Euros and after it finished I thought I’d continue writing about Polish football. The blog was a relative success, and I’ve just got interested further and further. I think Polish football is a good way of understanding the country. I say that via football I get to teach people about Poland and via Poland I get to teach people about football!
Where would you situate the Ekstraklasa on a European scale?
I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy. It’s stronger than the Baltic leagues and Hungary (certainly in terms of salaries/budgets) but it’s weaker than the bigger Western European leagues. People in Poland are overly critical of the standard, it’s not great but it’s improving slowly, both in terms of quality of play and awareness of promoting itself commercially.
Why should someone follow the league?
Hmm, difficult question. It’s an acquired taste, but I’d say first of all the fans are fascinating. There are often great Tifos at matches, and the politics of protest here are very interesting. Polish ultra groups are a bit too right wing for my liking, but they present an intriguing side-show.
Secondly there have been a number of very nice new stadiums built in the country over the last few years, so maybe the standard is not so high but games are now played, on the whole, in appropriately modern arenas.
Thirdly there are some decent players playing here. My favourites at the moment are the technically gifted Bosnian Wisła Kraków attacking midfielder Semir Štilić, who takes wonderful free-kicks and plays intricate passes. He’s a pleasure to watch. My other current love is Ruch Chorzów’s Filip Starzyński, another attacking midfielder who was one of the main reasons that Ruch almost qualified for the Europa League. Another excellent player is Legia Warsaw’s Michał Żyro who has been a revelation over the last 7 months or so. He’ll most likely be sold to a rich foreign club for a large sum in the future.
Semir Štilić superstar
What do you think will happen this season? Will Legia Warsaw come out on top?
Wisła Kraków and Górnik Zabrze have started well but I can’t see past Legia for the title, they have the biggest budget and a massive squad for Ekstraklasa standards. It’s their title to lose.
How was the new end of season playoff system welcomed by fans and clubs last season?
People are quite dubious about the new system. In the end it was accepted but I think it won’t last very long. It feels a bit too gimmicky.
Are there any young prospects that French audiences should look out for?
Both Żyro (21 years old) and Starzyński (23) are relatively young. I also like the look of Ruch’s left back Daniel Dziwniel (22) who gets up and down the wing well. Big things are expected of Lech Poznań’s striker Dawid Kownacki (17) but he still has time to develop, not sure how much he will be used this season.
Legia and Europe
Europe was shocked by what happened to Legia. How did the Polish media discuss the issue?
Almost everyone got carried away in the emotions of the whole event. Including the #Letfootballwin hashtag. I think many treated it as a national cause – I thought the Polish reaction was a bit over the top to be honest. Obviously it was a harsh punishment but it was Legia’s fault, not Celtic or UEFA’s. Legia I think won the media war over the whole thing though, just.
Many Polish fans do not like Legia, but even those fans seemed to support Legia’s position during the whole appeal process. That was a bit of a novelty,
Why have there been no Polish clubs in the Champions League for so long?
A mixture of things, corruption which was rife in the game in the late 1990s, poor management of clubs by owners (I.e spending too much and not having a long term plan), and at the same time a lack of money in the game here. I think Legia should be able to qualify for the Champions League next year, that is If they do not lose too many players next summer.
Do you think Legia will do well in this year’s Europa League?
I think Legia will perform a lot better this year than they did in the Europa League last time round. They were terrible last year, and now they seem a lot more confident and have more quality. I hope/think they will make it out of their group. After that, who knows?
Are Polish fans among the best in Europe?
I think they are great, loud, creative tifos etc. I think they behave a bit like children though when things go wrong, boycotting matches for very minor issues. As I said before most of them have relatively right-wing tendencies which makes me feel uncomfortable.
Legia’s Tifo protesting UEFA’s decision to exclude them from the Champions League
What is the “Polish way” to support a team if there is any?
Tifos, chanting all the way through the game, but also a hierarchical way of organisation. The latter means that people at the top of fan organisations often dictate terms of behaviour to those lower down in the hierarchy. But as a visual and oral spectacle they’re pretty amazing.
What is the situation regarding hooliganism in Poland?
Reported incidents of hooliganism have fallen hugely in the last couple of years. Helping that are the new stadiums which allow police and security services to control the situation more. There are still incidents, like at the Legia-Jagiellonia Białystok match last year when Legia fans broke down a barrier and made their way into the Jaga end. I’ve also heard there are a lot of organised fights away from games. In general though attending matches are a lot less dangerous than the narrative in the press. Matches are not dangerous basically.
