It’s been a rather rough summer for Polish sides in European competitions. By 3 August only one club, Legia Warsaw, remains in with a shot of European group stages but even the Polish champions have suffered a fall from grace, being eliminated from the Champions League by the Kazakh champions FC Astana. In order for Poland, a country of 38 million people with the 11th biggest GDP in Europe, to have even one club in the group stages Legia must defeat Moldova’s FC Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League playoff round. It’s a sad situation and one that is repeated year after year with some exceptions and in order to improve there are no easy answers.
There were certainly not high hopes regarding the four Polish sides entering European competitions this season. Jagiellonia Białystok lost their talismanic coach Michał Probierz to Cracovia in June and their key attacking midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev at the same time. The club from the North East of Poland do not have a large budget and overachieved in finishing second in the Ekstraklasa last season – indeed many worried that many key players would leave the club in the summer and they would not make it far in Europe. This turned out to be the case, after an easy dispatching of Georgia’s Dinamo Batumi and a decent 1-1 draw at Gabala FK in the next round, Jaga just couldn’t find the right passes in the home leg and went out rather disappointingly, despite the fact Gabala’s budget far exceeds theirs.
The club with the least expectations was Arka Gdynia. Arka surprised everyone by beating Lech Poznań in the Polish cup final in May and only stayed up in the Ekstraklasa after a handball goal from Rafał Siemaszko and some strange shenanigans at their friend club Zagłębie Lubin on the last day of the season. Arka, a club with a very small budget even by Ekstraklasa standards, are however a team of fighters, as they showed very clearly in their Europa League third qualifying round tie against the Danes of FC Midtjylland, a club who beat Manchester United in the 2015-6 Europa League. In the first leg Arka played with great pride and passion, fighting all over the pitch in front of a passionate, record crowd at their cute, compact little stadium. The Danes didn’t know what hit them and in the last minute the diminutive Siemaszko scored a lovely headed goal to give Arka a 3-2 win.
In the second leg it looked for a long time as if Arka would come away with an unexpected triumph, especially after Dawid Sołdecki put them ahead in the 59th minute. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be as a freak own goal and a FC Midtjylland goal in injury time knocked Arka’s plucky fighters out of the Europa League. Arka had almost qualified simply through strength of will but it was not quite enough.
What then would be the fate of the two Polish clubs with by far the biggest budgets and expectations, Lech Poznań and Legia Warsaw? Lech and Legia, since the decline of Wisła Kraków have been the clubs which Poland’s coefficient has most relied on. In the case of Lech – their cause was made much harder by losing to Arka Gdynia in the Polish Cup final. A win would have allowed them to start in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, giving them an extra three weeks before entering the European fray, instead they had to start in round one. Although they easily made it past Macedonia’s FC Pelister and rather more difficultly FK Haugesund, they never looked that impressive. This summer has also been a hectic one at the club due to the profitable sales of Dawid Kownacki to Sampdoria, Jan Bednarek to Southampton and Tomasz Kędziora to Dynamo Kyiv and a host of incoming new transfers which have needed time to settle in.
In the third qualifying round Lech faced Holland’s FC Utrecht, a side that Lech were expected to overcome. In the first game Lech had the better of a 0-0 draw in Holland, and in front of a large crowd at home Lech defended chaotically, conceding two while scoring two but never being in full control of the match. Lech’s exit from Europe was in many ways the most disappointing of all. They made it difficult for themselves by not winning the Polish cup in May but even starting in round one they were expected to make the playoff round of the Europa League at the very least.
Which brings us to Legia Warsaw. Legia’s star shone in Europe last season after becoming the first Polish club in twenty years to make the group stages of the Champions League. Their performances in the group stage were also considered to be a success after high octane (if a little chaotic) matches against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and an excellent victory against Sporting Lisbon. Big things were thus expected of them this season. Despite this, behind the scenes all is not right at Legia.
