It seemed to come completely out of the blue. Poland, a side that had stormed through the Euro 2016 qualifiers, made it to the quarter finals of the main tournament, qualified again easily for the World Cup, in the top 10 in the world rankings, blessed with world class players like Robert Lewandowski, have somehow tumbled out of the World Cup with a whimper not a bang, totally devoid of any of the qualities that have been their trademark over the last four years or so. How did this disaster happen?
When Poland did so well in the last Euros, their side was based around a mixture of experienced players (Lewandowski, Piszczek, Błaszczykowski, Glik), players making their way to the top (Krychowiak) and promising young players (Kapustka and Milik). What’s most important is that all of these players were in form at the time. This provided Nawałka (even with a relatively thin squad) with a core of players which he could rely on to produce consistent performances.
In the last Euros Nawałka also had a formation which suited his way of approaching the game. Nawałka has always been a quite conservative coach who doesn’t like to take risks, and that was one of the main criticisms of him at Euro 2016, that Poland’s play wasn’t free-flowing enough, that there wasn’t enough interplay between the attacking players. But Nawałka stuck to his 4-4-1-1 formation like glue, believing it was the best one to get the best out of the players that Poland had at its disposal.
In the last couple of years, despite strong performances in the World Cup qualifiers (although in what can be now seen as a relatively weak group) the glue started to come unstuck. Some of Poland’s core players were struck by injuries (Błaszczykowski, Milik, Piszczek), others have been in and out of first teams (Krychowiak), others have not made it at top level football (Kapustka) and some are heading into their dotage (Błaszczykowski and Piszczek were born in 1985). Suddenly players which played so impressively in France could not be relied on in the same way.
As the World Cup approached Nawałka, evidently noticing the diminished capabilities of the players that had been so key to his success, decided to experiment with a back-up formation. Instead of a 4-4-1-1 Poland would instead try out a 3-4-3 formation. Poland’s games in their qualification group were characterised by all-out attack (28 goals scored) but also messy defensive play (14 goals conceded). In that respect it made sense for Nawałka to mix things up and try something different.
Then came the World Cup. After all the experimentation and the general expectation that Poland would head out in a 3-4-3 formation, Nawałka decided to return to his tried and tested 4-4-1-1 that had worked so well at Euro 2016. In were all the players that had been his lieutenants on the pitch, Milik – despite not looking really in form since coming back from his ACL injury, Błaszczykowski who has only played 94 minutes of club football since November 2017, Krychowiak who has been thoroughly criticised for his attitude while West Brom sank to relegation in the premier league. It didn’t work.
Poland looked bereft of creativity, bereft of energy, bereft of anything that they had possessed two years ago as they went down to a 2-1 defeat. The stat that really stood out was that Lewandowski and Milik only exchanged ONE pass between themselves in the 73 minutes that Milik was on the pitch. It was a disaster, and the mistake that sealed Senegal’s win as Krychowiak hoofed the ball back to his own keeper, Bednarek misjudged the ball and Szczęsny rushed out messily will be shown again and again on World Cup clangers compilations.
After the failure to beat a rather average Senegal Nawałka decided to revert to a 3-4-3 for the Colombia match making four changes in a desperate attempt to win and keep Poland in the tournament. Poland showed a lot more energy than they did vs Senegal but also a total lack of quality with Robert Lewandowski cutting an isolated and dejected figure up front. Colombia were simply too good for Poland on the night as they completed pass after pass and Poland tried to hit long balls up to the front men. Nawałka’s decision to shake things up had failed completely as Poland were easily defeated 3-0 to send them tumbling out of the tournament.
So could all of this been foreseen? When we look closely, yes. Nawałka’s core players who had brought him success were simply not as good as they had been two years ago. Nawałka also compounded the problem by not deciding on a system and sticking with it, too seemingly desirous was he to resurrect the spirit of 2016 when it was just not there anymore. Maybe Poland’s players were simply not the world-beaters most commentators thought they were?
Whatever the reasons this defeat hurts, and hurts bad. And this is mainly due to the aura that seemed to surround Nawałka’s reign as Polish coach. Suddenly Poland was able to win the games that previously they’d not been given a chance in – all starting with the famous win over Germany in October 2014 in Euro 2016 qualifying. The light-hearted giddiness of the last 4 years has well and truly vanished into a dark midsummer’s night. It might be a long time before Poland sees its like again.
Legia Warsaw line-up against Real Madrid in the Champions League group-stage match in October 2016, wikimedia commons, photo: Erik Cleves Kristensen
The 2017-8 season in the Polish Ekstraklasa has not been a classic by any stretch of the imagination. None of the title contenders were able to achieve any real level of form and consistency, leaving an incredibly unimpressive Legia Warsaw to come away with their third Polish title in a row and their fifth victory in six seasons.
There have been moans and groans around the Polish football world this season and this level of negativity, which is normally very high in Poland regarding their domestic football, has reached even higher levels as Polish clubs failed to reach the group stages in European football – something which looks especially bad after Legia Warsaw became the first Polish club in the Champions League in 2016-7 after a 20 year absence.
But what has really struck home over the course of this season, is the incredible state of temporariness that pervades in Polish domestic football. The Legia Warsaw side that managed to draw with Real Madrid and beat Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League has been decimated. Only two players (Arkadiusz Malarz and Miroslav Radović) started against Sporting Lisbon in December 2016 and in the last game of the 2017-8 season with another two players (Adam Hloušek and Michał Pazdan) still playing an important role at the club. In the place of those who left a lot of players have been brought in, mostly from the Balkans and France.
A revolution has also swept through the Lech Poznań squad (the club with the second biggest budget in the country) as, in the summer of 2017, (to much fanfare) Lech sold Tomasz Kędziora, Dawid Kownacki and Jan Bednarek to wealthier clubs and another eight players left the club. A host of transfers flooded in to Lech to replace those that had left – with almost all of the players cheap purchases from abroad.
