Women and football have made the headlines lately. Michal Zachodny looks at the level of integration in the Polish game.
The latest affair involving Richard Keys and Andy Gray made me realize two things. First of all, Polish women are slowly taking their fair share in Polish footballing life, and secondly, that we have not had a single problem or issue like those that have been dominating the headlines in the UK. It is not something we may especially be proud of (as it should be normal) and there is still a lot of space to improve but it’s the quality, intelligence and impact of women involved in football in Poland that matters the most.
The first Polish club from the country's top division that gave the position of chairman to a woman was Ruch Chorzow in April 2006. Katarzyna Sobstyl took over the club in one of the hardest moments in the club's history – struggling with financial problems, still playing at an aging stadium and with a below-average squad – hardly an environment that the shareholders could be proud of. Nonetheless, Sobstyl led the club to the stock exchange in 2008, the first Polish club to take such a path. Impressive, no? Whilst Ruch still face the odd financial issue, the 'First Lady' has largely installed stability.
They have done so well in the last two seasons that buyers for Ruch players were forming an extensive queue – when the Chorzow club finished third in the 2009/2010 Ekstraklasa campaign (starting as one of main relegation candidates) and secured a place in the Europa League, it looked as if the fans had a bright future in store. But the real world sadly intervened and six months later, without their two best players and after some disappointing results in the first round of new season, Katarzyna Sobstyl has replaced its financial worries with an ageing squad. However, many still regard Sobstyl as very strong personality, well versed in the ancient art of negotiations, and there are (as of yet) few doubters.
Women can also save their clubs, you know. Ex-top model turned businesswoman Izabela Lukomska-Pyzalska has recently decided to invest in Warta Poznan, a smaller and poorer neighbor of Lech, currently in the second division. Warta were in danger of reaching their centenary, weighed down by small crowds, constant financial problems and bunch of players that couldn’t guarantee avoiding relegation. Weeks after Izabela Lukomska-Pyzalska became Warta’s chairman the future looks brighter for the club – the players were paid and the attention from the media was something that the other club from Poznan needed. Whilst she has yet to prove if she will be as successful in running professional football club as she was on a catwalk, at least fans can hear their club’s name in a positive context for a change.
City rivals Lech also have a female in their ranks – press officer, Joanna Dzios. She has been at the club for few years now and it all started with simple internship during her collage time. Still only 27-years old, Joanna Dzios is very helpful and friendly in her job, leading the best and the most modern press office Polish club football has to offer.
While reading about Polish football it is important to remember that fans, media and experts are highly critical in their comments about the Football Federation. The president, Grzegorz Lato (top scorer at the 1974 World Cup) is regarded as rather simple person that hasn’t got much to say and isn’t really in charge of Polish football – rather his counselors are leading the federation. Fans laugh when Mr Lato says something stupid, often declaring that someone accidentally let him of his leash. Poor handling of the corruption affair, retention of staff unwilling to accept structural reform, and failure to devise a plan for the future – those are the main charges that Polish fans lay at the door of their FA.
But Polish FA has also the better side, a side which is facing a tough task to explain every other decision made by the board or the president. Press officer, 27-year old Agnieszka Olejkowska was at the federation for a number of years before being given her new position. She represents the best hope for an interview and making sense of her bosses. She is also the only person inside the federation that actually knows what Twitter is (follow her - @rzecznik_PZPN).
But she isn’t the first woman to work at the federation – when Leo Beenhakker was in charge of the Polish national team, his press officer was Marta Alf. She quickly became ‘Leo’s bodyguard’ (as the media liked to name her). The closeness of her relationship with the Dutch manager led the tabloid press to announce that they were having an affair, but it was as silly as it sounds and nobody took it seriously. She initially had to face a strange superstition that woman were not allowed on the team bus but when Leo heard about it, he laughed it off – the players were made to get on with it and after a short time, she was part of the team. Unfortunately for Marta Alf, her job was not as highly rated by the federation as by the media and she was sacked soon after Beenhakker left in 2009.
Closer to the pitch, women in Polish football are also successful. The best Polish referee of the last decade? It’s Katarzyna Nadolska – refereeing in World Cup final, twice at thee Olympics, and many games as linesman in Polish Ekstraklasa before her 35th birthday. Quite an achievement for any referee, right? She is working in an environment that was for years contaminated with corruption and still has bad press but even though that is tough for her at times, she handles the pressure very well. A school teacher by trade, she got involved in refereeing by accident but has become hugely successful in her football job. She says that being a female helped her a lot of times on the pitch, especially in handling heated situations when footballers always calm down at the first sight of her.
According to Katarzyna Nadolska, what irritates her the most are the ‘positive’ comments from others that rate her work – ‘good game for a woman’ and the like. In 2004 she was given an award by the league broadcasting TV-station, which proves how highly she is and was regarded inside Polish football.
As you see, women are everywhere in Polish football and over the years I’ve been attending games, the numbers of females have rapidly increased on the stands as well. Polish clubs seems to know that there is still place for improvement though and have special offers prepared, which are often centred around events such as World Women's Day.
Sadly, the media remains a largely female-free zone in Polish football. Hardly few women work for club sites, press and TV reporting on the sport and as a student of Sports Journalism I must regretfuly predict that it’s not going to change over next few years. Of course, I know several women that are very interested in football, can write/talk about it for hours, even better than some of the pundits we can see every other week, but… it’s unexplainable how closed that zone is for females.
Then there are the changing rooms. Comments I’ve heard made by players (amateur and professional) in that strictly male environment are no better than those made by Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Of course such cases are in the minority, but female officials still experience abuse, particularly in the lower leagues. However, such behaviour is increasingly being viewed as unacceptable.
When I was playing for a youth team, the referee of our game was a woman not much older than the players. She started well, but when several decisions didn’t go the way of our opponents, they started the show. Crowding her every few minutes, disputing the simplest decisions, and shouting at her. It quickly got to the point when opposite coach was leading the torrent of abuse directed at the lady. The game was abandoned early in the second half, when she couldn’t stand the abuse from the other team and crying ran to the changing room. We were awarded a 3-0 win some time after but shamefully I’ve not heard that any of the players (a few of whom were sent off) or their coach were issued with extended suspensions for their behavior.
As I said, that is the past and even though I doubt that the referee from the recalled game ever returned to officiating football games, I think everybody should be looking at the change and increased number of females in Polish football as more representative anecdotes. The older generation may be unhappy with it, but they will have to face the simple and obvious fact that women are in love with football as much as they and what is more, can give more to it than they can. Whether it is down to running the business, officiating games, or representing clubs in the media, women have been a crucial part of Polish football for some time now.
For the latest happenings in the world of Polish Football, follow Michal on Twitter @polishscout.