Ryan Hubbard

THE REBIRTH OF LKS POGON LWÓW

Ryan Hubbard

Nestled just north of the Carpathian mountains, the Euro 2012 host city of Lviv is widely seen as one of Ukraine's main centres of culture. The integration of different ethnic groups over the years is clearly reflected by the visible fusion of different architectural styles throughout the city's tree-lined streets; harking back to a not-too-distant past where Eastern European borders were constantly changing, and many people were moving to the bigger cities in search of a more prosperous life.

Lviv was, and still is, an obviously attractive choice for many; its beauty one of the main reasons it is twinned with such fascinating cities as Budapest, Krakow, Wroclaw and St Petersburg (and also, rather surprisingly, Rochdale). But as well as Lviv's many universities, its Viennese-styled theatres, art galleries and UNESCO heritage listed city centre; the city also has a rich sporting history; one which goes deeper than what can immediately be seen on the surface.

Karpaty Lviv are probably the city's most well-known club after recent forays into the Europa League group stages; although their current relegation-battling season is a write-off, a recent emergence into the Ukrainian League's top five has given them exposure on a continental scale.

There is also the smaller FC Lviv; established in 2006, they spent one season in the Ukrainian top flight before dropping back down after a 15th-place finish. An original FC Lviv, established in 1992, was dissolved after a merger with Karpaty's second team in 2001; however they have no connection to the new club.

There was even a third club - older than both FCL and Karpaty - by the name of SKA Lviv. Founded in 1949, SKA was the army club of Lviv; but it also merged with the larger Karpaty in 1982. The merger lasted just seven years, and after the clubs split in 1989, SKA was also dissolved.

Between the three, only Karpaty's Soviet Cup win back in 1969 brought silverware back to Lviv during its time as a part of the USSR, and it has been even more barren since the dissolution of the Soviet state in the early nineties There is however a club from the city more successful than all of the other three combined; one that after 70 years in the wilderness, and 83 years after their last league title, finally were reborn in 2009.

Back in 1903, the city of Lemberg (then under Austro-Hungarian rule) was going through a sporting boom. A number of football clubs sprouted up in the area - three of which were formed by the city's large Polish community. With no clubs in Poland until the founding of Resovia Rzeszow in 1905, the city gained a reputation of the "home of Polish Football".

Klub Gimnastyczno-Sportowy and the slightly older Czarni Lwow ("Lwow" being the Polish name for the city) quickly became the two most popular teams in the city; and in May 1906 kick-started the Polish footballing revolution, when a joint trip to Krakow proved to be the catalyst for the formation of both KS Cracovia and Wisla Krakow.

One year later, Klub Gimnastyczno-Sportowy merged with a smaller local club and was re-branded as LKS Pogon Lwow - "Pogon" being the Polish name for the Lithuanian coat of arms (the city had been a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 17th century), and translates roughly as "The Chaser". The growth of the club was rapid after the merger, and with the sponsorship of a local cinema owner, Pogon quickly became the biggest club in the city.

Over the next few years the club participated in many friendly games, regularly playing against Wisla and Cracovia, as well as other local sides. They even travelled internationally, battling against clubs from Hungary and Czechoslovakia; and in 1910, Pogon joined the Austrian Football Association, competing against clubs from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Trips to Budapest, Debrecen, Vienna and Kattowitz amongst others helped Pogon to establish themselves in the association, and in 1913 the club was added to the list of First Class Teams by the Austrian FA. But before the club could make an impact in the league, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, igniting World War One, and immediately calling a halt to the league schedule. Whilst Pogon was able to arrange a number of friendly games with Hungarian sides in 1914, an increase in hostilities left the club unable to compete during the following year.

With the Russian invasion of the city in 1916, Pogon was split into two different teams - the "Military" and "Civilians"; however towards the end of the year, the Russian troops were forced from the city and normal friendly games commenced. With the Austrian army stationed in the city, Pogon became regular opponents until the end of the conflict.

When fighting ceased at the end of 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was disbanded - as was the Austrian Football Association. The redrawing of Europe's borders left the city of Lwow in a heavily disputed area between Poland and Ukraine. With the subsequent Polish-Ukrainian war forcing football to stop in the region, Pogon were left unable to play until late 1919. By this time, the city had been absorbed into the newly-formed Republic of Poland. With the new boundaries drawn, Pogon quickly signed up to become a founding member of the Polski Związek Pilki Noznej (Polish Football Federation), and played in the regional leagues of Poland until 1921.

After finishing fourth out of five in the first national Polish Championships in 1921, Pogon went into the new eight-team 1922 campaign without losing a game in the regional qualifiers Their strengthened squad then emerged from a Southern group containing WKS Lublin, Ruch Hajduki Wielkie (now Ruch Chorzow), and reigning champions Cracovia, as winners. From there, a two game final against Northern champions Warta Poznan would decide the champions of the country. After a 1-1 tie in Poznan, Pogon emerged 4-3 winners in Lwow - giving the club their first national title.

After becoming champions of the Lwow district for the third successive year in 1923 (a campaign which also included their record 21-1 victory over Rewera Stanislawow), Pogon again breezed through their group to face Wisla Krakow in their second successive national final. After a comprehensive 3-0 victory in Lwow, Pogon went on to lose the Krakow game 2-1. However, as aggregate scores weren't yet used in competition, a third game in Warsaw was used to separate the sides. The Leopolitans went on to lift their second title after a 2-1 victory, before heading on a tour of Yugoslavia.

