So we’ve finally arrived at the end of 2011; and an interesting year it has been in Polish football. With the European Championships now just around the bend, people have begun to take notice of both the national team and the Ekstraklasa; and as those who follow will know, it’s certainly been an enthralling 12 months.
Wisła Kraków emerged from a disappointing 2010 to take their 13th Ekstraklasa crown – taking them within just one of the record shared by Silesian clubs Ruch Chorzów and Górnik Zabrze – only for them to start the defence of their title in poor form; rolling into the winter break in sixth place, and 10 points off of the top. However a Europa League win at home to Twente, combined with a last-gasp equaliser for Denmark’s Odense against Fulham did ensure the Biała-Gwiazda a surprise passage to the last-32 – the first time in Europe since the 2002/03 season.
After their Puchar Polski win against Lech Poznań back in May, Legia Warszawa joined Wisła in the Europa League knock-out rounds after progressing from a group containing PSV Eindhoven, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Rapid București; meaning that Poland will have two teams still competing in Europe in Spring for the first time in 40 years!
Many would say that the surprise team of 2011 are Orest Lenczyk’s Śląsk Wrocław. After their second-place finish in 2010/11, the Zielono-Biało-Czerwone took part in their first European competition for 24 years. Although they were defeated in the play-off round, Śląsk have gone on to show that their highest league finish since 1982 wasn’t a fluke – by leading the Ekstraklasa by 4 points into the Winter break.
After a battle which seemingly lasted for the entire 2010/11 season and went right down to the wire, Cracovia‘s 3-0 win against Jagiellonia Białystok on the penultimate day proved to be enough for their miraculous top-flight survival; at the expense of both Arka Gdynia and Polonia Bytom.
They were replaced in the Ekstraklasa by I Liga champions ŁKS Łódź, returning to the top flight after a 2-year spell in the second-tier; and surprise package Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała, making their first top-tier appearance in their 104-year history.
2011 has also seen the Ekstraklasa managerial merry-go-round keep turning, with an astounding 22 managerial changes; 13 of them due to sackings! ŁKS top the list, with five different coaches in the calendar year. Despite the huge number, the infamous rotating door at Konwiktorską ground to a halt way back in March when Polonia Warszawa owner Józef Wojciechowski appointed Jacek Zieliński as the club’s boss. Of the 16 current Ekstraklasa clubs, only Śląsk, Legia, Podbeskidzie, Lech Poznań, Ruch Chorzów and Górnik Zabrze have managed to stick out 2011 with the same coaches that started the year.
2011 has also been a good year for the infrastructure of the Polish game, with a number of brand new stadiums opening their doors. Construction was finally completed on two new stadia in Kraków, as well as the new homes of Śląsk, Arka and Lechia Gdańsk. With new grounds in the lower leagues coming, and the construction of more arenas into 2012 and beyond; the landscape of Polish football is continuing to change for the better.
Despite the many flaws of Polish National Team coach Franciszek Smuda, he has helped to guide his country to 6 wins and 4 draws from their 13 friendly games in 2011. Tough games against Italy and France resulted in losses; whilst a 2-2 draw with rivals Germany, and wins against Norway, Belarus, Hungary and Argentina will prove to be highlights of the year.
So what can we expect from Polish football in 2012?
Polish club football returns in the middle of February, as reigning league champions Wisła take on cup winners Legia in the Polish Super Cup. Scheduled to be the opening game in Warsaw’s new Stadion Narodowy, the game was put back from July as the stadium was still under construction.
Before the return of the Ekstraklasa on 17th February, both Wisła and Legia are back in action with their last-32 Europa League ties. Both sides play their opening leg in Poland; with Wisła hosting Belgian side Standard Liège, and Legia welcoming Portuguese favourites Sporting Lisbon to the Pepsi Arena.
When the Ekstraklasa finally does return after a 67-day break, just thirteen rounds remain to decide who will be crowned champions, who will gain the all-important European spots, and who will win the fight to stay in the top-flight for another season.
After the Autumn round, it is Śląsk Wrocław who are the favourites to go on and win their second title; although they will face massive competition from both Legia and Lech Poznań. Legia coach Maciej Skorża will feel that his team are in the best position to challenge Śląsk, but the distraction of Europe could prove too much for the Wojskowi.
