As 2019 – and with it the 2010s as a whole – has stumbled to its end, it’s worth remembering what the Polish domestic game was like a decade ago:
Wisła Kraków were the reigning mistrz polski, having won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009, and were rapidly chasing down the record of 14 shared by Górnik Zabrze and Ruch Chorzów. Surely, the record held by the Silesians would not stand for much longer…
After a tumultuous few months, things were about to brighten in the capital, too – not so much at Legia who, after a few years of playing the bridesmaid to Wisła, were about to stumble to their worst finish since the creation of the Ekstraklasa in 2003; but at Polonia, who appointed former Barcelona midfielder Jose Mari Bakero just before the winter break, were about to beat their city rivals for the first time in 60 years and, with the investment of construction magnate Józef Wojciechowski, were hoping to usher in a new era of prosperity.
It was now a whole thirteen years since a Polish club had been represented in the Champions League – a duck that was surely going to end soon…
Widzew Łódź – that last Champions League representative – were finishing off a terrible decade; one which saw them fail to build on their back-to-back championships in the nineties, and then punished for their role in the corruption scandal which had engulfed Polish football. However, well on their way to a second successive second-tier title, and clawing their way back into their rightful place in the top-tier, the 2010s were shaping up to be much better.
Having been established for the 2007/08 campaign, the Młoda Ekstraklasa was now into its third season, and was looking forward to a long and bright future.
And, over at Lech Poznań, a star-in-the-making was earning rave reviews for his performances at Ulica Bułgarska, and had the world at his feet: Sławomir Peszko… Oh, and they had this up-and-coming guy named “Lewandowski”, too.
A lot, however, has gone on since then; and some of the best (and worst) that Polish club football has thrown up over the last decade will be honoured in the Piłka.uk End of the Decade Awards!!!!
If you don’t agree with any of the winners – and I’m sure there have been plenty of contenders which have been shamefully overlooked – you can offer up your own suggestions, by me know how forgetful I’ve been, over on Twitter!
Goal of the Decade
Some goals are brilliant because they’ve been smashed into the top corner from 40 yards, while others are because of the fantastic footwork and trickery in the build up. Excellence may be garnered through drama: a last-minute winner or a title-winning thunderbolt, edging out a rival only on goal difference. It could also be a goal delivered by sheer athleticism.
The winner of the goal of the decade, however, is none of the above. It is a header, inside the penalty area. It is an equaliser, in an autumn match against a side that was ultimately relegated. It did not require excessive flexibility, circus-like trickery or a foot like a traction engine.
The winner of the Goal of the Decade is…
Paweł Brożek (Zawisza Bydgoszcz v WISŁA KRAKÓW)
On first glance it seems a fluke, and there probably was an element of knowing that Mariusz Stępiński was arriving at the back post; but look closer…
It’s the perfectly-chipped ball from Emanuel Sarki, finding a gap behind the Zawisza defence which shouldn’t even be there. It’s the way that Brożek speeds up his run to get in front of the ball, when most strikers would be thinking of taking it down in front of them. It’s the little lunge forward, which allows him to divert the ball away from the keeper. Brożek has no right to score from that position, and yet he does.
You can stick your 40-yard, match-winning thunderbolt where the sun doesn’t shine.
Achievement of the Decade
There were a few contenders, here:
Firstly, Termalica Bruk-Bet Nieciecza, rising to the highest league in the land. The minnows, from a village numbering 700-or-so, competing against the giants from Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań.
Secondly, there is ŁKS Łódź, suffering bankruptcy and demotion to the fourth tier, only to rise back through the ranks, and regain their place in the top flight.
However, the winner of Achievement of the Decade should come as no surprise:
PIAST GLIWICE WINNING THE EKSTRAKLASA
The Polish Leicester City; run on a tight budget, with players largely picked up on the cheap or cast-out from bigger clubs. The unlikely champions, who had spent much of their lives outside of their nation’s elite. Led by a coach derided after failure at international level. It was a championship which was even more unlikely when you consider that, with seven games remaining, Piast were third, seven points behind those in front.
The argument that “the bigger clubs just didn’t turn up” will always be there, but you can’t take anything away from the Niebiesko-Czerwone for taking advantage when no one else did. In the end, they won it on merit.
