Ekstraklasa clubs and their place within European football – an interview with Konrad Goździor of LTT Sports

The Polish media and fans are up in arms about the lack of success of Polish clubs in European competitions – if Legia Warsaw fail to beat Glasgow Rangers on Thursday in the Europa League play-off round second leg, it will be the 3rd year in a row that Polish sides have not made the group stages of European competitions.

Every season Polish clubs seem to lose to more lowly opposition in the qualifying rounds, although there have been some flashes of light here and there. What has been even more striking in the last 5-10 years is that clubs from non-traditional footballing cultures seem to be over-taking Poland in terms of European success.

But how badly are Polish clubs actually doing overall if we look at the league, infrastructure and its potential in the future? Is there anything to be done to stop the slide, or is there no real slide at all?

To answer these questions I decided to talk to Konrad Goździor the Strategy Council Member responsible for Change and Performance Management at LTT Sports, a Leadership Think Tank Group which assists football clubs in developing their strategy  and management mechanisms. LTT sports have worked with a number of football clubs across Europe, and so have a unique insight into the European football system.

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Hi Konrad, Polish clubs are not doing very well in European competitions in comparison to the size of the country and its potential. From your perspective, is there any way that they could improve? Why are clubs from medium to small European leagues succeeding where Poland is failing?

Hi Chris. First of all, it may seem attractive after another challenging summer European competition qualification campaign, but maybe is not right to generalise that other clubs from medium to small European leagues are succeeding, and Poland is failing. Of course, there are some clubs in some countries that seem to be punching above their weight, and of course, it may seem that some countries are doing better than others, but these are typically individual cases with individual reasons for success, and you have to be able to separate individual club situations from the well-being of an entire country’s football. In that sense, if we look at club football then Poland may be ranked below where we could expect it to be, but conversely the national team has had a reasonably high ranking, certainly in the last years. Neither fact completely explains the full situation within the Polish football industry!

At the end of the day, UEFA rankings are reliant on how well individual clubs from specific countries do in European club competitions over a period of recent years. In some cases, there have been efforts by clubs to work together at domestic level to improve their chances of success and thereby improve the entire country’s coefficient – either through promoting certain domestic competition formats or supporting efforts to improve quality. But this requires a very high level of collaboration.

In most cases, though, country rankings have been dependent on one or maybe two clubs “monopolising” success: to put it simply, they perpetuate domestic success through keeping themselves in Europe and accessing the resulting prize money, whilst at the same time ensuring European qualification through being by far the biggest team in their own country, taking the best talent from everywhere else. In Poland, there is no such monopoly by one club, and, in a way, this is both a reason for not being so successful and a blessing for having an interesting domestic competition.

At the base of it, better club management across all clubs should do the trick, raising the level of each individual organisation so that a) it can achieve better results by itself and b) by virtue of a higher level of individual organisation and consciousness, clubs would understand that working together is the way to achieve even more development.

Sports development in a country like Poland has followed a certain historical path, and generally all clubs in former communist countries have suffered to a greater or lesser extent from the 1990s onwards. It may seem strange, but one should not forget that a club like Red Star Belgrade had to wait for a very long time to play in the Champions League again, and we are talking here about a winner of the competition back in the day.

A few years ago, LTT Sports participated in the ‘Forum Polskiego Futbolu’ (Polish Football Forum) organised under the patronage of the Ministry of Sports, where we actually discussed the key elements for building a successful club and league structure. Poland is one of the relatively few countries in Europe that still has a huge unrealised potential to grow through available internal resources based on tradition, population, size of the economy etc, but like any diamond you need to ‘polish’ it to create the real added value.

That’s all well and good but if we look in general at the way Polish clubs are run.  Is there anything which is especially bad about the way they are run?  Is there anything that they’re getting better at?

When looking at Polish club football, one of the things that strikes you immediately is that clubs are generally quite well-endowed with facilities, which are the basic means to work. There are also a lot of creative and hard-working people in the country at large. However, on the one hand maybe the football industry in Poland is not as successful as in other parts of Europe in terms of attracting the top talent right across the board, and on the other, maybe there are just not enough people with European experience in the football business but also with a strong Eastern European mentality, who are creative, driven and flexible, and are able to take clubs to the next level.

One particular aspect, which is probably common to many places, is the need for a generational change on the coaching side, too – football today is very different from how it was even 20 years ago, and this is true not only in places like Poland, but also in Western European countries. In Poland, though, it is exacerbated by the fact that 30 years ago it was a completely different system, politically, economically and socially. To be truly successful across the board, we are not talking about individuals or dozens of new coaches with a modern mentality and a modern approach – it has to be a huge network of people with modern knowledge operating in the entire space from the professional game to the smallest amateur village team.

