After the election of former Juventus legend Zbigniew Boniek as head of the Polish FA, change is afoot all across Polish football. With revisions to the structure of not only the Polish top flight, the Ekstraklasa, but the lower leagues, the Polish cup, and even the reserve leagues as well, there is a real worry that the PZPN are changing too much, too soon, with a number of smaller clubs at risk of financial meltdown.
With two clubs, GKS Bełchatów and Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała, entering the 2012-13 winter break nine points behind their nearest relegation rivals, the league announced its plans to revise the structure of the competition in order to make it more competitive until the final day. By halving the points total at the end of the traditional 30-game season, splitting the league in two, and having teams compete in either a “championship” or “relegation” group, the Ekstraklasa hoped that it would eliminate the scenario where a team could be almost relegated by December. Whilst the majority of clubs originally disagreed with the halving of points, the change was eventually pushed through before the end of the season. Ironically, the relegation battle did go down to the last day, with Podbeskidzie finishing in 14th, and GKS Bełchatów losing out to Ruch Chorzów on goal difference – Ruch only surviving themselves due to Polonia Warszawa’s demotion for financial problems.
An early start to the season was also incorporated, allowing the four clubs qualifying for Europe to be match-fit in time for their continental competitions – an area where Polish clubs have traditionally struggled in recent years. Whilst it seemed to have worked for both Legia Warszawa and Śląsk Wrocław, who have reached the play-off rounds of their respective competitions, the same cannot be said for Lech Poznań. Despite being favourites against Lithuanian side Žalgiris Vilnius, poor performances saw them eliminated on away goals.
In addition to the changes in the Ekstraklasa, there was also a decision made last season to scrap the country’s Młoda Ekstraklasa competition – a mostly U23 league made up of the sixteen clubs in the Polish top flight. Now, the majority of Ekstraklasa clubs have reserve teams, which have been allowed to enter into the fourth tier – moving towards a similar structure seen elsewhere on the continent.
The Polish Cup has also had a slight makeover following Legia’s 16th victory back in May. As well as a brand-new trophy to compete for, clubs will have their possible route to the final already mapped out; a change from the usual round-by-round draw. In addition, for the first time clubs were seeded for the competition before the first round, With clubs not now drawn from the hat, the home side is now decided by their seedings, with the lower-ranked club having the pleasure of playing at home.
If that wasn’t enough, the Super Cup – which wasn’t even contested for last season after problems with timing and stadia – has also seen a slight reform. The usual season-opener has now been moved to February, and could possibly even be played abroad with Germany and England touted as possible hosts.
However the most threatening changes are the ones about to take place in the lower reaches of Polish football. Currently split into regional groups of two and eight respectively, over the next two seasons the II and III Liga will both split in half. At the end of the 2013-14 campaign, the bottom ten clubs in each of the II Liga (third tier) groups will relegated. The teams finishing between third and eighth position, along with the four teams relegated from the I Liga will form the new, national II Liga. The fourth tier III Liga will follow suit by halving its numbers at the end of the 2014-15 season. This means that two successive mid-table finishes could see a club relegated from the third to the fifth division. There is also the possibility that we could also see clubs almost dead-and-buried by the time that the cold Polish winter sets in.
But is Poland ready for such drastic changes in its lower leagues? Many believe not. Their neighbours Germany – a country whose football system is bigger and more developed – didn’t have a national third tier until 2009, and many believe that forcing it onto Polish clubs who already suffer financially could be the wrong decision.
“There will be additional costs for travel and accommodation” says Grzegorz Szalacha, spokesman for third-tier club Stal Rzeszów. “We expect approximately a 20% higher budget for these trips. It should also be noted that players will put higher demands – they will want higher earnings to play in the new II Liga”.
“Our club is focused on maintaining our place in the new II Liga” explains Szalacha. “However at the same time, due to high financial requirements we were forced to resolve more than 10 players’ contracts in the summer… Now in every game we have between seven and nine of our youth graduates”.
“The fact is that Polish clubs have financial problems” explains Tomasz Krzymiński, spokesperson for another third-tier club Chrobry Głogów, who also believes there could be withdrawals. “The reforms will create a lack of funds, and some clubs will not cope”.
Financial pressures on Polish clubs have already helped to cause the downfall of a number of big clubs. Whilst poor management were also a factor, a lack of cash was what forced both Polonia Warszawa and ŁKS Łódź out of business last season, whilst both Ruch Radzionków and Odra Wodzisław Śląski have both suffered a similar fate in recent years. However the added costs could spell trouble for a number of even smaller clubs who are already finding the current economical climate tough.
The plans to make the Polish leagues more attractive to supporters and sponsors are extremely clear, however many lower league clubs face a difficult few years ahead. Many will make it through to the other side with a mixture of hard work and financial planning, and will possibly come out stronger because of it. However there is a real chance some clubs could be lost in the quagmire, and that simply shouldn’t be a risk worth taking.