Not Only Lewandowski: the resurgence of Polish football

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

There are few things rival football fans set aside their partisan passions for. Indeed, there are also few places with rivalries as pronounced as in Polish football, a place where rivalries can become enmeshed in local politics, cultural identity and even criminality. But, for all the bitter rivalries present, there is one thing most fans will agree on: Polish football is not what it used to be.

During its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, Polish football saw its national team reach two World Cup semi-finals (1974 and 1982) and three of its domestic teams (Legia Warsaw, Widzew Łódź and Górnik Zabrze) reach the semi-finals of the European Cup (now called the Uefa Champions League).  Players such as Włodzimierz Lubański, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbigniew Boniek were the envy of Europe’s biggest clubs and helped cement a golden era for Polish football, an era all the more distinguished by failures played out in the following two decades.

Between 1997 and 2015, there were no Polish teams in the Champions League and between 1987 and 2002 the national team failed to qualify for either the World Cup or the European Championships – a devastating indictment of a footballing regime that had become mired in match-fixing and corruption scandals, culminating in its league champions being punitively relegated, over 100 arrests of players and officials and the entire board of the Polish Football Association being suspended in 2007/08. This nadir signalled an overdue change in the fortunes of Polish football. Euro 2012 served as a catalyst in forging a new identity, ethos and strategy that could launch Polish football back to its position among football’s elite teams and nations. It is this ascendency that brought Robert Blaszcak, a sports media executive and commercial consultant to clubs, federations and media groups, to Birkbeck to discuss this transformation and moving past Euro 2012.

Discussing the steps necessary to a resurgent Polish game, Blaszcak highlighted some crucial areas of development taken by the Polish FA. The most immediate would be the benefits of hosting tournaments and events, as Euro 2012 saw £26 billion invested into infrastructure, something that has provided a platform for the remaking of Polish football. Another chief component was the rebranding initiative that introduced new logos, crests and fan engagement strategies. This, along with securing themselves as hosts for the 2015 Europa League Final and significant investment into youth and women’s teams, has recalibrated the dominant narrative around the Polish league, the ‘Ekstraklasa’, and created a new identity separate from the tarnished one of the 90s and 00s. Furthermore, the league itself has been restructured to avoid scandals of the past, with a transparent distribution model maintaining domestic competition and allowing bigger clubs to still compete in Europe. Indeed, the salary to revenue ratio in the Ekstraklasa is at 52%, something British clubs such as Chelsea, with a ratio of 68%, must see as a far healthier balance between revenue and talent.

Central to galvanising Polish fans however, have been the creative and concerted efforts of club marketers, with a robust commitment to bringing in new fans and those who were disillusioned some years ago being targeted with creative and engaging marketing campaigns. This has translated into games being populated with many younger people, a crucial aspect in creating a sustainable following for clubs and guaranteeing the future of the domestic game. During the ‘dark years’ for Polish football, many young fans adopted ‘second teams’ that would compete in the Champions League, whiletheir hometown clubs failed to reach the group stage. Although events on the pitch are beginning to reflect these positive changes, events off the pitch still have a long way to go, as evidenced by Legia Warsaw’s recent dramatic draw with Real Madrid – a fantastic result marred by the fact it was played behind closed doors due to fan trouble. While many problems persist, particularly in the influence of local politics and crowd trouble, Polish football looks finally set to redeem its golden years.

Robert Blaszcak’s talk was part of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre public seminar series, an opportunity for open discussion and dialogue, with guest speakers chosen to reflect current trends and issues in the sporting world. You can see their upcoming events by visiting their website.


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