That makes sense. Is there any way that clubs who are from medium to small European leagues (like Poland) can protect themselves from the market (i.e. the high level of player loss, agents which penetrate internal markets etc)?

It is definitely not only Polish clubs who have to deal with these challenges. In fact, outside of the top dozen clubs in Europe (or maybe even fewer than that), everyone else serves the tip of the pyramid. On the other hand, if you are well-organised, have strong values and a clear strategy, why would you need to protect yourself from the market, rather than strengthening your own position within it?

Of course, working on an international level is crucial, and Polish football is quite represented in different football institutions, generally speaking. However, the basis should be having clear values, a clear identity and then being able to place yourself within the overall picture, which would in turn give you the possibility to work towards a global approach. Otherwise, as is often the case, individual clubs only see their small part of the puzzle, and this leads to either a very short-termist or a very individualised world view, which in turn leads to piecemeal suggestions and ideas.

To be able to truly shape the market for the long term, clubs themselves must have an idea of what they are going to be doing in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, but also recognise and value the importance of others within the ecosystem, and then put this knowledge into a regulatory and competition framework fit for modern times. If not, the industry will drag them along without any sentiments like a river drags a small stick.

I think a lot of Polish clubs unfortunately fit the latter description.  In terms of the structure of European football, everything seems to be moving in the direction of a super-league.  How can clubs from medium to small leagues position themselves in this new reality?

Competition formats should be the products of a sporting, economic, political and social reality, not the other way around. Super-league or not, top level competitions are always an opportunity for clubs to become more professional, better organised, more efficient. They should be seen as growth, development and learning opportunities, not as a lottery windfall to pay yesterday’s debts.

If clubs want to be subjects of the process rather than its objects, they have to start first of all by looking inside and asking whether they are acting in an optimal way, whether they are organised in an optimal way, and what do they actually bring to the industry at large, what is their value proposition? If they have clear answers to these questions, that means they have a strong identity and a position from which they should be able to transcend any competition formats that may or may not be developed in the future.

Ok, one final question. How can you see Polish football developing in the next 10-15 years?

There are 7,000 Polish clubs: all of them will have their path of development and all need tailor made solutions, but as a general trend, those who have a clear understanding of their strengths and invest in a more balanced approach between the various parts of the club in order to be more effective in leveraging their strengths will be able to genuinely grow.

One of the specificities of Polish football is that there is no single dominant super-club, unlike in many other European countries. There are some indications that it could also happen in the Polish environment, but so far it has not developed quite in that way, and many clubs can rely on a strong local support, no matter which division they are in. In one way, it is a very healthy foundation to have, meaning that all clubs can potentially have a minimum survivability basis. However, it also means that support is dispersed among many clubs of different sizes and capabilities, so it may be difficult to build a Benfica, Ajax or Juventus-type situation.

Polish clubs will grow organically anyway, purely on the basis of the country’s socio-economic-political reality, as revenues from sponsors are increasing, the sponsorship of the PKO bank is quite strong and Ekstraklasa is doing a very decent job to raise the standards at league level. But clubs are still operating too independently when not in optimal shape themselves, and don’t have a common direction. Short-term opportunism seems to win over the long-term approach. Instead of having more local players, the pressure owners put themselves generates the feeling that you need to win things immediatelyand instead of having young players playing they reach to third and fourth tier players from across Europe.

At the end of the day, developing their own players is the real solution for the long term, and there are some positive aspects to be highlighted such as the construction of a top-quality Youth Academy at Legia, or Lech with 6 young players in its team in a recent league game.

We have helped several clubs in their self-analysis, performance and change management approach. For example, in the Balkan context we saw that once clubs measure their objectives and know themselves and their values, it is possible to build the right identity to have them competing with clubs from the top-5 leagues. Not within the market for the most expensive players, of course, but certainly in areas such as infrastructure, quality of life, coaches, staff or development methodologies.

It is a given fact that no club from outside the top-5 or top-10 can permit paying the top player wages globally, but there is no reason why even a club from a smaller country could not have the best technical coach in the world, or the best doctor, or the best psychologist, or the best support mechanism for young players. It all revolves about quality people, and quality staff cost way, way less than quality professional players, for example. And in the end, this will help clubs produce better talent, both on and off the field. But it is a project for 10+ years, not to have immediate success tomorrow.

Thanks so much to Konrad for agreeing to speak to us. You can follow LTT Sports on Twitter, or go to their website

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