A preview of the 2017/18 Polish Ekstraklasa football season

Wise men say money can’t buy you love but when you look at the recently published audit from Deloitte you’d have thought Legia Warszawa would have won last season’s title at a stroll. The huge financial advantage they have is thanks to them having reached the promised land of the Champions League in 2016/17. This was the first time a Polish side had played there in two decades.

Legia’s 2016 revenues were calculated at 207 million Polish zloty, a little under 50 million Euros.

Fortunately, money doesn’t play on the pitch and last season’s Ekstraklasa was probably the most fascinating ever as four teams were in the running for the title right into the final minutes of the season. The season which starts (this evening) Friday July 14th might not be as exciting as while the league will once again split into two groups after 30 games (top 8 and bottom 8) this season there will be no points division after everyone has played each other twice.

* In recent years the 16-team league has been split into 2 groups at the end of the regular season, with the points of each team being divided in two before the teams play each other one more time. This has ensured some close, though not necessarily fair, finishes in recent years.

Legia will obviously be hoping to repeat last year’s success, win their 5th title in the last 6 years and qualify to play Champions League again. It won’t be easy as they’ve lost the league’s best player in Belgian Vadis Odidja-Ofoe who’s moved to Olympiakos Pireus. With respect to the Greek side it’s a bit sad and puts things into perspective that the champions of your country lose their main asset to such a mediocre club. But there’s a saying in Polish: if you can’t have what you like, like what you have. Vadis wanted out and now everyone’s happy. The player will earn more in Greece than he did in Poland and Legia ended up with €3 million for a player with only a year left on his contract. Legia now have a couple of weeks to try to replace him with someone decent. Their road to CL for now is not rocky and at the time of writing they’d already beaten Finnish champions IFK Marienhamn 3-0 away from home. They will be hoping to repeat last year’s feat when they managed to qualify for the group stage where they drew at home with Real Madrid. Let’s hope it won’t be at an empty stadium this time. **

** The group game against Real Madrid at Legia’s Lazienkowska Stadium was played behind closed doors because of fan trouble at a previous game.

Lech Poznań who came 3rd last term have been busy in transfer market with the most notable transfer being out as they sold centre-back Jan Bednarek, a product of their youth system, for a Polish league record £6 million pounds to Southampton. Also gone are Dawid Kownacki to Sampdoria and Tomasz Kędziora to Dynamo Kyiv the pair raising over €10 million euro. Now they’ll be trying to replace them with mainly foreign purchases, including Denis Rakels from Reading, and in the main Balkan and Scandinavian players. They can be fairly confident that the Croatian manager Nenad Bjelica (incidentally the highest earner at the club) will make good use of them even if it takes time.

Jagiellonia Białystok were the surprise package last year finishing second with one of smaller budgets. (I mean officially as the north-east part of Poland benefits from some dodgy border deals with Belarus and Lithuania). Joking aside they were really impressive last term and every neutral’s favourite in their attempt to snatch the title from the jaws of Legia Warsaw (aka the Polish Bayern). In the end it was not to be as they failed to beat Lech Poznań on the last day of the season and in the close season two main pieces of the team left. Luckily the vegan Irish striker Cillian Sheridan will still be there but Kosta Vassiliev (aka Cesar of Estonia) failed to agree a new contract and left for Piast Gliwice. The manager, Michał Probierz, who was rumoured to be heading abroad (Turkey or Germany) did a similar thing leaving for Cracovia. The Krakow club finished 3rd from bottom last season and this move must have come both as a surprise and as a huge blow to Jagiellonia. This is #wwopf at its best – we will decipher this tag at the end of the piece.

At Cracovia, Probierz will have a financially sound owner and a team which has underachieved for years. That is apart from the 2015/16 season when they finished 4th following which they did something very typically Cracovia and were dumped out of the Europa League in the 1st Preliminary Round by a Macedonian side. Probierz, who’s nicknamed the Polish Guardiola (due to his baldness and facial hair) but is in fact more of a Polish Mourinho with his controversial quotes also has a good memory. He will certainly remember the time he failed miserably just across Błonia Meadow at Wisła Kraków some years ago and he’ll want revenge. The rivalry between Wisła and Cracovia is the fiercest in Poland if not Europe and I’m not even talking about events on the football pitch here. Speaking of Wisła Kraków, they were taken over by a fans trust last summer but fans’ average weight here is bit higher than the UK. On the pitch manager Kiko Ramirez continues the process of a Wisła “Hispanisation” with 5 players from the Iberian Peninsula already among the ranks with more to come.

At the other end of the country it’s not that heated as we lie on the beach in the Tri-city most of the year. Last season the team of Lech Wałęsa and Donald Tusk, Lechia Gdańsk, were just a goal away from securing the Championship but opted to play for a draw in their last game at Legia Warsaw and for that they were punished, finishing fourth, and prompting major disappointment among the fans. The manager, Piotr Nowak, who has previously led DC United to the MLS title should consider himself lucky to still be on the bench. He’s got an ageing team full of over-30s and relies heavily on the Portuguese Paixao twins, one of whom, Marco, was the league’s joint top scorer last season.

Arka Gdynia won the Polish Cup for only the second time in their history in 2017

To add to Lechia’s pain, local rivals Arka from the neighbouring (with Sopot acting as a buffer between them) and smaller town of Gdynia won the Polish Cup and have qualified for Europa League football, a spot they took at the expense of their rivals in Gdansk, the fourth time in a row that Lechia have finished one place outside of European football. Surely that can’t be a coincidence?