With the 1924 championships not played due to the Olympic Games in Paris, Pogon played 55 friendly matches against clubs from both Poland and abroad. During the year Pogon beat former Danish Champions Kjøbenhavns Boldklub and HAŠK Zagreb, as well as losing to Austrian champions SV Amateure (now Austria Vienna).

On their return to national competition in 1925, a fearsome Pogon went nine months without conceding a goal on their way to their third national trophy; before again facing off with clubs from Vienna and Prague. Another championship winning season in 1926 followed before the creation of the first national league in 1927. Instead of three regional groups splitting into a final group, the clubs preferred to play in a structured league, with promotion and relegation. The PZPN were opposed to the idea, and along with Cracovia withdrew their support.

In the league's first season, reigning national champions Pogon could only muster a fourth-placed finish, despite being expected to walk away with the title. Growing financial problems coupled with a six-point deduction for playing a friendly game against an unsanctioned Cracovia were partly to blame for finishing 11 points behind winners Wisla, but it was only the beginning of a poor spell for the club.

After dropping down to sixth position in 1928, the following season saw Pogon achieve their lowest ever finish in ninth place. Despite a revival of fortunes in the thirties, the club could only manage to earn runners-up spot on a couple of occasions, and the Polish championship never returned to Lwow.

When the Nazi German army attacked the northern Polish fortification at Westerplatte on August 31st 1939, the Polish championship was suspended with Pogon sitting in third position behind Wisla and Ruch Chorzow. By the time that the national football competition resumed in 1945, a lot had changed.

It soon became clear that with the border changes drawn at the Yalta conference, Lwow would no longer be under Polish rule. The city was absorbed into the expanding Soviet Union, and any Polish residents remaining in the newly-christened Lviv were forced westwards towards the Second Republic of Poland. These travellers included Pogon's players, supporters and management - all of whom were displaced across the country. LKS Pogon Lwow was to be no more.

Over the next few years, the dispersed players and supporters formed new clubs across the country. Most had settled in the former-German industrial centre of Silesia, and around the Odra River; and many of the new clubs took on their former side's famous Blue and Red colours. Polonia Bytom, Odro Opole, Piast Gliwice and Pogon Szczecin can all trace their roots to descendants of Pogon Lwow, and all currently ply their trade in Polish Football to this day. Odra Opole had even started out with the name Lwowianka in honour of their former home, although the communist government forced them to change their title. Meanwhile, in the Ukrainian SSR, Lviv had been left with a gaping footballing hole; one that until the emergence of Karpaty in the seventies, had left the city without a top-flight team to call its own.

But in April 2009 a foundation named "Semper Polonia" (Latin for "Always Poland") along with a group of young Polish inhabitants of Lviv came together to announce the re-introduction of one of the city's most famous names; LKS Pogon Lwow was to be reborn. Coached by former Karpaty Lviv youth boss Wlodzimierz Mandziak, the amateur team - filled with teenage students from the city's two Polish-Language schools - were promised help from a delegation of Polish Parliamentarians, with the long-term aim to rise through the Ukrainian leagues. On October 10, 2009 Pogon Lwow played their first official post-World War II game as they took on a fellow Polish-minority team at the city's Szkolar Stadium. Pogon ran out as 2-0 winners, ensuring that the club's return to football - after a break of over 70 years - was a successful one.

Having been promoted to the Lviv Oblast Premier League (The Ukrainian fifth tier) in 2011, the club's main sponsor withdrew its support of the club - leaving it close to disappearing for a second time. With the club unable to pay for transport and running costs, time was running out; and Pogon President Mark Horban was forced to appeal for support with a stirring speech:

"I strongly urge all who share the idea of the rebirth of the legendary team of Lviv. We want to continue the beautiful tradition of Polish sport in Lviv. For us, these are not empty words. Unfortunately, in spite of sporting success and promising beginnings, the continued existence of the reborn LKS Pogon Lwow is threatened; this time not by aggression, as in 1939 - but by indifference and lack of real assistance."

The appeal worked. With the rebirth of one of Polish Football's founding clubs causing a stir in its homeland, PKP Cargo - the distribution arm of the Polish railways - stepped in and lent their sponsorship to Pogon. Fans of some Polish clubs - including Legia Warszawa and Sląsk Wroclaw - also organised collections during games to help with the running of Pogon Lwow.

In April 2011, Pogon's young side travelled the 330 kilometre journey to Krakow to face off against Polish Ekstrsklasa side Cracovia - the first meeting between the two former rivals in 72 years - on the 103rd anniversary of the first meeting between the two sides. Although Pogon were defeated 4-2 by the Pasy, more awareness of the club's return meant that the fixture was a success for Pogon.

With the Lviv Regional Premier League back underway for its 2012 season, Pogon's existence is secure for the foreseeable future. The arrival of UEFA's European Carnival to the city in the summer will only add to the club's profile, and they will be certainly trying to make the most of it.

There are also long-term plans to develop the club's youth system, with the hope that they can begin to produce their own youngsters - and maybe even eventually rise to the professional game. But for all connected to the club, the fact that the four-time Polish champions are back plying their trade at all is a constant cause for celebration.

Ryan is, along with Stuart Fuller, responsible for IBWM's Euro 2012 venue guides, which you really need to see.  You can read more from Ryan at the excellent Ekstraklasa Review.

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