Mistake of the Decade
I’m not even going to beat around the bush on this one. We could pretend that it could be Sławomir Peszko’s infamous drunken taxi ride, which saw him omitted from Franciszek Smuda’s Euro 2012 squad. But you know, I know, everyone knows; the winner of the Mistake of the decade is…
LEGIA WARSAW GETTING KICKED OUT OF THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
It was an administration error. A very costly administration error. But, ultimately, Legia had no one to blame but themselves.
The Wojskowi had the tie in the bag. Not only did the have both feet into the Champions League Play-off round, they had two legs, two arms and a whole torso in it, too. The only thing missing was a brain.
4-1 up after the first leg against Celtic in Warsaw, and holding an 88th-minute, 2-0 lead in the return game at Murrayfield, coach Henning Berg made his final substitution. Off came goalscorer Michał Żyro, and in his place came Bartosz Bereszyński, fresh from his three-game European suspension, picked up in the previous season’s Europa League. Or, at least, so everyone thought…
But, while the full-back had missed the first leg, and also the ties in the previous round against Irish side St. Patrick’s Athletic, the club had made a fatal error.
For the matches against St. Pats, Legia had not included Bereszyński in their squad, meaning that the two games did not count towards his suspension. By the time of the game in Scotland, he had actually only served one game of his ban.
Cue Legia’s 2-0 win being turned into a 3-0 defeat, and a 6-1 aggregate victory into a 4-4 draw, from which the Scottish champions on the away goals rule – a fact made even the more sour considering Legia missed several simple chances to extend their lead in the home leg, which would have still seen their progression.
For the mistake, Team administrator Marta Ostrowska was the sacrificial lamb, while Legia’s attempts to claw their victory back through the courts was unsuccessful…
Tifo of the Decade
Legia fans were right to be upset at their team’s expulsion from the Champions League. It’d been 17 years since the last Polish side had made it, and their “Football doesn’t matter, money does” tifo, with a greedy pig in front of a UEFA logo, expressed their frustration well. However, the club’s incessant attacks on Celtic were misguided at best, and put a stain on the affair which made it quite difficult to offer much sympathy.
Still, the Żyleta was the source of many a great display (and some, not so great) over the last decade. The powerful – if, perhaps, a little disturbing – image of a child at gunpoint, highlighting the young victims of the Warsaw Uprising, was striking. The re-hash of the aforementioned display – with the words “And the 35,000€ fine goes to…”, mocking UEFA’s constant issuing of fines to the club for the use of pyrotechnics – was also clever.
However, these weren’t the best. The award for the Tifo of the Decade goes to…
LEGIA WARSAW – ULTRA EXTREME FANATICAL ATMOSPHERE
An unusual display of affection towards European football’s governing body?
After Legia fans’ use of pyrotechnics in their Champions League second qualifying round game against Welsh club TNS, UEFA ordered the closure of the Żyleta for their play-off round tie against Romanians Steaua Bucharest. That didn’t deter the Legia faithful, who instead bought tickets for the ground’s southern stand, and proceeded to take a tongue-in-cheek dig at their judge and jury.
Oh; and yes, they got fined for this too.
Best Moment of the Decade
When you’ve sat through boring goalless draws between Polonia Warsaw and ŁKS Łódź in the freezing cold, it is impossible to say that Polish football is always exciting. But every now and then, it does throw up something which gets even the most difficult to please football fan on the edge of his seat.
Take the surprise Puchar Polski run of second-tier Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała during the 2010/11 season, in which they dispatched of two Ekstraklasa sides before their 93rd-minute, semi-final second leg elimination to reigning Polish champions Lech Poznań.
Or Termalica Bruk-Bet Nieciecza’s almost inevitable promotion to the Ekstraklasa in 2013, before a second goal of the season – in injury time – from Olimpia Grudziądz goalkeeper Michał Wróbel, kept them waiting another two years.
But the award for the Moment of the Decade is split between three teams, fighting for survival at the bottom of the I Liga…
PIERWSZA LIGA FINAL SECONDS – MAY 18TH 2019
Three teams, two relegation places. Final seconds of the season.
GKS Katowice head into injury time in their game against relegation rivals Bytovia Bytów three points clear of the drop zone. Level at one-apiece, they have just squandered a great chance to take the lead, and ensure their second tier status for the following season.