These examples are however just the tip of the iceberg. In practically every Ekstraklasa club every six months there is a huge turnover of players, something that makes the league a permanent revolving door. For those who follow the league the amount of change is bewildering but fairweather fans can hardly recognise the player make-up of clubs if they switch off for a couple of months.
What all this means is that it’s almost impossible in Poland to build something which is permanent. Take another example. Wisła Kraków, a club which dominated Polish football in the 2000s, but is now resigned to being a medium sized Polish club without European football since 2011. Wisła had a relatively good season by their recent standards and were in with a shout of European football going into the last day of the season. Their talisman has been the Spanish attacker Carlitos who won the golden boot in Poland with 24 league goals after only arriving last summer. All the signs suggest he’ll be leaving this summer with Dinamo Zagreb or AEK Athens the destination. Pol Llonch, a tough-tackling midfielder who’s been at Wisła for 18 months, would he stay? No, he’s decided to move to the Dutch league with Willem II. Wisła will be back to square one as the new season rolls around in July.
Unfortunately this impermanence doesn’t look like it’ll be going away soon, in fact it’s likely to deepen. Something which makes it likely that the Polish league will soon lack any continuity whatsoever.
Historically there was a sense of permanence in Poland, especially in the Communist period where the best Polish players could be seen playing for the best Polish clubs. This permanence was however falsely kept in place by Polish Communist authorities, where players could only leave when they had reached 30 years old, although by the 1980s this limit was reduced which meant the ‘player-drain’ from the country increased.
Cut to the early 1990s and the end of Communism in Poland. This new democratic era meant the first flood of top Polish players moving abroad to ply their trade as age restrictions were removed from transfers altogether. Even though age played no factor in the 1990s and early 2000s one other thing limited player movement to Western Europe, limitations on players from outside of the European Union.
All of this meant that until 2004 it was common for top players to spend a number of seasons in the Polish league before moving abroad. One example of this is Maciej Żurawski, one of the top strikers in the Polish game in the 2000s, who spent six seasons at Wisła Kraków (the top Polish club at the time) scoring 101 league goals in 153 games. Back then top Polish players could be kept on (at least for a while) and strong clubs could be built.
Poland’s entry into the EU in 2004 and the double whammy of the Bosman ruling (introduced in 1995 in the EU) changed all that. EU membership has opened up untold potential riches for Polish players and eased their movement across the continent, but it has also weakened the Polish league considerably. Now a player that has a good half season is already thinking about a transfer to a stronger league.
A good example of this is Robert Gumny the young Lech Poznań right back who burst onto the scene in the 2017-8 season. Gumny’s excellent performances in the first half of the season meant he almost made a high-profile move to Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of January. Another example is Górnik Zabrze’s 20 year old midfield sensation Szymon Żurkowski, someone who made his first Ekstraklasa appearance in 2017-8 but is now being offered to clubs around Europe after having one excellent season. The list goes on and on.
While I’m certainly not arguing for a closure of borders and I think it’s great that Polish players have the chance to play in top leagues, something which was denied to players in the past, it’s no surprise that the Polish league is weak, and will continue to be weaker as a result. Is there any way to stop this alarming trend? The only thing that could do that is money, huge amounts of it. The journalist James Montague recently said in an interview for the Polish sports daily Przegląd Sportowy that in the near future rich Chinese and Asian investors will most probably put money into Polish football clubs, something that has already happened in the Czech Republic.
Large amounts of money seems the only way Poland will be able to stop the player drain that’s making the Ekstraklasa to some unwatchable. If the money doesn’t come then it’s time to get used to watching young Polish talents playing in Serie A while the domestic league is colonised by cheap Balkan imports. Let’s hope the former happens.
Last week I covered the top half of the Ekstraklasa, so this week it’s time to round up the rest of the table. Which teams had the most issues in one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world? All will become clear
In 9th place we find Wisła Płock. As with pretty much everyone, it’s been a rather up and down season for the club 100 kilometres to the West of Warsaw. The start of the season saw the removal of their long-term coach Marcin Kaczmarek and the appointment of former Polish national team player Jerzy Brzęczek. Many commentators were up in arms about the decision and predicted bad things for a coach who’s not achieved much in Polish football.
Despite these dire forebodings Kaczmarek has actually done a pretty good job. Płock are exciting in attack, with players that stand out in the rather humdrum world of the Ekstraklasa, especially the attacking quartet of Nico Varela, Giorgi Merebashvili, Semir Stilić and José Kanté. Clear evidence of this could be seen in their last game before the break when they defeated top-of-the-table Legia in Warsaw 2-0. At the other end of the pitch Płock are a lot weaker, with a number of bad errors from their keeper Seweryn Kiełpin. A side with a decent chance of making the top 8 playoff round.
Down in 10th is Śląsk Wrocław the club that plays in one of the stadiums built for Euro 2012 . If there’s any club that underlines the sheer chaos of the Polish league it’s Śląsk. In the summer they were almost taken over by an American owner, when that didn’t happen Wrocław city council decided to pump a lot of money into the club to make sure it could be sold in the future. This meant the signings of a host of players, including Marcin Robak, Arkadiusz Piech, Jakub Kosecki, Kamil Vacek and others. Unfortunately most of the players signed are slightly past their sell-by date.
At the beginning of the season however, it all looked rather good at Śląsk, who began by playing open, exciting football. This has on the whole continued at home, but their results away from home have been atrocious, they’ve only got four points from 30 without a single victory on their travels. All this meant that their coach Jan Urban was firmly under pressure. Indeed after a defeat to Bruk-Bet Termalica in December he was seemingly fired by the club, who then did a double-take after an impressive victory over Jagiellonia Białystok in the last game before the break. Śląsk have the players to finish in the top eight, but who knows what will happen.
