Lower leagues across the globe #7: Poland
After a short hiatus, we are back on the road to learn about lower league football in another country. It is the turn of Poland to come under the microscope and Ryan Hubbard, the man behind Los Revolucionarios, is on hand to tell us all how things work in that particular corner of Eastern Europe.
Over the last few years, a number of Eastern European friends have sparked my interest in their national leagues. Having always wanted to visit Poland, this was the league that stood out. However, there was one thing that wasn’t made clear.
I knew of Wisla Krakow, and I knew of Legia Warszawa. I also knew of Jan “The Clown” Tomaszewski, and his heroics at Wembley in 1974. What I didn’t realise though, was that the way that I was pronouncing their names was leaving me looking like a bit of a numpty in front of my Polish acquaintances.
Lots of “L’s” and “ę’s” and “W’s” that aren’t really “W’s” make the Polish tongue a verbal minefield for those not familiar with Slavic languages. But once you get past the funny looking names, and the little flicks on top of (or underneath, or in the middle of) letters, you’ll find a fascinating league which is steadily trying to progress and move on from its past problems. And with the European Championships heading there in 2012, and Lech Poznan making waves in this season’s Europa League, what better time to look at their national game?
In 2008, the PZPN (Polish Football Federation) created the Ekstraklasa – the new top tier in Polish football. Because of the re-branding, the second tier in Polish football was subsequently renamed the I Liga.
With 18 teams, the I Liga has two more competitors than the top tier and the teams play a total of 34 games in their quest to reach the promised land. The top two sides are promoted to the Ekstraklasa and the bottom four are demoted to the II Liga.
The third tier of the Polish football pyramid branches out into regional divisions. Relegated teams from the I Liga will drop to either the II Liga Grupa Zachodnia (West) or the II Liga Grupa Wschodnia (East). From here, the fourth tier is split into eight regional leagues.
Between 2005 and 2008, Polish football was engulfed in a major corruption scandal which resulted in charges against eight clubs and the arrests of over 200 players, coaches, referees and officials.
Four of those clubs can today be found in the Ekstraklasa: Arka Gdynia, Korona Kielce, current league leaders Jagiellonia Bialystok, and Zaglębie Lubin. Third tier side Zaglębie Sosnowiec were also implicated, while a further three teams involved in the match-fixing scandal currently ply their trade in the I Liga.
Gornik Lęczna were demoted from the first division to the third, and deducted six points. Despite this deduction, they were promoted at the first attempt and have remained in the second tier ever since.
Gornik Polkowice were in the second division when they were caught up in the scandal. As well as a 70,000zl (£15,000) fine, they too were demoted two leagues, and deducted six points. The club returned to the I Liga at the start of the current season.
The third current second-level club punished were KSZO Ostrowiec Swiętokrzyski. They were demoted one league (from the second tier to the third), and deducted six points for the following season. They returned to the I Liga at the start of the 2009/10 season.
In the 2008/09 season, I Liga side Widzew Lodz stormed to the league title and subsequently earned promotion to the Ekstraklasa. However, the club was also embroiled in a corruption scandal and they were demoted as a punishment.
This meant that, for the 2009/10 season, Widzew – Poland’s last participants in the Champions League during the 1996/97 season – would play again in the I Liga. During the season, Widzew appealed against their demotion. After a long battle, a tribunal ruled in favour of Widzew, and the corruption charges were dropped.
Whilst seeking compensation from the PZPN, Widzew powered their way to the league title and promotion in 2010, becoming the only club ever to win the I Liga trophy two years in a row.
Widzew’s fierce local rivals LKS Lodz – who some may remember as Manchester United’s Champions League qualifying round opponents during their 1998/99 treble-winning season – are a City Council owned club and have been struggling since their 1998 league triumph.
After a gradual fall from the top, due to a combination of selling their best players and bringing in replacements of lesser quality, things finally reached a head for LKS in the 2008/09 season. Cracovia Krakow and Gornik Zabrze finished the season in the bottom two positions of the Ekstraklasa and were therefore set to play the following season in I Liga. However, due to LKS’s financial problems, the club (who had finished in 8th position) had its license for the following season revoked, and they took the place of 15th-placed Cracovia in the First League.
Spare a thought, however, for the fans of northwestern Polish side Pogon Szczecin. Two seasons earlier, they finished bottom of the Ekstraklasa and were relegated to the I Liga but, due to their financial problems, Pogon were demoted an additional two levels to the III Liga Zachodniopomorska Grupa. If the English system adopted this approach, Portsmouth would have been facing the threat of League Two football this season.
