Poland marked the closure of their involvement in the European Championships with a giant Polish flag stating ‘thank you’ in the sixteen languages of the representative nations. A neatly delivered finale for the country’s hosting contribution, which has received widespread praise. Now, with the fan parks disassembled and the media centres dissolved, what does the tournament offer as a legacy for the Polish game?
As is so often the case in countries that experience only brief periods of success on the field, every subsequent generation is compared against the standard bearers of 1974 and 1982, both of which claimed third-placed finishes at World Cup finals. Those comparisons have burdened the national team, which has never managed to produce players capable of the same high level. Player development has been critically scrutinised by the domestic media in recent years, with clubs often accused of ignoring development in favour of importing ready produced talent from abroad.
Poland’s strong economic development since European accession in 2004 has meant that domestic clubs have been able to offer some of the best salaries in the region, meaning that Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs and Bosnians are now a common sight in the Ekstraklasa. A clear illustration of this was given by the 2011 champions Wisła Kraków who, whilst being infamous for having only one training field for both senior and youth sides to share, won the 2011 title with 11 nationalities in their squad.
"The truth is that the changes that have happened in the last 20 years in Poland have placed much pressure on youth training," admits Piotr Waśniewski, president of the 2012 Ekstraklasa champions, Śląsk Wrocław. "Most of the clubs were owned by the military, police, governments or companies. And after that, when the private money came in, every owner faced the hard question: spend money on professional players or spend it on youth? There was always only one [answer] – I will spend the money on the professionals because I need results in a very short time. So most of the structures broke down. And right now, we can see the results."
Waśniewski is better placed than many to assess the future prospects of the game in Poland. Whilst his club have become Polish champions for only the second time, they, like many other clubs in the country, have only very modest youth training facilities. “At the moment we’ve got two pitches, both of them are grass pitches. For sure we need a synthetic field. This is the same everywhere.”
The shift towards more development of players is a gradual process, but is being encouraged by projects such as Orlik 2012, an initiative set up by the government which allows local authorities to apply to have subsidised training pitches built within their municipality. Wrocław has embraced this venture, proposing the building of over 100 pitches in schools and neighbourhoods around the city.
“Many cities like ours decided to put the money to the club or put the money around the club,” says Waśniewski. “That even if they don’t financial support the club, they are supporting the youth training. It’s helpful because it’s always half a million or a million less from the club’s budget. So in the budget you can put it as a plus, even if the money is not coming directly to you.”
The improvement in training facilities is not the only contribution the local authorities have made in Wrocław. The Municipal Stadium, host venue during the tournament, was fully funded by the local authorities. This has short-term benefits for Śląsk, who are now the primary tenants, but does present an issue in terms of the long-term economics. An event managing contractor runs the stadium on a day-to-day basis and therefore collects much of the matchday income, meaning that the club are unable to fully benefit from the boost in crowds and increased revenue streams.
That commercial gap is something that is common in Polish football, as clubs continue to come to terms with the realities of economic sustainability. But there are tangible moves taking place. Besides the building/refurbishing of stadiums in Euro 2012 host cities Gdansk, Poznan, Warsaw and Wroclaw, there are also new or refurbished stadiums in Kraków (Wisła and Cracovia), Warsaw (Legia), Kielce, Lubin, Białystok (in progress) and Zabrze (in progress). Polish football is receiving a rapid facelift, with the hope that these modern facilities will see a wider spectrum of people attending matches.
Optimism for the future of the domestic game does exists, but it’s cautious. Attendances have seen a gradual increase in the last few years and whilst there have been success stories – Lechia Gdansk, for example, experienced a 235% increase in crowds after moving to the new PGE Arena last summer – many expected more elsewhere. The modest growth in popularity of the domestic game is reflected in the state of the television deal, which, despite all the enthusiasm generated by the European Championships, was sold by the league last May for a figure that was lower than the previous value of the contract.
The hope is that with new, multi-purpose stadiums, Polish clubs will be forced to move into a new commercial era, where clubs make money beyond simply the ticket sales on matchdays. However, this is a big step for clubs, many of whom are making only incipient steps into commercial activities. Śląsk, for example, only relatively recently took the step of licensing the club’s badge, meaning that all non-club merchandise sellers will need to pay them if they are to use it in the future.
“I think that every club is making these changes because they know that from the moment when they will have new stadiums with more spectators they’ve finally got the chance to sell the shirt, the sausages and so on,” says Waśniewski. “They will expect at the beginning only small amounts, but still some extra money for the clubs. I’m pretty sure that year after year at the end we will get maybe not a similar situation as in Germany, but I hope that at least half of those incomes that German clubs generate from those three hours of the game, our clubs in Poland will also have the chance to do so.”
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