The disappointment of the season so far has to be Lechia Gdańsk. Lechia stumbled in the second half of last season to finish fourth and just fail to qualify for their first European competition campaign since 1983. They started the season very badly among rumours of discontent among the players with coach Piotr Nowak. Lechia have a highly-paid squad, with a lot of very good, if a little too old, players for the Polish league, so it was no surprise that they got rid of Nowak. It was surprising though that they replaced him with Adam Owen – the Wales National team physical coach who had previously worked on player fitness at Lechia and possessed no managerial experience.
Owen has improved the situation a little, including a memorable derby victory over Arka, but still there have been some poor results under his watch including a 3-1 home loss to bottom of the table Pogoń Szczecin. All this means that Lechia, the club with the third highest budget in the Polish league, stand seven points off the top eight and qualification for the championship playoff round. They have nine matches to make up the gap though, and with players such as Marco Paixão, Sławomir Peszko and Simeon Slavchev it could still happen.
12th place sees us travel to the royal city of Kraków to check out the goings on at Cracovia. The autumn round has been a bit of a whirlwind at the club with the arrival of former Jagiellonia coach Michał Probierz in the summer. Probierz, one of the most charismatic and controversial coaches in Poland, decided to thoroughly shake-up Cracovia’s playing staff, which included letting go players who had been at the club for years, including the scorer of great goals Marcin Budziński. Probierz also brought in a host of players, not many of them have set the world alight so far.
Indeed it’s been a distinctly underwhelming first half of the season from Cracovia. It’s been difficult to detect a distinct style of play and they’ve only won five out of 21 games. In terms of bright points we can see the generally decent form of their striker Krzysztof Piątek, their attacking midfielder Javi Hernández and their solid midfielder Szymon Drewniak. The rest of the side have been average or poor. They did however beat Górnik Zabrze 4-0 in Zabrze in the match before the break so maybe better times are on their way. It will still take a pretty herculean effort to make up the 9 points gap between them and the top eight.
As we approach the foot of the table we make a visit to the smallest Ekstraklasa club Bruk-Bet Termalica Nieciecza. The side from the tiny village of Nieciecza in South-Eastern Poland have, like almost all Ekstraklasa clubs, had a roller-coaster ride this season. In the summer Termalica appointed the former Lech Poznań and Śląsk Wrocław coach Mariusz Rumak who had problems motivating a side which had an awful spring last season. Under Rumak the club played pretty unimaginative football although they did beat Legia 1-0 – Termalica being a bit of a bogey side for the Warsaw giants. In mid-September they got rid of Rumak and replaced him with the more dynamic Maciej Bartoszek.
Bartoszek has certainly livened up things at Termalica but has not improved the results. This was true to such an extent that by mid-December rumours abounded that he would be sacked if they didn’t win a crunch encounter with Śląsk. Termalica eventually got the win to save Bartoszek’s job. The club has one of the weakest squads in the Ekstraklasa, their star man being Szymon Pawłowski, the attacking midfielder on loan from Lech Poznań. Unfortunately the players around Pawłowski are rather weaker and I wouldn’t be surprised if Termalica were relegated in their third season in the Ekstraklasa.
In third bottom are the Ekstraklasa newboys Sandecja Nowy Sącz who were promoted in the summer of 2017. Sandecja’s stadium does not meet the requirements of the top tier so they have been forced to play their home matches 80 kilometres down the road in Nieciecza. This has had a negative effect on the club as their own ground had been somewhat of a fortress as they won the second tier last season and their attendances have been tiny – at just over 2,000 easily the lowest in the division.
Sandecja started the season rather well but then hit a negative patch. Indeed since September 17th when they defeated Termalica the club have gone 12 league matches without a win. It’s not all been doom and gloom however, the form of attacking midfielder Wojciech Trochim, Bulgarian striker Aleksandar Kolev and goalkeeper Michał Gliwa has been very decent and they were so close to sealing a famous win over Legia at the beginning of December. Despite this, their squad is very weak by Ekstraklasa standards and it would be no surprise if they are relegated in May.
15th place is occupied by Piast Gliwice. Piast have had a very disappointing autumn round. Things weren’t working under former coach Dariusz Wdowczyk who famously complained to the press that he didn’t even have half a striker in September just before he was fired. Wdowczyk was replaced by the stable hands of former Polish national team coach Waldemar Fornalik who is renowned for doing well at clubs which lack resources. Fornalik has steadied the ship somewhat but two wins in his 12 matches in charge is not really good enough.
Piast do possess a relatively talented squad, at least compared to Sandecja and Termalica, and should have just about enough to stay up but it could be close. Their stand-out players are the exciting attacking midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev who, despite his advancing years, still has the talent to drive an Ekstraklasa attack and the powerful striker Michal Papadopulos. They also possess the up and coming midfielder Patryk Dziczek. I’d bet on them surviving, just.
In last place is one of the great enigmas of the season, Pogoń Szczecin. Their playing staff is good enough to easily be in the top eight and yet most of this season they’ve performed terribly, only slightly rebounding just before the break. It took them until December 16th to record their first home victory of the season and they didn’t win in the league between mid-August and mid-December. All this with Maciej Skorża, one of the most renowned Polish coaches at the helm. A terrible atmosphere developed at the club, to the extent that players had to travel to work in taxis as they feared their cars would be defaced by angry fans.
The Pogoń board waited until the end of October to fire Skorża and replaced him with Kosta Runjaić. Runjaić initially had problems sorting out the mess but by December Pogoń began to play with a dynamic exciting style and results took a turn for the better. Importantly it means that Pogoń are now only four points from safety after looking like they would be cut adrift from the rest. In terms of players Pogoń possess an embarrassment of riches for a bottom club: their star players are the exciting Bulgarian international attacker Spas Delev, the striker Adam Frączczak and the promising young players Jakub Piotrowski and Marcin Listkowski. They certainly have enough to escape the drop, especially if they continue to play like they did before the break.