Fortunately for Pogon, their stay in the regional leagues was a short one. Two successive promotions saw them arrive back into the I Liga for the 2009/10 season.
The I Liga Season So Far…
After relegation from the Ekstraklasa at the end of the 2009/10 campaign, both Odra Wodzislaw Sląski and Piast Gliwice were expected to challenge for promotion from the start. However, after losing ten players from their top-flight season in the summer break, Odra made a poor start to the season. Gaining only seven points from their first eight games, they now sit 15 points from the promotion places in eighth position.
In contrast, Piast Gliwice have only lost two games out of their 17, and are three points – and one position – from the promotion spots.
Despite their financial troubles, LKS Lodz have also enjoyed a strong first half of the season. Some quality signings in the form of 20-year old loan capture Jakub Kosecki (one for the future, perhaps) and a thirty-five year-old Marcin Mieciel, both from Legia Warszawa, have helped them to top spot in the league, and they look strong contenders to finally return to the Ekstraklasa having dropped only eleven points thus far.
The surprise package of the season so far is the relatively tiny Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala. Playing in the 4,500-capacity Stadion Miejski (Municipal Stadium), the 2010/11 season has seen them become serious promotion contenders. With 18 goals between them, strikers Robert Demjan and Adam Cieslinki have spearheaded an attack that has earned an impressive 39 points from 17 games. Podbeskidzie now are just one point behind LKS in the table.
Fourth-placed Flota Swinoujscie – with league top-scorer Charles Nwaogu-Uchenna of Nigeria – and fifth-placed Sandecja Nowy Sącz are currently way off the pace, ten points behind Podbeskidzie. Neither have been able to find consistency in their form and, unless the teams in front of them start to lose games, it seems unlikely that they will be able to challenge for promotion this season.
In the middle of the table, eight points separate the next six teams. Silesian outfits Ruch Radzionkow and Gornik Polkowice were both promoted from the II Liga, and have made good progress so far, sitting in sixth and seventh respectively.
Gornik Lęczna, MKS Kluczbork and GKS Katowice are sitting just above the relegation pack with Katowice the form team of the three, winning their last three games including a fine 5-3 victory at home to Flota.
None of the bottom seven teams managed to reach the 20-point mark in the Autumn Round. Gorzow Wielkopolski, Pogon Szczecin and Nieciecza are hanging perilously above the drop-zone, with Kolejarz Stroze, Warta Poznan, KSZO Ostrowiec Swiętokrzyski and Dolcan Ząbki all only a few points behind.
After the Winter Break
After three months of hibernation, the Spring Round of the Polish League kicks off at the start of March. With a break so large, it will remain to be seen if the top three can keep their league form going into 2011. For the teams languishing at the base, the return from the break will be seen as a new start.
LKS are expected by many to continue where they left off and pick up the trophy from local rivals Widzew, with either Podbeskidzie or Piast joining them in the top flight.
At the other end of the table, the relegation battle could go right down to the wire as a few wins against fellow strugglers could pull Dolcan Ząbki and KSZO Ostrowiec away from the bottom.
The Future of Polish Football
As Polish football begins its transition into a modernised football league, we are seeing increasingly larger numbers of clubs trying to remove the hooliganism element which has plagued the game in Poland for many years.
New stadia are sprouting up around the country as clubs try to make football more appealing to families, and help to improve the image of the country’s favourite sport around the world. An incredible twelve of the sixteen Ekstraklasa sides have had new stadia built in the past few years, or are in the process of building new homes. The improvements to the facilities are one of the main reasons why the world will be focusing on Poland next summer for the European Championships.
There is concern, though, that decreasing attendances will leave clubs with huge white elephants that they will be unable to fill.
On first glance, the Ekstraklasa attendances look to have improved on previous seasons. However, this is mainly due to the fact that numerous clubs played in smaller stadiums while their new homes were being built. A number of clubs have seen drops in attendances of over 20% from last season.
In the I Liga, a very worrying picture emerges. Twelve of the eighteen clubs have seen drops in spectators with only the promoted teams, surprise package Podbeskidzie and Warta Poznan (who have moved into the new 44,000 capacity Stadion Miejski along with city rivals Lech), seeing rises.
KSZO Ostrowiec and Odra Wodzislaw have seen average attendances plummet by almost 60%, whilst Pogon Szczecin have a remarkable 65% fewer supporters attending home games. A reduction of income on this scale is surely hampering these clubs’ chances of progression.
One remaining hope is that, given the legacy of the European Championships and the resulting new stadia, more Poles will be heading to watch domestic games. In turn, fingers are crossed that this will help football in Poland rise to a level fitting these wonderful new theatres.
Check out Ryan’s excellent art project: