There is a running joke in Poland which reappears every August:
A young Polish boy asks his father: "Dad, what's the Champions League?".
His father then replies: "I'm not sure, son. But you should ask your uncle in Łódź."
Eighteen years have now passed since Widzew Łódź - Poland's last Champions League representative - met Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and Steaua Bucharest in the group stages. The exaggeration intended when the joke was created a few years back, doesn't seem much of an exaggeration now.
During those last eighteen attempts, eight different clubs have tried and failed to reach the promised land. In some of these campaigns, the bad luck of the draw has cost the reigning Polish champions - three times Barcelona have travelled to Poland (twice Wisła Kraków, once Legia Warsaw), whilst Real Madrid and Manchester United stood in the way of Wisła and ŁKS Łódź respectively. However it isn't just the major European powers which have stopped Polish progression in the competition - poor performances against teams perceived to be of a similar or lower standard have been much more common.
In recent seasons Czech Republic's Sparta Prague, Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia, and Levadia Tallinn of Estonia have all blocked the paths of Poland's Champions League participants - all ties which, on paper at least, have been winnable. As Legia Warsaw failed to progress past Steaua Bucharest in the play-off round last season, it once more felt like another wasted chance for Polish football. Whilst the Romanian champions have a much better recent record in Europe, Legia were poor for large parts of the tie and yet still managed to remain undefeated - however a 2-2 draw in the Polish capital was not enough to prevent elimination on away goals.
But why have Polish clubs been unable to overcome the problem for so long? Is it a lack of money? Is it the constantly building pressure? Is Polish football simply not as strong as many would like to believe? In fact, all of the above reasons may hold some merit.
The financial situation in the Polish game is one of the current biggest issues. With a number of clubs suffering from cash-flow problems it is not easy to attract quality players from leagues of a similar stature. It is also difficult for clubs to hold onto their best players, with many young and talented stars heading to Russia, Germany and Italy in search of better wages and opportunities.
After seventeen successive failures in the qualification rounds, the pressure added each year to the Polish champions is also building. With the growing infrastructure to the Polish game - new, modern stadia; improving youth facilities; stronger investments - the need for European football is increasing in order to justify the expenditures.
But the more worrying of the touted explanations for poor performance is that Polish football is just slowly falling behind that of its neighbours. In the late sixties and early seventies it wasn't unusual to see Polish clubs in the later rounds of European competitions; in the 1969/70 season even managing two: Górnik Zabrze lost the Cup Winners' Cup final to Manchester City, whilst Legia were eliminated from the European Cup by Feyenoord at the semi-final stage.
Since then however, later-round appearances have been fleeting - Cup Winners' Cup semi-finals for Legia and Widzew, and a light sprinkling of continental quarter-finals spread over thirty years have been the best that Polish clubs have managed. The Europa League, or it's previous incarnation the UEFA Cup, has proven equally fruitless; at the last eleven attempts no Polish side has managed to progress past the last-32 in European football's second competition.
Since Widzew Łódź last sewed the famous Champions League patch onto their sleeves, Poland has watched representatives of countries with similar or even smaller infrastructures surprise and surpass expectations. Slovakia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Romania have had multiple teams qualifying; whilst Finland, Sweden, Norway, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Belarus and Hungary have all had participants in the competition proper. In fact, of all the countries who have had a club enter UEFA's flagship tournament during its' lifetime, Poland's eighteen-year drought is by far the longest of any. The idea that the country seems to be slowly falling behind its Central and Eastern European neighbours is a real concern amongst many.
After narrowly missing out last term, Legia will get another bite of the cherry this summer after lifting their tenth Polish title with relative ease. Yet if they do manage to progress to the Champions League play-off round it is again likely they'll be unseeded, stacking the odds against them once again. And with each failure, the odds will only pile higher.
The idea of getting a team to the latter stages of European competition once again may be a long way off, but for just one team to curtail Poland's absence from Europe's premier competition, it would give fans the slightest glimmer of hope that a return to those glory days of the late sixties and early seventies is remotely possible.
But the qualification bridge must be crossed very soon. It won't be long before that once little boy in Warsaw starts his own family, and it would be a huge shame if he were to be asked the same question by his bewildered son in fifteen years time. It would be a tragedy if he still didn't know the answer himself.