That’ll be that for now. Wishing all readers a happy and prosperous new year and see you back here for more Polish footballing ‘excellence’ in 2018!
It’s been a long and arduous Ekstraklasa season so far, starting all the way back on the 14th July when Lechia Gdańsk kicked it all off with a 2-0 away victory at Wisła Płock but it’s felt even longer as Polish clubs started their European (mis) adventure at the end of June. There have been a host of twist and turns, lots of managerial changes, clubs which have woefully under-performed and others who’ve exceeded all expectations. Unheralded players that have shone, and other players consigned to the rubbish dump. As the Ekstraklasa goes into its 7 week winter break, I’ll do my best to recap the season so far. First up the top half.
Starting at the top of the table, it’s been a rather up and down season for Legia Warsaw. With by far the biggest budget, a large playing squad and last year’s experience of the Champions League, most pundits predicted that Legia would run away with the league title. Although they take a two point lead into the winter break, they certainly haven’t impressed this season.
The start of their troubles was the loss of their key player Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe in pre-season plus the failure to make good signings. In first the Champions League and then the Europa League Qualifiers Legia went out with a whimper, playing far too slowly and without invention. This form carried over into the league as their former coach JacekMagiera seemed unable to motivate the side. Since Romeo Jozak replaced Magiera in mid-September Legia have regained their poise. Jozak has got them playing effective and pragmatic football which has allowed them to rise from the lower reaches of the table to the very top, their standout performers being striker Jarosław Niezgoda and attacking midfielder Kasper Hämäläinen. Despite this Legia will need to strengthen in the transfer window as they’ve not been a fun watch this season.
It’s been a relatively similar story for the club sitting in second place Lech Poznań and the only club with the financial clout to come close to challenging Legia. In the summer Lech sold three players for good money Tomasz Kędziora, Dawid Kownacki and Jan Bednarek and their coach Nenad Bjelica brought in a host of new signings.
At the start of the season Lech looked good, playing quite free flowing football, at least in the league as Lech were knocked out of the Europa League qualifiers by Dutch side Utrecht. However after an excellent 3-0 win at home to Legia at the beginning of October, Lech stalled – not winning any of their next 5 league games. While their form has rebounded slightly before the winter break and they possess exciting players such as Darko Jevtić, very few people around the club are looking forward to the spring with optimism. Despite this, they remain Legia’s main challengers.
A very different kettle of fish meets us as we look at the team in third place – Górnik Zabrze. Although a couple of defeats at the end of the autumn round has slightly dampened their spirits, Górnik, who were promoted in 2016-7, have been the revelation of the season in the Ekstraklasa. Playing an intelligent brand of quick, counter-attacking football and hunting in packs Górnik have been exhilarating to watch. The wand like left foot of Rafał Kurzawa who recently got his first Poland cap has meant that Górnik score a huge amount of goals from set-pieces.
But what has been even more exciting about Górnik is that they have broken the mould in Poland. A lot of Polish sides give high contracts to foreign players of dubious quality, instead Górnik and their intelligent, ambitious coach Marcin Brosz are overwhelmingly young (with the average age of their first eleven only 24 years old) and Polish. They’ve also been cheered on by sell-out crowds at their recently renovated stadium so the whole atmosphere around the famous old club has been excellent. Recently it does look like clubs have started to figure them out, and their lack of squad-depth is worrying but Górnik should be proud of what they’ve achieved so far.
In 4th place and, just like Lech and Górnik, only two points behind the leaders Legia, are the club from Poland’s North-East Jagiellonia Białystok. In the summer Jaga lost their talismanic coach Michał Probierz who moved to fellow Ekstraklasa side Cracovia. In his place was appointed Ireneusz Mamrot from 2nd tier side Chrobry Głogów. Many commentators didn’t give Mamrot much of a chance as Probierz had left such a mark on the club and they had finished as runners-up in 2016-7.
Despite these predictions on the whole Mamrot has done a very good job at Jagiellonia. Many expected that there would be a firesale after Probierz left but, although the club lost Konstantin Vassiljev and Jacek Góralski a lot of the players who were key to what Jaga did last season stayed around. Although Jaga have not been that consistent, they still present a strong counter-attacking threat with the pace of Arvydas Novikovas and Przemysław Frankowski. Many people believe that the exciting attacker Fiodor Černych will leave in the winter but Jagiellonia have the players to make the European places once more.
In terms of other sides occupying the top half of the table, leading the way in 5th is Zagłębie Lubin. Zagłębie have had a rather up and down season. They started the season well, playing enterprising attacking football and seemed to be a potential title challenger but then their form started to dip, leading to the sacking of their long-term (by Polish standards) coach Piotr Stokowiec who has been replaced with the managerial rookie and former Polish national team player Mariusz Lewandowski. Since Stokowiec’s sacking Zagłębie’s form has turned around and they’re only 6 points off the top going into the break.
The key player for Zagłębie has been the red-hot striker Jakub Świerczok. Świerczok was noticed as a talent at a young age and scored a lot of goals for Polonia Bytom in the 2nd tier in 2010-11 and then went on to try his luck in Germany. He failed there amid rumours of attitude problems and has only really come back to the attention of the national media this season. Świerczok has scored a remarkable 16 league goals in 21 games in 2017-8, including two hat-tricks in consecutive matches. He can score with both feet, with his head, is quick and strong and like Kurzawa has made his debut for the national team recently. With Świerczok in the side Zagłębie have a chance of getting into Europe.
In 6th place are another one of the positive stories of the season so far, Arka Gdynia. Arka surprised everyone by beating heavily favoured Lech in the final of the Polish Cup last season and gave a good account of themselves in the Europa League qualifiers, only narrowly going out to Danish side FC Midtjylland. Arka, under coach Leszek Ojrzyński might not be the most exciting team to watch (their game is mostly based on long balls and set pieces) but their attitude is excellent and Ojrzyński has done a very good job of rotating the squad.
