Piotr Nowak: From Abuse to Redemption at Lechia Gdańsk?

Nowak

The latest guest post on Rightbankwarsaw sees Ed Zelaski take a look at the controversial appointment of Piotr Nowak to the Lechia Gdańsk hotseat and the cultural differences between the United States and Poland that the decision has illustrated.

Lechia Gdańsk confirmed on Wednesday what had been rumored for the past week – former Polish international Piotr Nowak would be their new manager. Nowak was previously the technical director and manager for the national team of Antigua and Barbuda. Lechia will be Nowak’s first time working in his homeland since 1990, when he left Zawisza Bydgoszcz for Bakırköyspor in Turkey. The appointment has been controversial, but not for the reasons many might suspect.

Prior to working in the Caribbean, Nowak managed both D.C. United and Philadelphia Union in Major League Soccer. In 2004, his first season in charge of D.C., he led the capital side to the MLS Cup Championship. His success led him to the coaching staff of the United States National team, where he was an assistant to boss Bob Bradley. Nowak also took charge of the U-23 National team, advancing to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. He returned to club management in 2009 with his appointment to new MLS side Philadelphia Union.  His success there was mixed; he managed the team to their first (and so far only) playoff appearance, but was fired when the team struggled during the 2012 season. Nowak would then sue the team for wrongful termination, a lawsuit that ended just days before his appointment to the Lechia post.

Over the course of the three and a half years of the lawsuit, much of the real information as to why Nowak was fired was kept sealed by the court. This past December, a judge ordered the records released – only redacting players’ names and private correspondence between players and the Major League Soccer Players’ Union. The documents have shocked the American soccer community. Philadelphia sportswriter Jonathan Tannenwald has a fantastic piece breaking everything down here, but I’ll summarize the findings:

·         Nowak placed his players’ health and safety in danger in May 2012, forcing them to run 10 to 12 miles (16 to 19 kilometers) without any water. When a player complained to the Players’ Union, Nowak traded the player – violating the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

·         Nowak would regularly downplay the seriousness of concussions, going as far as to call a player a ‘pussy’ for having a concussion and saying that a player was weak if he was unable to play through a concussion.

·         Nowak carried out aggressive initiation rituals for new players to the team, including spanking them, over the course of multiple years. Different team staff members recording the episodes. Nowak would hit the players so hard he would need to dip his hand in ice water. He would also sometimes hit the players with a sandal.

The findings have been scandalous in the United States. Concussions are taken seriously in American sports, especially since numerous American football players have been found to have severe brain damage as a result of head trauma. Nowak will likely never coach again in the country in which he lived from 1998 to 2014. No team will want to take a risk and hire such a controversial coach, even in a country that often trots out the same managers time and time again.

Strangely, none of this information seems to have made a difference in his appointment to Lechia Gdańsk.  The Polish press has seemed more interested in Nowak’s lack of a UEFA Pro License than the fact that he abused his players. Lechia Gdańsk has downplayed everything, saying the incidents that led to his dismissal in Philadelphia were ‘private matters’ that have ‘no connection with Lechia.’ These would seem to have everything to do with Lechia.

Could this all seem to be a case of two different cultures? The Polish response on Twitter seems to be mostly supportive of Nowak. Fans have said that Nowak only prefers ‘tough methods’ and that ‘Lechia needs a dictator.’ This seems to be a fairly common refrain – that players need to have a strong manager, one who will instill fear in order to get the best results. Whether it works for Piotr Nowak at Lechia Gdańsk remains to be seen…

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