The 100-year Itch: Ruch Chorzów’s battle for survival

When Arka Gdynia striker Rafał Siemaszko bundled the ball into the Ruch Chorzów net with his outstretched right hand, on the penultimate day of the 2016/17 season, few could have predicted the downward spiral that the Niebiescy would soon find themselves in. Now, two years on from their relegation from the Ekstraklasa, many are left wondering how much further the 14-time Polish champions may fall.

While the unjust goal, on paper, put an end to Ruch’s ten-year spell in the top flight, a four-point penalty handed out earlier in the season for financial irregularities had more-or-less already sealed their fate. A similar deduction to begin their I Liga campaign helped to keep the club rooted to the foot of that table, too. Relegation once again was confirmed, twelve months later. The Silesians may have escaped a third successive deduction last season but, still, they could not prevent a third successive season propping up the rest of the league. Now, for the first time in their distinguished history, Ruch are bracing for life as a fourth-tier club.

The club has, for a while now, suffered from financial problems, but it was the hefty loans taken out by president Dariusz Smagorowicz during their final season in the Ekstraklasa which finally saw the issue finally begin to spiral out of control. Even the forced sale of a number of key players over the last few years has failed to keep the bailiffs at bay. With debts now topping 27 million PLN (around €56 million) and staff having gone several months without pay, it seems as though the club may be entering its death throes.

Some of those debts have caused more controversy for fans than others. The reported 130,000 PLN owed to the club’s legendary striker, Krzysztof Warzycha, has led some fans to question his loyalty to the club. Warzycha, who rejoined the club as its coach in 2017, has reportedly been chasing Ruch through the courts for the money owed. “The word ‘legend’ certainly cannot be defined as a person who signs a contract for over 40,000 złotys with his friend, and then acts to the detriment of [the club]”, stated one fan website. “Yes, he deserves this money for his work,” stated another, “but not at this moment. Not at the moment when we cannot even get a license for the III Liga”. The fans’ anger was displayed away from internet message boards, too: in particular at Ruch’s stadium, where an image of the 1988/89 top goalscorer on the club’s “wall of fame” was covered with graffiti.

As the rest of the III Lifa started their 2019/20 season this weekend, Ruch were nowhere to be seen. Their opening two games, against Zagłębie II Lubin and Rekord Bielsko-Biała, have been delayed by at least a month, while striking administration staff were joined last month by striking playing staff – some of whom theoretically are now in a position to legally terminate their contracts with the club. Those administration and playing staff – many of whom are lifelong supporters of the Niebiescy – are the reason that the lungs of the club are still yet to collapse; but they are fighting against stakeholders in the club who seem to be doing more damage than good. Arguments between the City of Chorzów and two other shareholders, Aleksander Kurczyk and Zdzisław Bik, over who should contribute funds for the survival of the club, have been compared to “children squabbling in a sandbox” by some inside the club; a vicious circle, with the club and its supporters suffering the most.

Some of those supporters have already begun to move on; frustrated by the shareholders’ lack of assurance in regards to the financing of the club, a boycott was called in recent weeks. “Every fan of Ruch who has the good of the club at heart and who does not want to finance the private pockets of owners,” read a statement issued by one of the clubs’ fan groups, “should stop buying items sold by the club”.

A significant number have now even found a new object for their affections – a youth, splinter club, UKS Ruch Chorzów, based just across the road from Ruch’s Ulica Cicha stadium. With Ruch’s season-opener postponed, a large number of fans turned up at UKS’s first game of the season, on Saturday morning, instead; and, with an atmosphere reminiscent of an Ekstraklasa match at Ulica Cicha, UKS successfully navigated their regional cup clash with Ruda Śląska’s Wawel Wirek on penalties, setting up a second round clash in two weeks’ time with… Ruch.

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That game, at least, now looks as though it will go ahead. A cash injection into the club on Friday allowed those striking employees to return to work, and preparations, belatedly, have begun for the new season. “There are gradual changes ahead of us, aimed at improving the functioning of the club,” said a statement issued on the club’s website, on Friday afternoon, “ as well as further projects that are expected to bring real influence”. Despite the positive sounds emerging from Ulica Cicha, the majority of fans remain sceptical.

The coming year was supposed to be one of celebration for Ruch Chorzów: the club’s centenary; but they begin it at their lowest-ever level. The club has a long, proud history, filled with chapters of glory, adversity, wonder and sadness. But now, the club that was established during the Silesian Uprisings, in the fight for Polish nationalism, faces arguably the toughest chapter of its 100-year existence: its battle for survival.

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