DEBTS, CRACKS AND VIOLENCE: 2013 - A VERY POLISH HANGOVER

DEBTS, CRACKS AND VIOLENCE: 2013 - A VERY POLISH HANGOVER
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Just over a year ago Poland was riding the crest of a UEFA-fuelled wave. With pre-tournament doubts over hooliganism and racism dispelled, Euro 2012 passed largely without a hitch, and a new era in the Polish game was heralded by many. But with the passing of the pan-European party - held across four of the country's biggest cities - Poland has awoken to a domestic game with a hangover of massive proportions.

STADIA

The four brand new arenas in Warsaw, Poznań, Wrocław and Gdańsk may have garnered much praise from the many foreign visitors during the summer, but the brand new homes for Wisła Kraków and Legia Warsaw have attracted many negative headlines.

In Poznań, Lech's Stadion Miejski - used for three Group C games at Euro 2012 - has already had more than its share of problems. Earlier this year cracks were discovered in the West stand.  After examination, it was found that contractors had failed to install an additional support beam designed to prevent the concrete shrinking at low temperatures. The offending stand was temporarily closed as work was carried out, luckily before any serious damage was done. Meanwhile, over in Kraków, the harsh winter also had an effect on Wisła's Henryk Reyman Stadium. Following bouts of freezing rain, holes were torn in the stadium's roof, leading to a temporary closure - luckily for Wisła, during the league's winter break.

Even before Euro 2012, building problems were already causing trouble at the former home of the Polish national team –  Chorzów's Stadion Śląski. Undergoing a massive renovation to extend the capacity and add a roof, it was originally touted as a venue for the tournament. However with extensive delays and complacency from the local authorities, it missed out. During an important project to install a huge cover in 2011, design malfunctions caused two suspended concrete “crocodile clips” to break from the tension of the steel cables they were supposed to be holding. With a complete redesign needed to prevent what some experts called a “potential risk to thousands of lives”, the stadium now sits unfinished with work trundling along at a snail's pace.

However it's not just building work that has caused problems in Polish arenas.  Poor planning has made the brand new, 50,000 seat National Stadium into something of a laughing stock. And that's overlooking "roofgate" and the controversy surrounding England's trip to Warsaw in October 2012.

With the 2011 Polish Super Cup cancelled, the 2012 version of the competition, contested between Legia Warsaw and Śląsk Wrocław, was moved across the city to the former's own stadium after the authorities decided that fans of the two clubs wouldn't be segregated properly in the Stadion Narodowy. Even in May this year the problems had not been rectified - the Polish Cup Final between the same two teams being switched to a two-legged affair. With talk of future Super Cups being moved abroad, there is real concern that the National Stadium will not become the “home of Polish football” in the way it was intended.

FINANCES

In recent seasons, both Odra Wodzisław Śląski and Ruch Radzionków have dropped out of the Polish second tier due to financial problems, but with an economic crisis facing the majority of Poland's clubs, the names falling from grace are getting bigger.

Just fifteen years after winning the Polish Championship, the unsustainable spending and poor management of Łódzki KS has finally caught up with them. After relegation from the top flight during the summer, a mass exodus and lack of money left ŁKS languishing in the second tier's relegation places as winter took its icy grip on Central Europe.  With no-one willing to invest, and both attendances and performances dwindling, the club lasted just two games into Spring before they were deemed as unable to complete their scheduled matches. Bankrupted, and any new entity forced to start from the fifth tier next season, it could be a long time, if ever we see ŁKS return to the big time.

Over in the capital Warsaw, another club's demise has been even more dramatic. Polonia Warsaw's recent history has been littered with stories of their owner Józef Wojciechowski and his madcap antics. And when the construction magnate finally lost interest in the club, fans were happy to see the back of him - temporarily at least.

The new owner, Silesian businessman Ireneusz Król, first intended to move the club to his home city of Katowice, merging them with the local team GKS. After his plans were foiled, he proceeded to make a mockery of the club's top-flight status; failing to pay the players, the rent on the stadium and even the security for Polonia's league games.  Now with Król's company Ideon (whose name adorned Polonia's shirts) filing for bankruptcy, there are major doubts over the future of the club. With the majority of players owed around nine months' wages, a mass exodus in the summer is already underway. But most worryingly for fans of the Czarne Koszule, the lack of money combined with huge debts has already seen Polonia fail to pick up a license to play in the Polish Ekstraklasa, and now they also face a drop to the lower reaches of the Polish football pyramid.

FANS

With new, modern stadia at ten of next season's sixteen Ekstraklasa clubs (all built or renovated since 2006), and work underway at a further three, the Polish footballing authorities have made real efforts to try to bring more people through the turnstiles - however attendances haven't yet reached the heights hoped for after Euro 2012. Whilst the numbers are steadily improving on previous seasons' figures, besides a few big clashes, the majority of the grounds are no more than half-filled at best for league games. In 2012/13, Lech Poznań saw the biggest average gates, with their 23,000 being more than seven thousand higher than their nearest competitors Legia. In Gdańsk however, Lechia have averaged just over 12,000 spectators in their brand new 40,000-seat home, with their spring defeat to Podbeskidzie failing to fill even a quarter of the ground.

It doesn't help that new supporters are sometimes put off by the stigma attached to Polish football fans. With a history of hooliganism and violence inside stadia, it is becoming increasingly difficult for clubs to attract a younger generation. But as we've seen on a few occasions this season, that stigma is justified.

Early in the season, supporters of Legia Warsaw caused havoc during every one of their Europa League qualifiers. With racist chanting and destruction of property a regular occurrence, the club racked up around €100,000 in fines before the league season had even started. When the club threatened to close the North Stand in response to the problems, fans decided to disrupt the Warsaw derby against Polonia by setting sections of their own stadium alight, before boycotting the rest of the Autumn round.

Across the city, Polonia have had problems too, seeing fights break out in the stands between their own fans, caused by differing political views. There have also been disruptions in Kraków and Poznań, which eventually resulted in bans for away fans – supporters of Widzew Łódź being the ones to suffer on both occasions.

WHERE NOW?

Off of the back of a successful major international competition, two teams reaching the knock-out stages in Europe, and the success of players such as Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek on the major stage, interest in the Polish game has increased ten-fold. With the Ekstraklasa now being shown on television throughout Europe, and more western clubs looking towards the league for young talent, it's clear that Polish football is filled with potential – both on and off of the pitch.

2012 was supposed to be a turning point for Polish football, and although there haven't been major changes, it still could be. The idea of a revolution with the arrival of the UEFA cavalcade may have been a little too optimistic, but it is a stepping stone. The infrastructure is steadily strengthening, and Zbigniew Boniek's new regime in the Polish FA is clear on its plan for improving the country's game – something which wasn't as evident with the old one.

However it is the same old problems which still exist. Attendances, hooliganism, finances; all problems that need to be tackled before Poland can deliver a game worthy of the new theatres which play host to it. Whilst the success of the summer has shown that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, the following season has merely highlighted that we are a long way from reaching it.

Read more from Ryan at EKSTRAKLASAreview.co.uk

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