Now Lechia supporters are having to endure hilarious jokes:
Q. How far is Lechia from Europe?
A. 3 stops on the train (the distance from Gdynia to Gdańsk)

or

Q. Why do people in Gdańsk drink beer from glasses?
A. Cause all cups are in Gdynia. (It makes more sense in Polish and relates to Arka Gdynia winning not only the Polish Cup but also the Polish Supercup last week, a kind of Charity Shield season-opener).

Surprisingly a village called Nieciecza (700 people live there) will be the capital of Polish football for the first half of the season as it will see top tier football every week. Apart from the local side Brukbet they’ll also be Sandecja (from Nowy Sącz in the Beskidy mountains around 100 km from Poland’s winter capital Zakopane) appearing for the first time ever in the top tier. Sandecja will play their games at the Brukbet ground as their stadium is not up to Ekstraklasa standards yet. Looks a bit non-league doesn’t it?

Sandecja’s take on the ‘park the bus’ metaphor – park the Maluch

No such problems for the second Ekstraklasa newcomer, Górnik Zabrze, a traditional team who after 5 years (it was planned for 20 months) of building finally got their brand new stadium last year. 14 time Polish champions (it’s a joint record) Górnik will be hoping to stay up and together with neighbouring Piast Gliwice will be flying the flag for Upper Silesian football, once a powerhouse of the Polish game. Only 2 teams from the region are left in the Ekstraklasa, where once upon a time there was five or more. The economic transition has not been kind for Upper Silesian football with the last title won in 1989 by Ruch Chorzów (another 14 time champion who were relegated last season) just before first semi-free elections which saw the beginning of the collapse of Communism.

Things are slightly better in Lower Silesia as Śląsk Wrocław, following a couple of disappointing seasons, have been taken over and have made some promising signings including Jakub Kosecki, the son of the former Polish national team captain, Roman. Their main aim and hope is to fill their white elephant of a stadium. Śląsk, despite being champions in 2012, have failed to capitalize on that success and last season’s home gates averaged around nine thousand people. In a 40,000-capacity stadium that looks fairly miserable.

Speaking of stadiums – Pogoń Szczecin are the only Ekstraklasa team who play in an old-school dilapidated stadium. The city authorities are planning to modernise their ground, but improvement on the pitch would help politicians to act. Pogoń have qualified for the top 8 every time since the idea to split the table was introduced 4 years ago but have failed to impress after that. This season they have a new manager in Maciej Skorża who has won championships with Lech Poznań and Wisła Kraków in the past.

Korona are from Kielce – a city that England fans visited during Euro U21s. After impressing last term they are another club who have been bought out, this time by a German consortium (did I mention Arka have been bought by the 20-year old son of a man who made his money from recycling and waste management?) ***. One of first decisions was to fire manager of the year Maciej Bartoszek, replace him with German coach Gino Lettieri and pay him 4 times what they’d been paying Bartoszek. Decent players were let go (one of them the Spaniard Palanca was released allegedly for coming to a meal wearing flip flops) and a bunch of unknowns have been hired in their place, including the owner’s son Fabian Burdenski. Another typical example of #wwopf (wacky world of Polish football – TM the rightbankwarsaw podcast which we invite you to listen to).

The #wwopf disease is spreading fast and reached Płock too, where the local side Wisła’s manager, Marcin Kaczmarek, was fired after 5 years at the helm – twice as long as the next longest-serving coach. The reason? One of players (admittedly they paid money for him to get him to Płock from French side Toulouse) didn’t like the training sessions. But y’know wha (said in my best Scouse accent)? In the weird world of the Ekstraklasa nobody would be surprised if both sides achieved success this season. Well, relative success, which means finishing in the top half. The season is long, there is a split after 30 games and quite frankly anything can happen.

Maciej Słomiński’s prediction for the 2017/18 season

LEGIA WARSZAWA
LECH POZNAŃ
CRACOVIA
ŚLĄSK WROCŁAW
LECHIA GDAŃSK
POGOŃ SZCZECIN
WISŁA KRAKÓW
PIAST GLIWICE
ZAGŁĘBIE LUBIN
JAGIELLONIA BIAŁYSTOK
WISŁA PŁOCK
GÓRNIK ZABRZE
ARKA GDYNIA
SANDECJA NOWY SĄCZ
KORONA KIELCE
BRUK-BET NIECIECZA

*** After this was published it was announced that an agreement to sell Śląsk Wrocław had fallen through and the club had instead become an asset of the company that owns the stadium. In most countries football clubs own their stadiums. In the #wwopf the stadiums own the clubs.

Maciej Słomiński is the co-author of the biographies of Gregorz Krol and Robert Lewandowski as well as being a regular contributor to publications and broadcasts such as @WSC_magazine, @guardian_sport, @Cop, _ Slowfoot.pl, and the @rightbankwarsaw podcast. #wwopf. Find him on Twitter @maciejslominski

Author: Martin Kitson

Martin is a native of London who has lived in Europe for close to 20 years. These days he calls Sopot home from where he writes the Gdansk In Your Pocket guide, among other things. He is married with three children and enjoys history, sport and exploring new places.

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