Photo: Leszek Zych
Last Saturday Termalica Bruk-Bet Nieciecza took the field against Pogoń Siedlce knowing a win would take them into the elite of Polish football, the Ekstraklasa, for the first time in their history with one game to spare before the end of the season. In front of a full house of 2,000 fans, a goal in each half from Emil Drozdowicz eased them to a 2-0 victory which allowed them to achieve their aim. The club from the tiny village of Nieciecza, with only 750 inhabitants, will play as equals with sides from large Polish cities such as Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań in the 2015-6 season. Termalica’s stunning success is however not just the story of a village side beating all before it, but also reflects where Poland is in the present, and what complexes lie behind the country’s veneer of modernity.
Termalica’s rise to the top tier of Polish football is nothing if not meteoric. The club was founded way back in 1922 in the miniscule south-eastern Polish village of Nieciecza, which lies 20 kilometres to the North of the medium-sized town of Tarnów. The Nieciecza club pottered around in the lower echelons of the Polish league pyramid until the early noughties. The big change came with the increased financial backing of the successful local firm Bruk-Bet – which dominates the local area producing paving stones and other concrete products. From 2004 the club became known as LKS Bruk-Bet Nieciecza and they began to rise through the divisions, reaching the Polish second tier in 2010.
From then on the club also became sponsored by the house insulation firm Termalica, giving them their current name. Over the last four seasons Termalica have consistently challenged for promotion to the Ekstraklasa. The closest they got during this period was in 2013 when three losses in their last five games meant they missed out on promotion by only one point. A collapse this drastic in a Poland which has experienced many football corruption scandals could not escape comment. Many stated that Termalica had thrown matches in the run-in, and as a result many others believed the same would happen in 2014-2015 when the club has been in the top two promotion places from the outset. Despite all this talk Termalica made it over the line with relative ease in the end – a feat which provoked jubilant celebrations in Nieciecza.
Termalica players celebrate their promotion on Saturday – photo – Krakow.sport.pl
Termalica’s promotion met with various reactions from the Polish media. There were many heartfelt congratulations but there were also more critical voices, exclaiming their embarrassment at the presence of a club from such a small village joining the Polish Ekstraklasa. Many joked about the fact the club’s stadium is surrounded by a corn field, that the only things in Nieciecza are a church, a school and a World War Two monument, that the local priest is a fan of the team, that home matches are played just after the main Sunday mass (something that is partly explained by the lack of floodlights at their stadium). Other journalists, including Polish Newsweek’s Piotr Bratkowski criticised these narratives, stating that Nieciecza’s presence in the top tier was ‘sticking up a middle finger’ to sides from larger urban centres.
These discussions are, I would argue, simply a part of a larger public discourse in Poland surrounding the issue of modernity. The Polish media is very fond of dividing the country into two, with the West of the country being more urbanised, liberal, more secular, more progressive (so-called Poland ‘A’) and the East of the country being more rural and more dependent on the dictates of the socially conservative Catholic Church (so-called Poland ‘B’). These debates can be seen whenever an election occurs with a host of maps wheeled out showing majority support for the more socially progressive PO ruling party in the West of the country and larger support for the more socially conservative PiS party in the East. Termalica’s promotion then, reminds Poland of these divides – what with Nieciecza being firmly in Poland ‘B.’
But discussions about Termalica also reminds Poles of something which goes deeper than the Poland ‘A’ and ‘B’ divide, the fact that Poland is still to a large extent a rural country. According to geohive.com the urban population of Poland is only 60%, lower than every European Union country apart from Romania, Croatia and Slovenia and considerably lower than the general European average of 73%. Indeed many Poles are quite sensitive about their rural links, as even many urban Poles have only began living in cities in the last couple of generations. As a result there is a range of derogatory terms which can be used to denigrate people from the countryside, including the term ‘wieśniak’ (peasant) to refer to cultural no-nothings.
A good example of the complexes Poles have over the issue could be observed when the official Polish Euro 2012 song ‘Koko Koko Euro Spoko’ was released. This was a very catchy folk melody with added dance beat sang by a collection of middle aged women in traditional Polish folk costumes. Many people enjoyed the song, but many more saw it as an embarrassment, as it portrayed to the world a Poland of village stereotypes and not one of gleaming skyscrapers and multiculturalism.
Termalica’s promotion to the Ekstraklasa means that discussions about Poland and its links to the village, and many people’s attempts to distance themselves from their rural past, will definitely be on the agenda in the upcoming season. It’s going to be fun observing these debates.