Never an easy side to play against Arka have surpassed expectations to be quite comfortably ensconced in the top half of the table. They also possess one of the feel-good stories of the Polish league in terms of the form of their diminutive, but also excellent in the air, striker Rafał Siemaszko. Arka are also still in the Polish Cup, and they have a semi-final tie against Korona Kielce to look forward to in the spring. That’s probably the best chance for Arka to get into Europe but if they continue to make things tough for other sides a place in the top 8 seems likely.
Even though they’re in 7th Korona Kielce have been perhaps the most exciting team, along with Górnik, to watch in the Ekstraklasa this season. Korona finished in 5th last time around but the summer was one of upheaval at the club. Due to the change of ownership popular coach Maciej Bartoszek was sacked and replaced by the Italian Gino Lettieri. Lettieri, someone who has mostly coached in the second and third tiers of the German league system, was subjected to a barrage of criticism and sneering from the Polish press who questioned his credentials.
Despite these issues, and a difficult start which almost led to a player mutiny at the club, Lettieri has done an excellent job. Realising that Polish players did not take as kindly as German players to discipline, Lettieri has relaxed his approach and the club’s form took off. Indeed between September and December they went on a 12 match unbeaten run in all competitions which saw them qualify for the Polish cup semi-finals and beat Legia Warsaw 3-2 in a pulsating game in late November. What’s more Korona play with an attacking abandon and energy which is wonderful to watch – their play characterised by their centre back Bartosz Rymaniak who at times plays as if he’s an attacking midfielder. Who knows what the winter holds for Korona but they’ve lit up a number of dismal autumn evenings for yours truly.
Rounding off the top half of the table is Wisła Kraków. Wisła have had a relatively topsy-turvy autumn round of the season under their now former coach Kiko Ramirez. The bright point bar none has been the form of their attacking midfielder Carlitos who has been one of the revelations of the season so far. Carlitos has scored 15 goals and made four assists but it’s not just that, his tricks, flicks and dummies have been a joy to behold. It’s imperative that the club keep him in the spring but this might be a tough ask with scouts heavily interested in taking him to a more lucrative league.
It’s difficult to speak anywhere near as positively about the rest of the club and team. Ramirez was known for playing relatively dire football, and was lacking in tactical and interpersonal intelligence so it wasn’t a surprise that he was sacked. Taking his place is the rather more worldly Joan Carillo who can speak the English that Ramirez couldn’t. In general in the autumn Wisła got more points than their play deserved. As a result it will be interesting to see Carillo’s moves in the transfer market and on the training pitch during the break but the European places will probably be just out of Wisła’s reach.
Stay tuned for the second installment where I dissect the bottom half of the table in the near future
It’s approaching the last minute of injury time as Arka Gdynia face Danish side FC Midtjylland in the third round of the Europa League qualifiers. It’s 2-2 after a fiercely fought encounter and Arka have won a free-kick on the right hand side of the Midtjylland box and it’s going to be taken by Arka winger Michał Nalepa. Nalepa whips a pacey, venomous ball into the crowded box, and as defenders and attackers grapple, somehow one of the smallest players on the pitch, Rafał Siemaszko, finds a metre of space and throws himself at the cross, he connects and plants a header into the top corner. The crowd goes wild and Arka have got themselves an unlikely winner. But it’s all in a day’s work for the diminutive Siemaszko.
Siemaszko is however no ordinary player by Polish league standards. He scored his first ever Ekstraklasa goal when he was just two months shy of his 30th birthday after a career in the lower reaches of the Polish footballing pyramid. He’s balding, has the physique of that player you play alongside at your weekly five a side but has very good acceleration over five to 10 yards, most importantly he stands at a mere 1.70 metres tall (five foot six inches) but is one of the best headers of a ball in the Polish top flight. His is a story which takes us from the shipyards of the Polish Baltic coast to winning Cup Final goals at the National Stadium.
Rafał Siemaszko was born in 1986 in the small town of Wehejrowo, just 20 kilometres from the Polish Baltic coast and as a child his family moved to the nearby town of Rumia. His father, like many people in the area, worked at the shipyards just down the road in Gdynia. Growing up in Rumia, the young Siemaszko began to play for the part-time local side Orkan Rumia who, when Siemaszko made his breakthrough into the side as an 18 year old, played in the fourth tier of Polish football. Siemaszko immediately proved himself to be a capable goalscorer. Between his debut in 2004 and 2010 when he left the club he scored 90 goals for Orkan, an average of 15 goals a season. His best achievement was in 2009-10 when he scored 24 league goals, winning him the golden boot in the Polish Pomeranian 4th tier.
Rafał Siemaszko super strzelec Orkana Rumia. Gole Rafała Siemaszko w 3-lidze - YouTube
But there wasn’t much money to be made in this level of football. Although Siemaszko kept scoring, there were times when he questioned whether he should give up football or not. As his dad had always worked in the shipyards, Siemaszko decided to follow a similar path. He spent four years as a teenager at a Gdynian technical college and then went on to work at the shipyards, eventually moving up to being a ship renovation overseer with his own assistant. The money at the shipyards was a lot better than anything he ever earned playing lower league football, it was tough work with Siemaszko having to wake up at 5:30 each morning, work long days, at the end of which he had to go to football training. At one point it was too much for Siemaszko, he even stopped attending training for a month, but he was convinced to continue.
At the age of 24 Siemaszko finally got his big chance when local giants Arka Gdynia decided to give him a try. It was 2010, Arka were playing in the Ekstraklasa, they had a lot of foreign players on large contracts and there was pressure from the fans to give young Polish players a chance. Siemaszko was on holiday in Zakopane when he got the call from Arka to go there on loan, he took a little time to decide whether to accept but felt it was an offer that was impossible to turn down. The young Siemaszko had always been part of the Arka Gdynia family, he recalled how with friends:
‘We all (and there were lots of us) met up at the train station in Rumia, got on the train and travelled to Gdynia. Rumia has always been for Arka. The first match I ever watched was at Arka.’
