Filip Starzyński (centre) playing for Zagłębie Lubin against his old club Ruch Chorzów
Since the return of the Polish Ekstraklasa from its winter break in the middle of February two of the most prominent newcomers have in fact been here before; Wisła Kraków’s Rafał Wolski and Zagłębie Lubin’s Filip Starzyński. Both players have (re)hit the ground running after a period away from the Ekstraklasa – Wolski left Poland to join Fiorentina in January 2013 and Starzyński was not gone very long at all – leaving Ruch Chorzów for Belgian club Lokeren last summer. Their problems abroad and successes on returning home can tell us something about the negative way that Poles regard their own league.
Both Wolski and Starzyński were highly praised before making their move abroad, although Wolski received a greater amount of plaudits. Wolski made his first team debut for Legia Warsaw as an 18 year old in 2011 and has four international caps to his name so far. Blessed with excellent technique and able to instigate swift passing moves with his team-mates and set up chances, Wolski has the potential to be a great number 10. Starzyński was more of a late bloomer than Wolski – but he plays in the same position, and, when on form, is able to drive sides forward and be a key player offensively. This was especially apparent while playing for Ruch Chorzów in the 2013-4 and 2014-5 seasons. Here Starzyński worked excellently in tandem with the striker Grzegorz Kuświk, scoring 18 league goals overall, providing many assists – form which won him two Polish caps and a move abroad.
Both players however when out of Poland did not pull up any trees. First Wolski, failed to make a breakthrough at Fiorentina and also had problems on loan at Serie B side Bari and then Belgian Pro league side KV Mechelen, prompting his loan deal back to Poland with Wisła Kraków. Starzyński had an even worse time at Lokeren – making only 9 first team appearances in Belgium before being loaned to Zagłębie Lubin. Both players are renowned for being on the weak side – Wolski has suffered from a number of lengthy injury lay-outs and Starzyński had to spend a lot of time as a youngster building up body mass as he weighed so much less than other players of a similar age. Perhaps physical strength issues played a role in their issues abroad?
Whatever the reason for their problems outside of Poland – their return to the Ekstraklasa has been exceptional. Wisła Kraków, a side which did not win for an 11 game stretch from mid-November to the middle of March, were desperately in need of someone who could bring the attacking side of things together. Wolski has been that man – even in his debut (a 1-2 loss at home to Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała on February 27) Wolski instantly fit into the Wisła side – setting up Czech Striker Zdeněk Ondrášek for the opening goal before Wisła’s confidence drained in the second half. In Friday’s 5-1 win over Jagiellonia Białystok Wolski was everywhere, linking play, setting up goals and scoring one himself. It was a masterclass of a performance from the player.
Wolski in action
Starzyński has also been exceptional for Zagłębie Lubin in the spring round of matches. Basically he has been the same old Starzyński who was such a vital cog for Ruch Chorzów until before he left. He has been instrumental in driving Zagłębie to 14 points from their seven spring matches so far – he has scored two goals, he starts attacks and drives the side forward. His excellent form has not gone unnoticed – Polish national team coach Adam Nawałka calling him up for the friendlies against Serbia and Finland on March 23 and March 26 respectively.
Starzyński goals and assists while playing for Ruch Chorzów
So why have Wolski and Starzyński so quickly become stars in the Ekstraklasa? Is it really so bad a league that players who can’t make it abroad can waltz back in and set the league alight? While it is clear that the standard of the Polish league is not that high, it seems that something more complicated is at play here. Perhaps the psychological needs of the players were not fulfilled by the clubs they played at abroad (although Starzyński denies this was the case in an interview given this week)? Perhaps the players were pushed to move abroad too early by cunning agents or simply were too driven by their own desires to make big money in the West without considering the consequences of their actions?
Whatever the reason for their failures abroad and success back home it is clear that Polish football observers have made their mind up about the root cause. Polish people have an incredibly negative attitude towards their own league, in my four seasons of covering the Ekstraklasa I have witnessed an overwhelmingly critical position towards it. In the face of this criticism it takes an iron will to continue to watch a league that is so relentlessly pilloried. As Wolski was performing superbly on Friday night Polish social media continually made the same statement – ‘Our league must be pretty terrible if Wolski can do this here when he was awful abroad.’ It was almost as if people could not simply sit back and enjoy what Wolski was doing for what it was – a great individual performance.
And at the heart of it all is the question: Because a player does not make it in a stronger Western league does that mean he is a failure? Whatever is the answer to that question I will enjoy watching what Wolski and Starzyński do for the rest of the season, because they certainly make the Ekstraklasa a more exciting league to observe.