The crucial issue was how to deal with last season’s Polish league player of the season Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe. Vadis’ agent declared in public that the player was in love with Warsaw at the end of the season, but if this was the case he had a funny way of showing it. By the end of June it was clear that Vadis was doing anything he could to leave the club, first he delayed coming back to training due to the birth of his child, then he openly stated he wanted to leave. Legia were forced to arrange a transfer, first Vadis failed a medical at FK Krasnodar, then he eventually left to join his former coach Besnik Hasi at Greek champions Olimpiacos. The Vadis saga was important for Legia’s chances in Europe as it slowed down their recruitment process. Legia have brought in new players – Armando Sadiku, Cristian Pasquato, Hildeberto Pereira and Krzysztof Mączyński but (apart from Mączyński) they have not fitted into the side that well with Hildeberto carrying a lot of extra pounds. This has impacted Legia’s league and European form.
In the second qualifying round of the Champions League Legia easily made it past the frankly awful Finnish Champions IFK Mariehamn by an aggregate score of 9-0. In the third round Legia were unlucky to come up against the Kazakhstani regime club FK Astana fuelled by petro dollars and a club with recent experience in both the group stages of the Champions and Europa League. Legia defended complacently in the away leg – losing 3-1 and giving themselves a very difficult task in the second leg. In that match Legia played far too slowly, lacked dynamism and only came alive in the last twenty minutes after the introduction of young substitute Sebastian Szymański. They achieved a 1-0 victory but it wasn’t enough to go through.
How big a failure was it to go out for Legia? On the face of it is very disappointing, especially after last season’s Champions League successes but if you look closer it’s not that surprising. Last season Legia’s play was also pretty leaden in the qualifying rounds to the Champions League but they were lucky enough to get Slovakian champions AS Trenčín and Irish Champions Dundalk in the draw. Legia came up against a far more potent challenger this time at an earlier stage and they were simply not good enough to get past them. Legia still have a good chance of making the group stages – they should have enough to eliminate Sheriff but their play needs to improve quickly to have any chance of picking up points in the group stage if they make it.
So what answers are there for Polish clubs in their year on year battle to achieve acceptable results in European competitions? Polish club budgets, while large compared to other sides in Central and Eastern Europe, can not compete with clubs in the West – and in the raw material rich East of the continent. Polish domestic magnates don’t seem to be very interested in investing in Polish football, perhaps because of the stigma that’s still attached to the game in Poland as a hotbed of hooliganism and radicalism or perhaps because of the old fashioned attitudes in most Polish clubs. It’s therefore unlikely that a domestic saviour can be found. Is there a chance for an international oligarch to invest in Polish football? This possibility always exists – especially when looking at the recent Chinese takeover at Slavia Prague but praying for someone like this to come along is certainly not the best attitude.
All that is left then is to improve the organisational side of Polish clubs, allowing step by step progress to ensure stable and achievable aims. It has taken Polish clubs an awfully long time to come to terms with the economic realities of the global game. Clubs such as Dinamo Zagreb have learned the lesson rather more quickly, the key being to improve Polish academies, bring through quality players and then sell them to the West for large amounts of money which can then be reinvested into the club to bring through more top quality young players. If there is a bright light in the Polish darkness it is what is going on at Lech Poznań, in recent years Lech has sold top Polish youngsters to Italy and England for good sums of money and Lech continues to bring good young players through. Legia have also shown that clubs which are generally well run can achieve successes, although their recruitment policies in the last two summers have not worked out that well. Legia in future seasons need to make sure they make their summer transfers as quickly as possible to make sure they have a chance of making the Champions League group stages.
The situation at Polish clubs is not ideal, but with clever organisation and long-term planning Poland has the potential to compete with clubs from medium sized leagues including Holland. Certainly Poland should be able to achieve as much as clubs from the Czech Republic in European competitions. It may look bleak now but in the future this does not have to be the case.