But the season didn’t turn out as Siemaszko had hoped. He made 12 appearances in the Ekstraklasa, only starting four times, and didn’t score a single goal. Arka were relegated to the second tier and Siemaszko ended up back at Orkan Rumia when his loan spell expired. It was a huge disappointment for Siemaszko but he kept his head up and continued to score for Orkan, with 11 goals in 28 games back in the fourth tier. At the age of 26 another club from the region, Gryf Wehejrowo – newly promoted to the 3rd tier – decided to take a chance on Siemaszko. He repaid them in style, scoring 23 goals in 64 league games. Siemaszko’s journey through the leagues was picking up steam.
In 2014 another Baltic coast side, Chojniczanka Chojnice, signed Siemaszko. Chojniczanka were playing in the second tier at the time and this represented a new challenge for Siemaszko. Although the club didn’t trust him completely as a starter (of his 31 league games, only 16 were starts), Siemaszko managed to score 6 goals, some of them crucial equalisers and winners.
Siemaszko’s exploits at Chojniczanka were enough for Arka Gdynia to come a-calling once more. Especially crucial in this was Arka’s coach at the time Grzegorz Niciński who knew Siemaszko from his time playing for Orkan Rumia in 2010. Siemaszko started the season very well for Arka, scoring in his first three games. Although his form slightly fell off, he continued his knack for scoring important goals, the one most remembered by the fans being his winner vs Dolcan Ząbki in November 2015 which sealed an important comeback victory. Arka eventually won the second tier title in 2015-6, Siemaszko at the age of 30 would finally have another crack at the Ekstraklasa.
Most of Siemaszko’s time in Arka’s promotion winning season had been spent as the proverbial super sub. This continued at the beginning of the 2016-7 season, with his first two top flight goals scored from the bench. Arka made a great start on their return to the Ekstraklasa but as the season went on their form dropped and Siemaszko began to be seen as a potential solution to their striking issues, scoring in their final two league games of 2016. It was during 2017 though, that everything went right for Siemaszko. He scored four goals in Arka’s first five games in 2017, including one of the goals which took the club to the Polish Cup final against Lech Poznań. Why did Siemaszko find it so much easier in the Polish top flight the second time of asking?:
‘Maybe I was more experienced? Now I approach everything with a far more relaxed attitude. Maybe in the past I was more uptight? I just take it as it comes, I don’t think about the consequences of misplaced passes, I don’t remember chances that I missed. You have to just keep going. Also the club is very different to what it was back then. Now there’s a lot of Polish players, there’s a far better atmosphere, it’s like one big family.’
But the best was yet to come for the tiny striker. Arka went into the Cup final as overwhelming underdogs against a star-studded Lech Poznań side that was aiming to win the league and cup double. Arka had slipped way down the table and were in serious trouble of getting relegated, no-one gave them a chance. Siemaszko didn’t start the game in which Lech missed chance after good chance. He was thrown on in the 55th minute to try to make a difference, but it was only in extra-time that that difference was made. In the 106th minute, full-back Adam Marciniak found a bit of space on the left and curled in a high cross, Siemaszko was up against two defenders in the box, he watched the ball as it arced into the box, took up a good position and headed the ball past Lech keeper Jasmin Burić’s flailing grasp. Arka had taken a sensational lead, something that was doubled by Luka Zarandia’s wondergoal. Arka and Siemaszko had somehow won the Polish Cup.
ARKA GDYNIA ZDOBYWCĄ PUCHARU POLSKI 2017! - BRAMKI! - YouTube
It was a tremendous achievement for a player who had spent so much time at the lower levels of the game. Siemaszko’s father rang him after the match and told him that he had been in tears after watching the goal. Siemaszko’s season however didn’t end there, Arka still had to stay up in the Ekstraklasa. They did this in rather murky circumstances, of which Siemaszko played a full part. In a crucial game vs fellow relegation candidates Ruch Chorzów, Siemaszko scored a goal with his hand which condemned Ruch to the drop. Siemaszko’s honour was questioned by a lot of people within the game. The man himself wasn’t happy with the event:
‘I don’t know what to say, it happens sometimes. I don’t want to hide what happened, the ball hit my hand and went into the goal. I’m a little ashamed. I just stuck out my hand. Thierry Henry also scored a goal with his hand in the World Cup qualifiers and that’s why they went through. I don’t want to compare myself to Maradona or Henry because I’m not that level of player but these things happen in football sometimes, even in Poland.’
After Arka stayed up Siemaszko’s rich vein of form hasn’t stopped. If anything his feats have become more prodigious in the 2017-8 season. Every goal he scores is one that stands out, whether it’s his wonderful headed winner vs Midtjylland, a lovely double vs Śląsk Wrocław to secure an unexpected comeback in the Cup, or a beautifully placed headed equaliser vs Wisła Kraków. Currently everything Siemaszko touches turns to gold.
Arka Gdynia 4:2 Śląsk Wrocław - skrót meczu Puchar Polski 10/08/2017 - YouTube
The secret of Siemaszko’s headed goals is rather simple:
‘Timing in all of this plays the most important role. My jumps are often not really very high. I try to predict as much as I can where the football might drop in various situations as that might help me.’
It certainly has helped him. Simplicity, humbleness, all things that are often in short supply in the world of modern football. All reasons why Rafał Siemaszko is to be cherished.
For the last in our series (you can find parts one and two and three herehere and here) about under and over-achievements in the 2017-8 European qualifying rounds, we now turn to the situation in Albania. There it’s KF Skënderbeu Korçë that are leading the way, Skënderbeu became the first Albanian side to make the group stages of a European competition (The Europa League) in 2015 and this season they have repeated the trick.
