Legia Warsaw’s first Champions League group stage home match vs Rosenborg in September 1995
After 20 long years, a Polish side has finally made the Champions League group stages. That side, Legia Warsaw, tonight faces the mighty Borussia Dortmund in Warsaw. Not many people give them a chance, both in their first match and in the group stage in general but the mood in Poland, even after such an extended absence, is certainly not unanimous over whether Legia’s presence in the Champions League is even a good thing or not. One can detect very different reactions depending on whether you’re a Polish football journalist, a Legia fan or a supporter of other clubs in Poland.
Polish football journalists are on the whole in a state of euphoria regarding the return of the Champions League proper to Poland. The last time a Polish side were in Europe’s premium club competition many of today’s journalists were young men, teenagers or even tiny children with only vague recollections of the mid-1990s. Finally the world of big-time football is within touching distance – as evidenced by the excited series of photos as Borussia’s players train at Legia’s ground – to the proud announcements that they had gained accreditation for the match. When added to the success of the Polish team in Euro 2016, the plight of the Polish football journalist, so often destined to be a guest at other people’s parties, has certainly moved in a positive, and unexpected direction.
The emotions of Legia Warsaw fans on the other hand have tended to skip from excitement and pride on the one hand to realism and an expectation of disappointment on the other. The draw was certainly kind to Legia in terms of high profile clubs, with the jewel in the crown being the two matches against Spanish giants Real Madrid. For Legia fans the Champions League underlines what so many of them have always believed – that the club is the biggest and most successful in Poland – and illustrates their superiority over Wisła Kraków who, despite winning the league many times in the noughties never quite made it to the Champions League, and other rivals such as Lech Poznań and Widzew Łódź (the last Polish side to make the elite tournament group stage but now languishing in the 4th tier of Polish football after going bankrupt).
At the same time many Legia fans know that their side is not the strongest – even in Poland they are struggling – they currently lie in 13th place in the Ekstraklasa and many fans are demanding the head of their Albanian coach Besnik Hasi. Many fans would take a couple of points in the group stage and some decent performances against Borussia, Real and Sporting Lisbon.
For fans of other Polish sides Legia in the Champions League is not something to be savoured, although a small minority are prepared to grit their teeth and support the Polish club. Firstly Legia are without doubt the most hated club in Poland, principally due to the fact they were an army club under Communism and they were able to steal talented players from other clubs by calling them up for military service. In addition Legia come from the Polish capital, so their success brings up classic centre-periphery conflicts.
Finally it’s difficult for Polish fans to see how a strong Legia performance in the Champions League will benefit them. The one area where it certainly does is in terms of the country’s UEFA co-efficient, Polish clubs performed poorly in this year’s UEFA competitions – leaving the country dependent on Legia to gain points and make this not a catastrophic year for Poland. However this positive is dwarfed by the sheer amount of money that Legia will gain from the Champions League if they do well. Even if Legia lose all their games they are most likely to earn 20 million Euros from this year’s competition – a vast sum of money in Poland – more than the budget of the country’s second richest club Lech Poznań. Each Legia win will gain them 1.5 million Euros and every point another 500,000 Euros. These sums of money will take Legia further and further away from the rest of the Ekstraklasa pack.
As a result of this it’s not surprising that many Polish fans are not behind Legia as they go into battle vs Borussia tonight. From a national perspective it is to be hoped that Legia do not embarrass themselves (and Poland) on the Champions League stage. For who knows when Poland will reach this stage again. As I hope has been made clear, for medium to small footballing countries without large tv deals, the Champions League is not simply another side-earner, but something that can considerably change the balance of power in a domestic league. But for the international football romantic, a Legia victory tonight will surely be something to savour, and at the end of the day maybe that’s what the tournament should really be about anyway.