Do all clubs have large attendances or only the big clubs?
There are several clubs with very large fanbases (Legia, Wisła, Lech, Widzew Łódź, Ruch Chorzów etc) but also there are a lot of clubs in the top divisions which are small clubs with small fanbases who are only successful due to the money of owners/funding from their cities/local governments. A classic example of the latter is Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała.
Was Euro 2012 a positive thing for Poland?
I think so, it was great having the games here, and the fan zones were very successful. Football here was seen for once as a positive thing and not just linked to hooliganism/corruption. But Poland lost early unfortunately! The stadiums were also a positive thing – the National Stadium is great for example and recently has been used to host events as various as a game in the Men’s Volleyball World Championships and even Windsurfing.
I think on the whole the tournament was good for the country but many feel it was a bit ridiculous for the government to spend so much money when funding new hospitals and schools (which are not in good condition here) is obviously more important.
Poland seems to be consistently under-perform. Is this how it’s seen in Poland?
Definitely, everyone is very down about the national team unfortunately. Poles can be negative at the best of times, and with the Polish national team there’s an incredible amount of cynicism.
What are Poland’s chances in the Euro 2016 qualifiers?
I think they have a good chance of qualifying, considering the group and the amount of teams which go through. It depends on the mentality of the players though, because on paper I think they are easily capable of making it through.
Is Zbigniew Boniek a capable president of the PZPN (Polish FA)?
Boniek is a strange person in a lot of ways. On the one hand his PZPN is much more open than it was under the previous president Lato – they are active on Twitter, release many videos on youtube and have employed some intelligent up and coming young journalists.
On the other hand there are still a lot of corrupt activists on a local level and the PZPN doesn’t seem to be taking them on enough. Also Boniek is an emotional soul and often speaks from the heart, I’m not sure if those are the right characteristics for the president of a national football federation.
Do you think Poland is working properly to raise new generations of football players?
There is an awful lot of waste in Poland regarding young players. Reforms are being made slowly but many journalists are very critical regarding the slow pace of these changes. Poland could do a lot better basically.
Clubs like Legia and Lech in my opinion need to be the flagship clubs in terms of bringing through young players, they are ambitious and are relatively stable financially. Hopefully some exciting players will come through in the future.
What is the current situation regarding corruption, is it getting better?
It’s always in the background. The Esktraklasa is basically clean now but there are still many rumours of corruption in the lower levels, especially when it comes to the end of the season and suddenly clubs start losing/winning out of the blue. I think it’s getting better though.
Polish players in France
Is Ligue1 a popular league in Poland? Can you see it on TV?
There are some afficionados who watch ligue une but I’d say that the English, German and Spanish league are the most watched by far.
Kamil Grosicki and Dominik Furman are two of the Polish players in France. How are they rated in their country?
Grosicki is very quick but I don’t think he has much of a football brain – he’s in and out of the Poland national squad. Furman was highly regarded but he needs first team football, which he’s not been getting regularly at Toulouse. I think he probably needs to leave.
Krychowiak left Reims this summer. How is he considered in Poland despite having never played in a Polish club?
Krychowiak is a very talented player. People here are very happy he has gone to a large club like Seville. He’s absolutely key to the centre of the Polish midfield. He should be a stalwart for the national team for years to come.
Personal experiences of Polish football
I know you like to follow lower divisions football. Do you consider it special in Poland or similar to other places in Europe?
I just enjoy travelling around watching matches, I’d do the same wherever I am really. It’s a good way to understand local communities and people watch too.
Which stadium do you prefer in Poland and why?
I haven’t been to that many to be honest! I’ll be boring and say the National Stadium, I think it’s attractive, has great sight lines and is being used for lots of interesting events, in other words what a modern stadium should be.
What is your best memory of Polish football?
Well, as I’ve only followed Polish football intensely for a couple of years I don’t have that many to choose from. As someone who supports the second Warsaw team Polonia Warsaw I’d have to say the last game before the club went bankrupt in May 2013. There was so much emotion at the ground that day, but also a strong sense of community. A great experience.
What has been the most memorable game you’ve seen in a Polish stadium?
Maybe the Ruch Chorzów Europa League qualifying game vs Metalist Charkiv last month. The game was played in Gliwice because of issues with the pitch in Chorzów. Ruch fans made the stadium their own though and sang the entire match. I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the match even though there were no goals.