About 45 miles north, league leaders Raków Częstochowa have also missed a huge chance to take the lead at home to another relegation-battler, Wigry Suwalki. They, too, remain level heading into added time.
Back in Katowice, GKS give away a free-kick on the edge of their box. Knowing that they need a win to stand any chance of survival, Bytovia keeper Andrzej Witan storms into the opposition box, and at the back post thunders in a header past his opposite number. Bytovia lead 2-1; and their players head towards their travelling contingent in ecstacy, having turned over their three-point deficit and survived for another season in the second tier as a result of their head-to-head results against the Katowiczanin side.
Or had they?
Word had not yet extended across Silesia, but just three minutes earlier Daniel Smuga – on loan at Wigry from Górnik Zabrze – had scored a game-winner against Raków. At the time, Smuga’s goal alone had not been enough to save Wigry – they had also needed a Bytovia win to ensure their survival. Therefore, the goal from Bytovia keeper Witan hadn’t – as the Bytovia players had thought – saved Bytovia, it had actually saved Wigry!
Rivalry of the Decade
The 2010s have been a decade which has seen a number of traditional rivalries dwindle. As we have mentioned before, relegations and demotions have seen many of the traditional clubs separated; the Lodzianin rivals LKS and Widzew sit two divisions apart, Ruch Chorzów now contest the Wielkie Derby Śląska against Górnik Zabrze’s second team, while there is a similar situation in Warsaw.
Even those inter-city rivals in the same division – Lech Poznań and Wisła Kraków, Legia Warsaw and Wisła Kraków, Górnik Zabrze and Legia Warsaw – don’t emit the same emotions as when they challenged each other for championships regularly.
A handful of rivalries have stood the test; the Kraków derby between Cracovia and Wisła, the Polski Klasyk between Legia and Lech, the rejuvenated Tricity derby between Lechia and Arka.
However, a new rivalry has emerged in recent years; one which takes the award for Rivalry of the Decade. Put your hands together for…
SŁAWOMIR PESZKO & ARVYDAS NOVIKOVAS
It was an innocuous spark – a post on Instagram, from the official Ekstraklasa account – which started the blaze. Prior to Poland’s 2018 World Cup opener against Colombia, a photograph of Lechia midfielder Peszko was uploaded to the account; underneath it the caption: “Will @slawomirpeszko debut at the World Cup on Sunday?”
In the comments below the post, Jagiellonia’s Lithuanian midfielder Novikovas replied provocatively: “If it was [Przemysław] Frankowski, yes; but when it is this guy, there is no chance”, referring to the omission of his Jaga teammate from the squad at the expense of Peszko.
Peszko, not taking kindly to the comment, then proffered a reply of his own: “4-0, goodnight”, referring to Poland’s pre-tournament victory over Lithuania, in which Novikovas played 90 minutes and Peszko was an unused substitute.
Fast-forward a month, to the opening day of the 2018/19 Ekstraklasa season, where Lechia have been pitted against… Jagiellonia. With Lechia leading 1-0, and the game petering out, second-half sub Peszko found himself about to make a challenge on Novikovas by the touchline; and, in a moment of madness, the hot-headed winger lashed out at the Lithuanian from behind, making no attempt to play the ball whatsoever.
Novikovas emerged from the incident with a sorely bruised leg. Peszko, meanwhile, was red-carded, fined 30,000zł, and banned for three months. In addition, having played for just ten minutes in the World Cup dead-rubber against Japan, he has never since been selected to play for Poland.
Villain of the Decade
In 2010, the infamous Villain of the Year award would have been comfotably shared between Howard Webb and Axel Witsel. Ten years later, despite some stiff competition, there could only be one winner.
Sylwester Cacek’s slow, painful destruction of Widzew Łódź earned him a nomination, while those responsible for the demise of ŁKS, Ruch Chorzów and Wisła Kraków deserve some form of recognition, too. However, there could only ever be one winner; the award for Villain of the Year goes to…
Król’s impact at Polonia Warsaw was swift; Even before completing the purchase of the club from Józef Wojciechowski, he had not only angered its fans, but also those of GKS Katowice, where he was a sitting Vice-Chairman.
Król’s idea was to merge the two clubs; Polonia sitting pretty in the top flight, and GieKSa languishing in the second tier. The Ekstraklasa license would then transfer to Upper Silesia, where a new club – KP Katowice – would emerge from the embers of the two former sides.