Lech are a little further back, and will be counting on keeping their squad – including top-scorer Artjoms Rudnevs and key midfielder Semir Stilic – together; and with their only other interest in the form of the Puchar Polski, Jose Mari Bakero’s men shouldn’t be written off.
Wisła will feel that they have the ability to challenge, but coach Kazimierz Moskal will have his work cut out to juggle two cup competitions whilst trying to cut the ten-point defecit. The return of star midfielder Maor Melikson will be hugely important for the club, but it will take a huge effort -and the sides above them to drop points – to challenge for the title.
Now that Józef Wojciechowski seems to have realised that sticking with a coach helps to settle a team, Polonia Warszawa have a very good opportunity for a top-three finish; whilst Waldemar Fornalik will be hoping that his Ruch Chorzów side can carry on from their surprise start to the season to maybe challenge for a European place.
At the opposite end of the table, anyone below Wisła in sixth position could potentially be dragged into a relegation fight. Widzew Łódź, Korona Kielce, Podbeskidzie, Jagiellonia Białystok and Górnik Zabrze all have a bit of breathing space for the time being; whereas Lechia Gdańsk, GKS Bełchatów, ŁKS, Cracovia and Zagłębie Lubin all will be desperate to pull themselves away from the bottom two spots.
Although the Ekstraklasa returns in mid-February, I Liga supporters will have to wait almost a month longer until their clubs resure their 2011/12 campaign. Relegated Arka Gdynia will resume the season in mid-table, whilst Polonia Bytom are languishing in the drop-zone. Currently looking favourites for promotion are Pomeranian side PogońSzczecin, whilst both Nieciecza and Zawisza Bydgoszcz are looking to surprise everyone by grabbing one of the two promotion spots. Piast Gliwice, Kolejarz Stróże and Flota Świnoujście are in a good position to make a charge for the top-two, whilst Bogdanka Łęczna and Arka might just have a little too much work to do.
Things currently aren’t looking too great for both Bytom and Olimpia Elbląg, who sit five and eight points from safety respectively. Górnik Polkowice and Wisła Płock currently occupy the other two relegation spots, with GKS Katowice, Olimpia Grudziądz and Dolcan Ząbki sitting precariously above the trap-door. Sandecja Nowy Sącz, Warta Poznań and Ruch Radzionków should have enough about themselves to avoid a relegation battle; but stranger things have happened in the Polish Leagues.
Whilst both the Ekstraklasa and the I Liga are all set up for a thrilling final few months; when the sun rises above the Białowieża Forest on January 1st 2012, the world’s attention will be turning towards Poland – as well as Ukraine – ahead of one of the most important summer in the country’s history.
Ever since Poland and Ukraine were awarded the right to hold the Euro 2012 tournament on 18th April 2007, years of planning and construction have taken place ahead of the opening game in Warsaw on 8th June. Although some of the country’s infrastructure may not be quite perfect – some planned road links and train lines are unlikely to be ready in time – the country itself is more than prepared to host the month-long festival of football. During June and July, the population of Poland will swell, with hundreds-of-thousands of football supporters wanting to join the country’s celebrations. Both the economic benefit and the legacy of the tournament are likely to be massive for Poland, and this can only be a good thing for the game in the country.
With the new stadia sprouting up into 2012 and beyond, both the clubs and the PZPN are trying to take steps to eradicate the final pockets of hooliganism, which have made Polish football notorious throughout Europe. The plan to make football a more family-orientated spectator sport seems to be working; with crowds at Wrocław’s Stadion Miejski and Gdańsk’s PGE Arena both reaching in excess of 40,000.
Whilst 2012 is made out to be the year that Polish football reaches its peak, the truth is far from that – it almost feels like this is merely the start for the country’s beautiful game. With the corruption and hooliganism which has plagued football in the country, slowly fading away; the Polish leagues are now seeing their appeal gradually improving. Kraków, Warsaw and Poznań are now becoming top destinations for watching football in Europe; and combined with recent showings in European competitions, people are now becoming aware that the Polish game is returning to the footballing map of Europe.
Polish football as you may have known it is dead; long live Polish football. If you’re only just beginning to take an interest, you’ve picked a hell of a year to start.