Through Gritted Teeth #34: Polonia Warszawa
August 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
by Ryan Hubbard
The less successful of Warsaw’s two biggest clubs (two Polish League titles compared to Legia’s eight), Polonia Warszawa have had to spend most of their history watching their biggest rivals claim league titles and numerous Polish Cup trophies, many of which coming whilst Polonia were playing outside the top flight. But although Legia may be the bigger of the two capital clubs, outside of Warsaw they are not very well liked, partly due to their status as a former Army club. This, along with their newer facilities and better financial status, generally gives Polonia a little sympathy from the rest of the country. So why am I writing this through “gritted teeth”?
Well, in 2006 Polonia were taken over by the owner of Poland’s biggest housing development company, Józef Wojciechowski. With a major cash investment heading towards Konwiktorska, it looked as if Polonia were set to become one of the big players in the Ekstraklasa. But Wojciechowski’s arrival came too late to prevent the club’s relegation to the I Liga. After a poor season in the 2nd tier where they finished in 7th, Polonia effectively bought their promotion back to the top-flight by merging with Ekstraklasa side Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski who had previously finished in third place. With most of Dyskobolia’s squad moving to Warsaw, the new-look Polonia finished the 2008/2009 season in fourth place, qualifying for European football.
After a disappointing start which saw them eliminated from the Europa League Qualifying rounds and struggling in the league (which saw four managers fired), former Barcelona captain Jose Mari Bakero was installed as coach in November 2009, and eventually led the team to Ekstraklasa safety. Unhappy with Wojciechowski’s constant interference, the Spaniard resigned his position, but it didn’t take long before Bakero returned to Warsaw asking for his job back. The owner agreed, but only on his terms.
In the summer, Wojciechowski invested heavily in the playing squad, notably signing Maciej Sadlok and Artur Sobiech from Ruch Chorzów for seven-figure sums, and even acquiring Polish international Ebi Smolarek on a free transfer from Greece. The “Czarne Koszule” were expected to progress in 2010/11, and after three wins and a draw from their first four games (including a 3-0 demolition of Legia; their first derby win in 10 years) it was looking good. However another dispute — this time over Wojchiechowski’s insistence that the worst-performing player be dropped — led to the former Spanish midfielder leaving Konwiktorska for a second time; this time not of his own accord.
In between their victory at home to Zagłębie Lubin on the 20th August to their win at Korona Kielce at the beginning of April, Polonia managed to pick up only 2 wins; and after each bad run, Wojciechowski responded by dismissing the coach. After Bakero came former national team coach Pawel Janas, who lasted until January. Dutch coach Theo Bos arrived next, and he managed to last until mid-March. Piotr Stokowiec came in the same day, and lasted a mere 10 days before being replaced by their former coach Jacek Zielinski (the former Dyskobolia coach, sacked by Wojciechowski after that fourth-placed finish in 2009). Zielinski’s arrival steadied the ship, with Polonia claiming 7 wins from their last 11 games to ensure survival and a mid-table finish.
To ensure success next season, Wojciechowski has introduced a new incentive package for his players ahead of the upcoming campaign. His idea is to force the players to take a 20% wage-cut, which will be set aside until the end of the season. If second place is secured, the Polonia players will receive the missing part of their wages in a lump sum; but if they manage to bring the Ekstraklasa title to Konwiktorska, the missing 20% will be tripled. It sounds like a great idea, and it probably is. But the problem is that Wojciechowski has forced all of the players to sign a new contract, even the ones who still have a number of years remaining on their current deals. Refusal to sign the new contract will result in the player gaining entry to the infamous “Coconut Club”.
The “Coconut Club” — named after the original member, Daniel Kokosinski (whose nickname “Kokos” is Polish for “coconut”) — consists of all the players under contract whom Józef Wojciechowski doesn’t like, plays badly, or doesn’t do as he wishes. They are forced to train with the youth team, and banished from the first-team squad; the biggest recent member of the club being 3.9 million zł signing Sobiech (who as of writing this has just signed for Hannover 96).
Every fibre in my body wants to hate the “Black Shirts” of Polonia Warszawa, and with their crazed owner it should be fairly easy for me to do so. But this coming season will see me supporting them (to a certain extent).
My club Górnik Zabrze have been struggling financially for a few years, and this summer has seen them forced to sell on lots of their better players. Three of my favourites, Slovakian International Róbert Jez, Polish/Austrian striker Daniel Sikorski and midfielder Grzegorz Bonin have all moved on, and all deserve to move on to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, they have all signed contracts with – yes, you guessed it – Polonia Warszawa; and now I’m torn…
Two months ago, I was comfortably telling friends how I hoped Polonia would be staring at the I Liga come May 2012; and now I’m stating to the same people that I think they could have the Ekstraklasa trophy in-hand by then. And, as much as I struggle to write these words, I actually want them to win it. By lifting the trophy, maybe Jez, Sikorski and Bonin will get the recognition which I, along with many Górnik fans, feel they deserve. It may also prove that performance-based contracts are the way forward, especially for clubs who regularly spend huge amounts on contracts with little or no reward.
I’m just going to say it…
Józef Wojciechowski may be mad, and I just simply cannot like the man; but he has good ideas. If only he knew how to implement them without being a total tool, I might not have felt so uneasy about writing this piece. I suppose I’ll just have to settle for the fact that he doesn’t own my club.