Fans of both protested heavily, but only GKS’s were successful. Król eventually completed the takeover of Polonia, and proceeded to run the club into the ground. Debts racked up as players went unpaid; and though the Czarne Koszule finished in a very respectable sixth position, Król’s dereliction ensured the revocation of Polonia’s Ekstraklasa license. The club, led by its supporters, was forced to reform in the fifth-tier as MKS Polonia – only after Król declared the original KSP Polonia bankrupt, days before the start of the season.
For many of the other clubs who have suffered, the decade ends on at least some sort of positive note. ŁKS Łódź have finally completed the long journey back to the Ekstraklasa, Wisła Kraków are still battling away for their survival with new faces and new investment; down in the lower leagues, Widzew’s return to the second tier – fuelled by crowds in excess of 20,000 – looks to be well in motion, while Ruch are finally battling at the top end of the III Liga table after three successive relegations.
But Polonia end the decade no better off for their trials and tribulations. They start 2020 in the relegation zone of the III Liga, staring at relegation back to the fifth tier.
Manager of the Decade
The Ekstraklasa has been blessed with a number of great managers during the 2010s (and some not great ones, too – remember Besnik Hasi??). While the likes of Stokowiec, Probierz and Urban have either displayed some form of success or stability, two Polish coaches stand out head and shoulders above the rest.
The first – Adam Nawałka – started the new decade at a brand new club, having taken charge at Górnik Zabrze on January 1st. Not only did he lead cash-strapped Górnik to an immediate promotion, but four successive top-half finishes in his first four Ekstraklasa seasons led to him being named as Poland coach not long into the 2013/14 season.
In the role of Selekcjoner, Nawałka led Poland to both the European Championships in 2016 and the World Cup two years later, and coached the Białe-Orły to a first ever victory over Germany in qualification for the former.
However, close as it may have been, Nawałka just misses out on the honour. The Manager of the Decade award goes to…
A veteran of Ruch Chorzów’s title-winning side in 1988/89, Fornalik was held in high esteem at Ulica Cicha even before taking the coaching role in 2009. A bronze medal in his first season was the joint-best finish for the club since that 1989 championship. Two years later, he went one step closer, narrowly finishing second behind Śląsk Wrocław.
Like Nawałka, domestic success brought with it the opportunity to manage the national team; but unlike his successor, results were difficult to come by, and his spell in charge lasted less than 2 years.
A return to Ruch for the 2014/15 season was not as fruitful as his first spell, with the club’s financial problems preventing Fornalik from repeating his previous feats. After struggling along with his boyhood club, he finally relinquished his role two years later.
But Ruch’s loss was eventually to be Piast Gliwice’s gain. Having scraped to safety in the 2017/18 season, Fornalik led the club to the unlikeliest of titles the following season; clawing back a seven-point deficit to both Legia and Lechia in the final seven games of the season, eventually finishing four points clear of their nearest challengers.
Piłka.UK Team of the Decade
Goalkeeper: Arkadiusz Malarz (GKS Bełchatów, Legia Warsaw, ŁKS Łódź)
Defenders: Piotr Celeban (Śląsk Wrocław), Jakub Rzeźniczak (Legia Warsaw, Wisła Płock), Manuel Arboleda (Zagłębie Lubin, Lech Poznań), Bartosz Bereszyński (Lech Poznań, Legia Warsaw).
Midfielders: Maor Melikson (Wisła Kraków), Miroslav Radović (Legia Warsaw), Filip Starzyński (Ruch Chorzów, Zagłębie Lubin).
Strikers: Marcin Robak (Piast Gliwice, Pogoń Szczecin, Śląsk Wrocław), Igor Angulo (Górnik Zabrze), Flavio Paixao (Śląsk Wrocław, Lechia Gdańśk).
Substitutes: Dusan Kuciak (Legia Warsaw, Lechia Gdańśk), Artur Jędrzejczyk (Legia Warsaw), Semir Stilić (Lech Poznań, Wisła Kraków), Sebastian Mila (Śląsk Wrocław, Lechia Gdańsk), Artjoms Rudnevs (Lech Poznań), Paweł Brożek (Wisła Kraków), Marco Paixao (Śląsk Wrocław, Lechia Gdańsk).