Legia Warsaw line-up against Real Madrid in the Champions League group-stage match in October 2016, wikimedia commons, photo: Erik Cleves Kristensen
The 2017-8 season in the Polish Ekstraklasa has not been a classic by any stretch of the imagination. None of the title contenders were able to achieve any real level of form and consistency, leaving an incredibly unimpressive Legia Warsaw to come away with their third Polish title in a row and their fifth victory in six seasons.
There have been moans and groans around the Polish football world this season and this level of negativity, which is normally very high in Poland regarding their domestic football, has reached even higher levels as Polish clubs failed to reach the group stages in European football – something which looks especially bad after Legia Warsaw became the first Polish club in the Champions League in 2016-7 after a 20 year absence.
But what has really struck home over the course of this season, is the incredible state of temporariness that pervades in Polish domestic football. The Legia Warsaw side that managed to draw with Real Madrid and beat Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League has been decimated. Only two players (Arkadiusz Malarz and Miroslav Radović) started against Sporting Lisbon in December 2016 and in the last game of the 2017-8 season with another two players (Adam Hloušek and Michał Pazdan) still playing an important role at the club. In the place of those who left a lot of players have been brought in, mostly from the Balkans and France.
A revolution has also swept through the Lech Poznań squad (the club with the second biggest budget in the country) as, in the summer of 2017, (to much fanfare) Lech sold Tomasz Kędziora, Dawid Kownacki and Jan Bednarek to wealthier clubs and another eight players left the club. A host of transfers flooded in to Lech to replace those that had left – with almost all of the players cheap purchases from abroad.
These examples are however just the tip of the iceberg. In practically every Ekstraklasa club every six months there is a huge turnover of players, something that makes the league a permanent revolving door. For those who follow the league the amount of change is bewildering but fairweather fans can hardly recognise the player make-up of clubs if they switch off for a couple of months.
What all this means is that it’s almost impossible in Poland to build something which is permanent. Take another example. Wisła Kraków, a club which dominated Polish football in the 2000s, but is now resigned to being a medium sized Polish club without European football since 2011. Wisła had a relatively good season by their recent standards and were in with a shout of European football going into the last day of the season. Their talisman has been the Spanish attacker Carlitos who won the golden boot in Poland with 24 league goals after only arriving last summer. All the signs suggest he’ll be leaving this summer with Dinamo Zagreb or AEK Athens the destination. Pol Llonch, a tough-tackling midfielder who’s been at Wisła for 18 months, would he stay? No, he’s decided to move to the Dutch league with Willem II. Wisła will be back to square one as the new season rolls around in July.
Unfortunately this impermanence doesn’t look like it’ll be going away soon, in fact it’s likely to deepen. Something which makes it likely that the Polish league will soon lack any continuity whatsoever.
Historically there was a sense of permanence in Poland, especially in the Communist period where the best Polish players could be seen playing for the best Polish clubs. This permanence was however falsely kept in place by Polish Communist authorities, where players could only leave when they had reached 30 years old, although by the 1980s this limit was reduced which meant the ‘player-drain’ from the country increased.
Cut to the early 1990s and the end of Communism in Poland. This new democratic era meant the first flood of top Polish players moving abroad to ply their trade as age restrictions were removed from transfers altogether. Even though age played no factor in the 1990s and early 2000s one other thing limited player movement to Western Europe, limitations on players from outside of the European Union.
All of this meant that until 2004 it was common for top players to spend a number of seasons in the Polish league before moving abroad. One example of this is Maciej Żurawski, one of the top strikers in the Polish game in the 2000s, who spent six seasons at Wisła Kraków (the top Polish club at the time) scoring 101 league goals in 153 games. Back then top Polish players could be kept on (at least for a while) and strong clubs could be built.
Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004 and the double whammy of the Bosman ruling (introduced in 1995 in the EU) changed all that. EU membership has opened up untold potential riches for Polish players and eased their movement across the continent, but it has also weakened the Polish league considerably. Now a player that has a good half season is already thinking about a transfer to a stronger league.
A good example of this is Robert Gumny the young Lech Poznań right back who burst onto the scene in the 2017-8 season. Gumny’s excellent performances in the first half of the season meant he almost made a high-profile move to Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of January. Another example is Górnik Zabrze’s 20 year old midfield sensation Szymon Żurkowski, someone who made his first Ekstraklasa appearance in 2017-8 but is now being offered to clubs around Europe after having one excellent season. The list goes on and on.
While I’m certainly not arguing for a closure of borders and I think it’s great that Polish players have the chance to play in top leagues, something which was denied to players in the past, it’s no surprise that the Polish league is weak, and will continue to be weaker as a result. Is there any way to stop this alarming trend? The only thing that could do that is money, huge amounts of it. The journalist James Montague recently said in an interview for the Polish sports daily Przegląd Sportowy that in the near future rich Chinese and Asian investors will most probably put money into Polish football clubs, something that has already happened in the Czech Republic.
Large amounts of money seems the only way Poland will be able to stop the player drain that’s making the Ekstraklasa to some unwatchable. If the money doesn’t come then it’s time to get used to watching young Polish talents playing in Serie A while the domestic league is colonised by cheap Balkan imports. Let’s hope the former happens.