For the sixth time in the last 10 seasons there is no Polish club representation in either of the two European club competitions at the group stage. Although everyone agrees that Polish club football should be much stronger than it is, no one knows what to do about it. However, some key incidents which played an undoubted part in weakening both Legia Warsaw and Slask Wroclaw, point to the very poor financial situation the Polish game finds itself in. The words ‘dire straits’ would not be an exaggeration.
The writing appeared on the wall halfway through last season when suddenly, right out of the blue, Legia Warsaw lost three key players who just upped and left to play abroad. It might have been understandable if Poland’s richest club were out of Europe and the temptation for these players to leave had come from some of the continent’s bigger clubs. But first Ariel Borysiuk joined Bundesliga strugglers Kaiserslautern, then Maciej Rybus and Marcin Komorowski decided that helping lowly Terek Grozny fight to stay in the Russian Premier League was better than having a crack at the Europa League. The reason for these strange decisions was quite simply money, a lot more of it than they were getting at the Lazienkowska. It is believed that Rybus was offered €1M per year, which amounts to almost ten times the amount the left winger was paid at Legia. And this also highlights how out of touch financial thinking is in Polish football compared to the rest of Europe.
The popular opinion is that footballers in Poland’s top flight, the Ekstraklasa, are overpaid, and that is true when their earnings are compared to other workers. But in the mad world of European football the highest paid Polish footballers earn a pittance compared to those even in Russia and the Ukraine, never mind the top western European leagues. This was clearly demonstrated by Borysiuk, Rybus and Komorowski’s departures.
In many respects Poles are quite right and mediocre players should not be paid silly money. But where they get it wrong is failing to distinguish between good players and bad ones, and not rewarding the better players with enough money to stop them from leaving and weakening a good side, as happened at Legia last season. Not many clubs can just lose three key players without feeling the effects and that almost certainly contributed to the Warsaw side’s failure to make the Europa League group stage this season, against mediocre opposition.
The financial crisis at champions Slask Wroclaw also demonstrated how out of touch some Polish backers are with the game. It would be interesting to know who managed to convince Polish billionaire Zygmunt Solorz-Zak that he was going to make money out of investing in Slask, because that is the thought he is believed to have had. Very few can make a fortune out of football, except footballers; owners are just there to get rid of their money for their self satisfaction.
When the zloty finally dropped and the owner of TV station Polsat twigged that his money was going in one direction with very little chance of it coming back multiplied many times over, he pulled the financial plug on the club. This left the newly-crowned Polish champions in serious trouble and resulted in the loss of several players and plummeting morale, which always happens in these situations. Since then the municipality of Wroclaw has had to step in, even though Solarz-Zak still remains on the board.
The club’s dire straits have been further exposed with the appointment of Orest Lenczyk’s successor as coach, Stanislav Levy, an unheard of Czech whose claim to fame is guiding Skenderbeu Korce to the Albanian championship (followed by a swift exit from the Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Hungary’s Debrecen). However, financial considerations are foremost in this decision – Levy will be paid half the amount Lenczyk earned.
Such are the stark realities of Polish football with little chance of improvement in the foreseeable future. The Polish game finds itself in a classic ‘Catch 22’ situation where to attract investment it needs success in Europe. But to succeed in Europe, teams need good players and coaches – and they cost money.