Wisla Cracow have forced their way to the top of the Polish game but are struggling to make it to the Champions League promised land. With a look at the reasons why, here's Michal Zachodny.
In last 14 seasons in Polish football, Wisla Cracow have finished only once outside the top three. Not only have they won the title 7 times in the last 12 years, they’ve also shown strength in European competition by famously beating AC Parma, Schalke 04 (both in 2003), Real Zaragoza (2001), and most recently FC Barcelona (2009) in qualification in a year that saw the Catalonians lift the trophy. Cleber scored a classic header and nobody at Reymonta (Wisla’s home stadium) cared that they lost in the first game at the Camp Nou 0-4, beating Barca is special regardless of the circumstances.
But despite their dominance in Polish football in the last 14 years, they face familiar criticisms that the team never reached its full potential and with the players they’ve had, qualification for the group stages of the Champions League should have been achieved at least a couple of times. The Champions League remains the Holy Grail for the White Star players, despite having 6 chances to qualify (it would have been 7 but after one of the titles Wisla were banned from European competition due to their hooligan element, during a game with Parma in 1999, Enrico Chiesa was injured after a knife was thrown at him from the stands) something has always stopped them.
Let’s look at their recent history in Champions League qualification. During the 01/02 season Barcelona were too strong after a thrilling 3-4 in Cracow, they then won relatively easily back in Spain. Two years later after beating the Cyprian champions Wisla were drawn with Anderlecht Brussels and deservedly lost both games. The following year they drew Real Madrid and predictably proved nowhere near strong enough when pitted with Los Blancos. A year later they came closer than ever when they beat Panathinaikos 3-1 at home, but in a dramatic second leg in Greece where key man Kuba Błaszczykowski couldn’t play due to injury, Wisla conceded late to take the tie into extra time. Predictably they then conceded again and it finished 4-1 to the Greek champions. After that disappointment, in qualification in 08/09 they drew Barcelona again and were swept aside. This year’s competition marked a new low as despite playing well in some tough draws in previous years, this time couldn’t even overcome the Estonian champions in the second round.
Wisla have produced some quality players over the years that have done well in Cracow and then with other European clubs. Maciej Żurawski, Kalu Uche, Paweł Brożek, Tomasz Frankowski, Marcelo, Kamil Kosowski, Kuba Błaszczykowski, and Junior Diaz are all names followers of European football will recognize. A huge part of the problem lies with the management and the insecurity attached to the head coaching position at the club. Since finishing third at the end of the 97/98 season, Wisla have changed managers over 20 times with the current man in charge - Dutchman Robert Maaskant – making it 21. Some names (Kasperczak, Smuda, Nawałka, and caretaker Kulawik) took the role twice, while Wisla also have the unenviable distinction of being the only place where Dan Petrescu has struggled as a manager.
Petrescu famously said that the players simply did not want to work hard enough under his management. His time in Cracow was limited to 9 months in 2006 and he admitted to having problems during his time at the club, but Petrescu’s methods have proved successful since while Wisla have continued to struggle in Europe, despite having both the squad and the money to be the first Polish team in the 21st century to make the Group Stages. Beaten by the likes of Valerenga, Levadia Tallinn, Vitoria S.C., Dinamo Tbilisi and this year by FK Qarabag from Azerbaijan in recent history, questions are now being asked about the club’s operation off the pitch and the effect felt by the players and coaching staff on it.
Over the last decade after every title, the club has then struggled to hold on to its best players. With the level of ability, support, and finance in the Polish leagues, its no surprise the ultimate dream becomes a career abroad earning big money with a western club. Every year this has left White Star with the problem of finding replacements during the summer transfer window. In reality Wisla, apart from a few deals, have got too many transfers wrong and counted on unproven players, out of form and simply not good enough to compete with the better clubs. The owner, Mr. Boguslaw Cupial, had his own problems with his company and at times needed to pull his money from the club. He could only do this by selling the best players and in the last few years, Wisla haven’t made any significant signings to state their ambition to be the biggest club in Poland again.
The turmoil with the club’s board and a high turnover of players in the squad every year means the club now lacks structure. With no scouting in place, no training ground, and their stadium still under construction (despite plans to be finished much earlier this year), the 2 Dutchmen in charge, manager Robert Maaskant and sports director Stan Valckx, have an uphill battle from the outset.
Maaskant has to cope with a changing room with 12 different nationalities represented and the latest reports suggest that the Polish aren’t happy with a lack of understanding in the team. In response Maciej Żurawski has been given an extra role as a translator as (not surprisingly) the ex-Celtic star is the only player that speaks the fluent English in which Maaskant communicates with the team. When the Moroccan Nourdin Boukhari scored in 95th minute in Cracow derby last Friday only the foreign players followed their teammate in celebration. The Polish element quickly left the pitch at the final whistle, paying no respect to the importance of the game and or show a commitment to Wisla.
It means that Maaskant and Valckx are battling not only for the Polish title this year, but also to clarify the future of Wisla. They will have the new stadium open soon and there are still high hopes that after 15 years, the Dutch pair can finally create a team capable of fulfilling the dreams of the millions of fans Wisla have all over the world (research from 2008 showed that about 6.5 million people follow them worldwide). Winning the changing room over before the next important game - at home against Legia Warsaw on Friday - suddenly doesn’t look like the only battle for the Dutch duo to win. Despite that they will need to be mindful of results as history shows that patience is the last thing that can count on while doing their job at Reymonta.
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