When the 2014/15 Europa League kicked off its preliminary stages back in June, 195 teams began a journey which comes to an end in May at Warsaw's impressive Stadion Narodowy.
Whoever emerges victorious will become only the third team to lift a trophy inside Poland's centrepiece stadium, with this season's Polish Cup winners being the second. The first - reigning holders of said competition, Zawisza Bydgoszcz - were in amongst those 195 original Europa League teams, beginning their first ever foray into continental competition with a trip to Belgian side Zulte Waregem. The Second Qualifying Round tie may have ultimately ended in defeat for Zawisza, however it had come on the back of the most successful twelve months in the club's near-70-year history.
After winning promotion at the end of the 2012/13 season, Zawisza returned to the Polish top flight following a seventeen year absence and determined not to just make up the numbers. Under the tutelage of experienced coach Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the 'Niebiesko-Czarne' started slowly, before steadily gaining momentum. By the time that the Ekstraklasa's 30-game regular season had reached its climax, they had climbed into sixth position, ensuring a top-half finish and a spot in the restructured league's Championship Group for the final seven games.
Their league finish was however eclipsed by a surprise run in the Polish Cup. Defeating favourites Górnik Zabrze at the quarter-final stage, they skipped past Jagiellonia Białystok to set up a meeting in the capital with Zagłębie Lubin. And following a thrilling, yet goalless, 120 minutes of football, Zawisza finally ended their long wait for major silverware with a sudden-death penalty shootout victory.
But their season was far from straightforward. Despite their successes, attendances at Bydgoszcz's 20,000-capacity Zdzisław Krzyszkowiak Stadion were extremely low. Just 500 fans turned up to see their Quarter Final first-leg, while they were only able to double that amount for the Semi-Final. League attendances were better than the midweek cup ties, but not significantly. Just 1,600 were present for February's defeat to Lechia Gdańsk, while even fewer witnessed their victory over Górnik two weeks later.
The small crowds were a direct product of frayed tensions between owner Radosław Osuch and the club's hooligan and ultra groups. After Osuch had criticised crowd violence during a November league clash away at Jagiellonia, the situation escalated, with the following week's home game against Widzew Łódź the scene of more trouble.
Friends of Zawisza's hooligan groups from ŁKS Łódź made the 140-mile journey to Bydgoszcz, with the intention to confront their city rivals from Widzew. Osuch and his security team attempted to prevent the ticketless ŁKS fans from entering the stadium, but when approximately 4,000 Zawisza fans tried to aid their associates, the police became involved, and tempers flared.
With the injury of four officers and damage to the stadium, the Ekstraklasa forced Zawisza to play their next game behind closed doors. More than fifty stadium bans were handed out soon after and with ticket prices for the Ultras' favoured section of the ground swiftly increased as a deterrent, they have stayed away ever since.
Having taken over at Zawisza in the summer of 2011, Osuch pumped money into the northern club and quickly reaped the rewards. His purchase was aided by the mayor of Bydgoszcz, Rafał Bruski, and had coincided with the club's return to Poland's second tier after a thirteen-year absence. After a final-day loss in 2011/12 had prevented back-to-back promotions, they went up as champions in dramatic fashion twelve months later.
Having been prevented from holding the cup final at the new stadium in previous years due to concerns over fighting amongst opposition fans, the PZPN were presented with a different problem when the Zawisza fan groups announced that they wouldn't be making the trip for the arena's maiden final. With the prospect of potentially playing the game to a half-filled stadium, the Polish FA were dismayed further as ultras groups from Zagłębie, who also happen to be friends of Zawisza, revealed that they were to join in with the protests.
"This decision is very difficult for us" the Zagłębie ultras issued in a statement on their website, just days after defeating Arka Gdynia to set up the chance of a first Polish Cup title of their own. "But we are left with no choice. We do not want to participate in this circus co-organized by Mr. Osuch and the PZPN".
"We stood shoulder to shoulder with Zawisza fans long before the acquisition of the club by Mr. Osuch. Today, without a doubt, we are on their side in the war."
With his city's biggest club on the verge of its finest hour, Mayor Bruski was forced to drum up support, paying for both match tickets and over twenty coaches to take groups of families and students to the capital. Eventually an impressive 37,000 supporters made it to the Narodowy, with large numbers from Bydgoszcz. But despite calls for a truce from Zawisza coach Ryszard Tarasiewicz, the fan groups remained silent and, ultimately, absent.
As well as the fans, Osuch also found himself at odds with SP Zawisza - a separate organisation who help to train youngsters at the club. The owner accused SPZ of being allied with the renegade ultras groups, and of making threats towards the club's own youth coaches - calling on the city to stop them from using the club's facilities, with dire consequences if they refuse.
"We are no longer able to work normally in an atmosphere of intimidation and verbal aggression, when we and our employees are afraid for their lives" Osuch stressed to reporters following the cup final. "That is why we have asked the city authorities to intervene. If the matter cannot be settled, we can move [the club] to another city."
Though Osuch's threats eventually proved nothing but rhetoric, the situation is still causing him profound problems with the running of the club.
Despite his successes, coach Tarasiewicz allowed his contract to expire in the summer - the tensions undoubtedly playing some part in his decision. With the problems well documented in Poland, the club were forced to look abroad to replace both the coach and any departing players. Jorge Paixão was brought in as a replacement after an unsuccessful spell in charge at Braga, while the club have signed a number of players from Portugal, Brazil and Cape Verde to strengthen their playing squad.
"Hispanics may find it easier to acclimate in Bydgoszcz" said Osuch to Piłka Nożna magazine, "because they do not understand everything that the hooligans are shouting at the players. It is sad; but when hiring new players, I have to take this into account."
The new-look team may have picked up a surprise last-gasp victory over Legia Warsaw in the season-opening Super Cup, however league form quickly plummeted. With just three points from seven games, Paixão was dismissed at the end of August with the club occupying one of the two relegation spots. Young coach Mariusz Rumak was offered a quick route back into management following his sacking from Lech Poznań a few weeks earlier, yet while performances improved slightly, Zawisza still prop up the rest of the table, eight points adrift from fifteenth place Ruch Chorzów.
Meanwhile, Osuch's unchanged stance ensures he remains a figure of hate amongst parts of the Zawisza support. Further threats have been made toward him while vandalism at the home which he shares with his wife - and club chairwoman - Anita, is still not uncommon. Mayor Bruski has also come under fire from the Zawisza faithful, with claims that removing him from office will loosen Osuch's grip on the club, and ultimately aid their return to the stands.
On the other side, Osuch does have his supporters, with a Facebook group calling for the "end to the hooligans' dictatorship" attracting close to a thousand people; but with attendances still struggling past the 2000-mark, and the club's performances so far leaving them amongst the favourites for a return to the Pierwsza Liga, there seems to be no end to the problems in sight just yet. The owner himself remains unmoved by the pressure, and his stubbornness shows no sign of wavering.
If the fans continue to stay away or offer threats in hope that it will drive their owner out of Bydgoszcz, they may eventually get their wish. But if they aren't careful he may take Zawisza with him.
Ryan is on Twitter @Ryan_Hubbard.
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