After finishing third in the Albanian Superliga, Skënderbeu started off in the first qualifying round of the Europa League at the end of June but after beating the Andorran club Sant Julià, the Kazakhs of FC Kairat, the Czechs Mladá Boleslav and finally the Croats of Dinamo Zagreb they made the Europa league group stage. In the group they will face Dynamo Kyiv, Young Boys and Partizan Belgrade. They started splendidly in the first game at Dynamo, taking a 1-0 lead into half-time before the Ukrainian stormed back to win 3-1.
Hi Enxhi, can you explain the roots of Skënderbeu’s success this season and over the last couple of seasons?
Hard work and organisation have made the difference regarding Skënderbeu. I was there, in May, at the Albanian Cup Final against KF Tirana (which in the meanwhile had been relegated to a lower division in the championship) lost by Skënderbeu: it looked like the ‘great era’ of the team of Korçë was over, but this was not the case. Credit goes to the club that managed to keep the important pieces of the team but credit goes also to the players that made it possible to rise again during the Europa League qualifying matches. Regarding organisation, Skënderbeu is the only football club in Albania that operates as the other great clubs in the Balkans: it acquires young talents from Kosovo or from other Albanian teams, it boosts their skills, and then sells them again for amounts never seen before in the Albanian championship. This of course facilitates all the efforts because with a great budget you can move as you desire in the transfer market, you can improve your infrastructure and, most of all, you can invest in the youth sector.
How would you describe the state of Albanian domestic football? Would you say it is improving or regressing?
Albanian football is making progress, even if really slowly, thanks to Skënderbeu. They are raising the bar high and this makes the other clubs increase the efforts if they want to compete at certain levels, in Albania and in Europe. I’m mostly thinking about Partizani and Kukësi that have invested a lot in the past few years and at least for Kukësi the first results came last year with victory in the championship. Moreover there is a change of mentality on its way: Albania has always been characterised by bought and sold matches linked to organised gambling (for this very reason Skënderbeu in the past season could not participate in UEFA competitions), even in friendly matches. However this year, for the first time ever, FederBet (the agency that deals with betting anomalies) has declared that there were no suspect matches for Albanian teams in the qualifying stage of the Champions and Europa League. This already represents a small revolution.
Are the success of individual clubs purely down to those clubs or have administrative changes/reforms of the Albanian FA assisted?
It is entirely the product of the Albanian clubs. Despite the growth that football is experiencing in Albania, the Federation is not taking any considerable decisions in order to facilitate with some reforms the work of the Albanian clubs. A small example: there has been a lot of discussion for many years about the possibility of removing the maximum number of foreign players on the pitch for a team (4), that would really help the process of growth of the Albanian teams. Despite this, however, the Federation has never taken a strong and open position on this. Many say that this would not help the National Team, and I cannot figure out why, considering that, even in the current situation the Albanian championship provides only two players to the National Team lead by Pannucci (of which one is the third goalkeeper).
How do you see Albanian domestic football developing in the future?
I think and I hope that we will become a ‘small Croatia’, a place where the great European clubs can go in search of new talents. In order to do this, however, a certain level of football has to be achieved, maybe the constant presence of our clubs in at least the Europa League: there is still a long way to go but I am sure that one day we will have fun.
What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?
I am really sorry about the new UEFA reform, because for the Albanian clubs if it was really hard to qualify in the Champions League now it becomes practically impossible. However from a certain point of view I do understand their decision, because in recent years the group stage of the Champions League have become really boring even due to – I am sorry to say this – small clubs that qualified.
Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? Is so, what should it look like?
The creation of a third UEFA competition for the ‘small clubs’ would widen the gap between them and the medium-sized clubs of Europe. For this reason I do not agree, because the goal should be another one, that is the balancing as much as possible of the difference in level between European powers and small clubs.
Thanks go to Enxhi, who you can follow here. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series!
For the third in a series (you can find parts one and two here and here) about under and over-achievements in the 2017-8 European qualifying rounds, we now turn to those countries which have exceeded expectations. Our first case study in this regard is Macedonia, where Skopje’s FK Vardar became the first ever Macedonian side to reach a European group stage after beating Turkish giants Fenerbahçe in the Europa League playoff round. Vardar ended up in a tough group with Zenit St. Petersburg, Rosenborg and Real Sociedad. Their first group game unfortunately ending in ignominy as they lost 5-0 at home to Zenit. To find out more about Vardar’s rise Rightbankwarsaw talked to Aleksandar Zlateski of Macedoniafootball.com.
Hi Aleksandar, can you explain the roots of Vardar’s success this season and over the last couple of seasons?
Vardar’s success can be attributed to several factors. Number one is definitely finances. It is tough for a team to achieve success without money. Several years ago, Sergei Samsonenko took over FK Vardar. He initially came to Macedonia and owned just the handball teams (men’s and women’s) of Vardar, but then decided to also purchase the football club as well. Frankly, not much is known about Samsonenko. He is from Russia, but few people seem to know how he acquired his money and why he chose to invest in Vardar out of all teams. However, his entry into FK Vardar has been very positive. Vardar started throwing money at players and convinced numerous current and former national team players of Macedonia to join the club. They also bet on young players. From our U21 team that qualified for this summer’s U21 championships in Poland, six were under contract with Vardar.
So, they have a good mix of young and veteran Macedonian players. They surrounded Macedonian players with some under the radar foreigners. None of the foreigners came in with much hype. Frankly, very little was known about them. But, Vardar has hit home runs with guys like Juan Felipe, Hovhannes Hambardzumyan, Tigran Barseghyan, Yevhan Novak, Jaba Jighauri and Damir Kajasevic. In Macedonia, a team is allowed a max of 8 foreigners. Vardar currently has 9 after they recently signed Vanja Markovic. To clear a space for him, they will loan Moustapha Quaynor from Ghana to another team.
