Lech Poznan are back in the first division and Nicholas Walton is not the only one hoping they may provide a blueprint for the revival of Polish club football
The World Cup was a fantastic opportunity for Polish football. As the first European qualifiers, the Poles believed they could make the most of a top-class goalkeeper, a quality striker and a weak group to show that, after 16 years, they were back. But the red and white painted faces vanished from Warsaw’s streets as quickly as they had appeared, thanks to humbling defeats by South Korea and Portugal. Suddenly it was back to waiting for another season of crumbling stadiums with small crowds of hooligans fighting each other and uninspired football on the pitch.
But there is one club that is trying to break out of the malaise. “Lech Poznan is an old team with traditions,” Michal Lipczynski explains, in an office full of architect’s drawings of the club’s stadium. “But after the end of communism every football team had financial problems. We used to be owned by Polish railways, but they could no longer stay involved, so we were running out of money. And because of hooligans, people weren’t coming to watch us.”
Lipczynski is one of the three members of Lech’s far-sighted board. Three years ago they decided the club needed to change. Founded in 1922, Lech are one of Poland’s best known clubs, sixth in the all-time results table. Situated in the western commercial city of Poznan (handily situated for trade on a direct line between Paris and Moscow), they played in the UEFA Cup as recently as 1999, but were relegated the same season. Like many other Polish clubs, they also developed a big hooligan following in the post-communist era. Violence decreased with relegation, because visiting teams simply didn’t have any fans to fight with. But the club also came up with the innovative solution of employing some of their troublemakers as security guards.
At a stroke, says Lipczynski, the problem was solved. “They knew exactly how hooliganism worked, where fights were likely to start. Now they’re busy with working at the stadium they can use this knowledge to help the club.” With hooliganism no longer frightening off other supporters, the board turned its attention to bringing in new fans. There is now a Lech Poznan supplement in the local newspaper and the club puts out its own radio and television programmes.
Contrast this with the current champions, Legia. The only place you see their name in Warsaw is in graf-fiti or on the scarf around the neck of a skinhead. Lech have also targeted families with match-day entertainment and the club has a VIP section, popular with local businessmen who use it for networking and to show solidarity for a city that sees itself as a business rival to Warsaw.
Tadeusz Koscinski is a bank director and one of the new generation of Lech fans. “At other clubs the few supporters that go tend to fight each other unless they can find police to hit,” he explains from his plush office above the pretty old town centre. “But the first thing you notice here in Poznan is that the stadium will be full. It’ll be colourful, with scarves, hats, shirts. And the atmosphere is fantastic. Families can sit and be entertained, shout, sing, eat something. Of course the spending power of local fans is limited, but the entertainment value you get over two hours is tremendous.”
It’s a setup that swelled Second Division crowds in Lech’s horseshoe stadium to an average of almost 15,000. That would be respectable in England, but in Poland it’s usually more than all the First Division matches combined. Despite winning the title, Legia’s crowds fell by just over 25 per cent last season, mainly because hooliganism continues to frighten people away. You can’t buy shirts of Warsaw’s other team, Polonia, anywhere in the city, possibly because to wear one outside the home would be suicidal.
Now Lech have won their place back in the top division, crowds will undoubtedly increase still further. But so will the problems. The fans of other big teams are likely to see Lech as a new and interesting test of their fighting skills. After all, Polish hooligans are so well organised they run their own league to coincide with the one played out on the pitch.
If Lech manage to survive this, it will serve as a valuable model for a jaded Polish game falling a long way short of past glories. Many other true supporters, and even enlightened directors, of Poland’s other clubs may be secretly hoping they succeed.
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month