Just two years ago, ŁKS Łódź were demoted to the fifth tier of the Polish pyramid after declaring themselves bankrupt and withdrawing from the second-tier I Liga. In an almost carbon-copy of events, ŁKS’s arch-rivals Widzew are now set to suffer a similar fate.
Denied a license for the Polish third-tier due to outstanding debts, the four-time national champions – and the country’s last Champions League representative – are set to announce their liquidation on Wednesday. The club will now likely follow in ŁKS’s footsteps, by starting from scratch as a new entity in the lower echelons of the Polish pyramid.
Football in Łódź has been on a downward spiral, ever since the last league titles were brought to the city in the late-nineties; however in recent years the problems have intensified. With debt piled upon more debt, both Widzew and ŁKS have for years been operating a model which has been unsustainable. While the demise of the two clubs is shocking, it isn’t at all surprising.
Relegated from the Ekstraklasa at the end of the 2013-14 season, Widzew entered the league in which, two-years previously, cross-city enemies ŁKS had collected 14 points from the 22 games they were able to complete. Avoiding the same banana skin was the minimum requirement for the Red, White and Reds; yet having picked up just ten points by the same stage, it was a requirement they failed to avoid spectacularly. A second straight fall looked inevitable even before Christmas; and while much worse was feared, many were afraid to discuss it.
Poland’s third largest city has struggled for investment in comparison to the likes of Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań; something clearly visible when looking at Łódź’s footballing infrastructure. While Warsaw and Poznań, along with Gdańsk and Wrocław, received new stadia for Euro 2012; and new arenas were also built in Kraków, in part to host three of the squads during the tournament; Łódź’s involvement was non-existent. The two stadia which had been planned for ŁKS and Widzew, replacing their dilapidated homes, were put on hold as their priority dwindled.
Eventually though, their construction has commenced, even if timing is questionable. The rebuilt Stadion ŁKS – or at least one side of it – will be completed with the team languishing in the fourth-tier, while work to dig up the Stadion Widzewa began with Widzew sitting in their lowest-ever position, and staring relegation directly in the face.
Coincidentally, it was the redevelopment of their stadium which almost caused Widzew’s demotion back in March. Forced to play their home games elsewhere, the club’s owners took the odd decision to rent a stadium in the small village of Byczyna, some 40km west of Łódź. While the facility may be impressive for a village of its size, it fell some way short of the requirements for a I Liga stadium. With no sector for away fans, and a maximum capacity for just 539 spectators, the four-time Polish champions were denied a licence to play there.
With the cancellation of their 2015 opener, in which Sandecja Nowy Sącz were granted a 3-0 walkover; and with the league rules stating that three forfeited games during a season would result in a withdrawal from the competition; Widzew were forced to quickly ensure that their temporary home met the required standard. Finally, a provisional licence was obtained, but on the provision that for each game held in Byczyna, the club would be deducted one point at the beginning of next season.
A change of management – ex-Cracovia coach Wojciech Stawowy the January replacement for Rafał Pawlak – did see Widzew’s form improve at their new base. Two wins and two draws from five games in Byczyna gave fans hope, however results away from home, coupled with their early-season form, ensured they weren’t able to leave the foot of the table until mid-table Flota Świnoujście withdrew from the league due to financial problems of their own.
Flota’s demotion may have filled one of the three relegation spots, however the additional glimmer of hope merely proved a stay of execution for Widzew. Back-to-back defeats against relegation rivals Pogoń Siedlce and Bytovia Bytów left Stawowy’s charges requiring maximum points from their three remaining games – starting at champions-elect Zagłębie Lubin – as well as needing other results to go their way.
“I am in constant contact with [club president and sole board member Sylwester Cacek]” Stawowy told journalists after the 2-0 defeat to Pogoń, before outlining their plans to rebuild the club next season – plans that were quickly discarded, as Cacek resigned suddenly from his position before the day was over.
“We have regretfully accepted the resignation of Sylwester Cacek” said Sławomir Pawłowski, chairman of the club’s supervisory board, “because I know how much he put into his work; and it is because he committed his resources to Widzew, that it even exists at all. However the club can not be based only on the finances of one person”.
Despite his self-funding of the club, Cacek had not seen eye-to-eye with Widzew’s supporters for a while, with many blaming his decisions for the predicament which the club now find themselves in. In his last act before handing in his notice, Cacek signed the document which sealed Widzew’s relegation: unable to find the 7,000PLN (£1,400) to fund the trip to Lubin, the club would forfeit the three points, ensuring the club’s spot in the bottom three.
Although the club were able to complete their remaining games, and Cacek did later withdraw his resignation; Widzew’s astronomical debts were enough for the PZPN to deny them a license to play in the II Liga for next season. While PZPN president and former Widzewiak Zbigniew Boniek declared that the association had “wanted to help”; the club failed to submit the required documents before the appeal deadline, meaning that Widzew will next season not be able to play in any of the PZPN’s competitions.
Widzew’s fall means that Łódź – one of Polish football’s founding cities – now finds itself with two half-built, brand-new stadia; yet without a team in the top-two tiers of Polish football for the first time since competitions began in 1927, and with no chance of returning to such a status for at least another two years. With interest in Łódzianin football already dwindling, even this timeframe seems unrealistic. Both clubs’ rebirths, and their improving infrastructures, may give them a chance of a bright future; yet deep down, one still must wonder whether a new start is enough for the pair. “Widzew will never die” say the banners which have sprung-up around Poland in recent days; yet if football in Łódź is to become more than just a distant memory, it faces an extremely long road to recovery.