Scotland isn't the only place where football clubs have switched towns lately – it's happened at the top level in Poland this season, as Vaughan Elliot reports
Mid-May of last year was a bleak time for Lechia Gdansk: relegation to one of Poland’s eight regional third divisions had become inevitable and respectable mid-season crowds of 4,000 had dropped into three figures for the first time anyone could remember. Supporters left the stadium after the last game pondering next season and dreaming of miracles, or at least a couple of decent players to lift the gloom of impending local league football.
By the end of the summer, we had our new players – fifteen of them – a new manager and, in fact, a new club. Lechia Gdansk had fused with first division Olimpia Poznan, the first time this had happened in the history of Polish football. The new team would be playing in the first division, in Gdansk, in shirts with “It’s us, Lechia” in big letters on the back.
Nobody understands quite what went on – there were no take-overs, no boardroom coups, no fan demonstrations, nothing – just the mercurial businessman Pan Krzyzostoniak and his money. Krzyzostoniak had been one of Olimpia’s main sponsors, but it is widely believed that he only got involved with the aim of moving the franchise 250 miles away to Gdansk, where the potential is far greater. (Lechia often drew crowds in excess of 30,000 – sometimes including local celebrity Lech Walesa – during their first division heyday in the 1980s. Olimpia, in contrast, are seen as the smallest of the three league clubs in Poznan and had been down to crowds of 300.)
The season loomed with hopes higher than ever, but it wasn’t long before our dream-like state was shattered. The other clubs were not pleased. The crunch came early: GKS Katowice refused to play in Gdansk, saying they would only play ‘us’ in Poznan (which, under the hazy fusion rules, they have every right to do). Lechia didn’t go and the Polish FA (the PZPN) duly awarded a 3-0 walkover to GKS.
To the neutral observer it was obvious that GKS had a point. Olimpia, to all intents and purposes, no longer exist. Lechia have jumped two divisions without playing a game, just because they have come into a lot of money. At least Blackburn had to win promotion. Of the eleven players we saw in May, only one had kept his place. The others are playing as Lechia Gdansk in the third division, alongside Olimpia Poznan reserves.
This fusion is insane, I said to myself, as I paid the double entrance fee to watch a bunch of strangers take on Legia Warsaw the following Saturday. The match, three days after Legia had beaten Rosenborg in the Champions League, was watched by 15,000, the second biggest crowd in Poland so far this season. A ticker-tape welcome, fireworks, Mexican waves, a fat bloke singing 70s favourite ‘Nasza Oruzyna’ (“Our Team”), even a round of applause for universally loathed army team Legia made it the greatest footballing day out anyone had had for ages. Legia won 3-1, but no-one seemed to mind that the match should never have happened. I know I didn’t.
Since then, other teams have come, including another recently-fused side, Sokol Pniewy-GKS Tychy (again a case of a small club with little tradition relocated to a football hotbed), with matches seen by near 10,000 crowds. In between, another 3-0 walkover was awarded to Lech Poznan. To avoid a third, and thereby automatic expulsion from the league, which is what the PZPN really wants, the last home match before the winter break was played away. The PZPN are sitting on their hands, the ‘definite decision’ meeting on 15th December was put back a day and then failed to resolve the matter. “Wait and see” is Pan Krzyzostoniak’s soothing advice.
The break has given everyone a chance to reflect a little. Big business is new to Polish football. If this merger, and that of Sokol Pniewy and GKS Tychy, is a sign of things to come, then fans can only look forward to more confusion – several Olimpia players are said to be about to leave because their contracts are up, and season ticket holders have no idea about refunds (independent supporters’ associations are unheard of here).
The decent thing for Olimpia/Lechia to do would be to go down to the third and get back the hard way. If this happens, and it’s very possible, Krzyzostoniak’s money will probably go into the increasingly popular basketball league instead. It’s tempting to say I wish the fusion had never happened – they may have been crap players but at least they were our crap players – but anyone saying that in the Gdansk stadium on a matchday would be in a minority of one.
From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month