The second aspect is infrastructure. Samsonenko financed the construction of a training center for Vardar. It is a nice facility with several pitches. It has all of the accommodations that teams from decent leagues have. As a matter of fact, guys who came to Vardar from foreign leagues have said that Vardar offers the same conditions as those leagues, whether it be Belgium, Romania, Ukraine, etc.
A third aspect is they begun to understand the importance of a strong academy. They have brought on well respected coaches to develop youngsters at their academy with the goal of grooming them to become first team players.
How would you describe the state of Macedonian domestic football? Would you say it is improving or regressing?
I would say the domestic league is improving. Vardar and Shkendija have stable ownership situations and they push each other to get better. They are the clear two best teams as the gap between them and the other eight times is wide. It seems year to year Vardar and Shkendija improve and I look for that to continue. Shkendija have reached the play-off round of the Europa League in back-to-back years, but they fell short each time. I think coming that close will lead their owner, Lazim Destani, to spend even more money to finally get them over the hump. Coming that close, but losing, must be frustrating.
As for the other teams, I feel that Pelister is currently the third best team, but a distant third behind the two above teams. They changed coaches after getting eliminated by Lech Poznan, and I think that was a good decision by them. The new coach will force some young players and that is wise. They need to get more athletic. Plus, they kept some veteran players and I think the veteran/youth mix is better now. Their stadium is currently undergoing renovations, so once that is done it will be more good news for them. They have passionate fans and a good Pelister team is good for the league. They have a rivalry with Vardar.
After them is Rabotnicki, but they are very weakened from last season. They lost their best young player, Elif Elmas, to Fenerbahce and veteran guys like Vance Sikov and Goran Siljanovski left them. They just don’t have the resources to keep their best players. However, Rabotnicki believes in their academy and promotes a lot of youth players. They have a good, young coaching staff which excels in teaching and developing young players. That is how they survive as a club. Develop and empower young players, then sell them abroad.
This year for the first time competing in the top division is Pandev Academy, a club financed by Goran Pandev. They are another team which believes strongly in having a good academy. They play with a lot of young players and surround them with several veterans. I look for Pandev Academy to get better and better from year-to-year. That is important for the league as well. It is crucial to have some quality teams from the eastern past of Macedonia. Pandev Academy, located in Strumica, fulfills that criteria, and having Goran Pandev involved with a team is a great thing.
There is not much quality behind those teams, with the exception of maybe Sileks. But, to me, they are a mid-table team at best.
Are the success of individual clubs purely down to those clubs or have administrative changes/reforms of the Macedonian FA assisted?
I have to give the Macedonian federation some credit. They have worked closely with the teams and UEFA to renovate a number of stadiums across the country. Infrastructure has been bad for a long time, but they finally started to address that. The stadiums in Tetovo, Bitola, Prilep, Strumica and Stip received new pitches and floodlights. The stands are also being renovated in some of those stadiums. Now, it is not perfect. Many of those stadiums look awful from the outside. They are old. In some ways, it is like putting lipstick on a pig, but you have to start somewhere. At least the pitch and stands will be much improved from where they were. Some progress.
Furthermore, the FA put a rule in place that in top division games, every team must start at least one player 21 or younger. This forces every teams, even ones that don’t trust youngsters, to put at least one guy 21 or younger to play and develop. In the second division, teams must start at least 2 guys 21 or younger. That was a good decision in my view.
How do you see Macedonian domestic football developing in the future?
I look for domestic football to develop nicely in the future. Vardar and Shkendija will continue pushing each other. That is good. It forces both clubs to spend and be aggressive. I expect Pandev Academy to become a top 3-4 team domestically in the near future, and Rabotnicki and Pelister should be their usual selves. Good sides, just not at the level of Vardar or Shkendija.
What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?
Not a fan of them. UEFA was afraid of top clubs bolting and forming a Super League, so they gave in to the pressure and gave the top leagues more automatic slots. It clearly will hurt smaller leagues. The chances of reaching the group stages was already tough for Macedonian teams, now it becomes close to impossible, especially the Champions League group stages.
Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? Is so, what should it look like?
No. That would then discourage incentive to invest in the team and be good enough for the Europa League or Champions League. It should be tough qualifying for those competitions. Yes, the new format will make it tougher, but not impossible.
Still, something should be done to reduce inequality in European football. One way to do this is for UEFA to allocate more money to teams from smaller nations. A strong academy is instrumental to sustain good results. UEFA could also offer coaches that can properly teach the fundamentals of the game. In the end, everybody plays football these days. Upsets happen and they will continue to happen.
Thanks go to Aleksandar, who you can follow here. Stay tuned for the last instalment!
For the second in a series (you can find the first one here) about countries who either under or overachieved in 2017-8 European competition qualifying rounds, our attention turns to the once mighty Dutch league which has recently fallen on increasingly hard times. This season both Ajax and PSV failed to make European competitions, Ajax losing to OGC Nice in the Champions League qualifiers and then Rosenborg in the Europa League Playoff Round and PSV being unceremoniously knocked out by Croatian side NK Osijek. To find out what is behind this failure Rightbankwarsaw talked to Goal.com Journalist and Dutch League expert Peter McVitie.
Hi Peter, Can you explain the roots of Ajax and PSV’s failures this season to qualify?
This season, it’s mainly down to bad decisions in the summer. Ajax have done a lot to undermine the promise they showed last season. The departure of Peter Bosz was made easier by issues in the background. He wanted to bring in his own assistant coaches but the Technical Heart (those who make the key decision at Ajax – mainly Van der Sar, Overmars and Bergkamp) didn’t think it was a good idea, so Dortmund offered him an escape. Since then, Ajax have reverted back to some questionable signings and failed to strengthen in many areas, crucially left back.
New coach Marcel Keizer’s coaching career was brief and poor before he took over Jong Ajax for 2016-17, guiding a talented group to second place in Dutch football’s second tier. The Technical Heart are banking a lot on him given there are a lot of talented young players in the squad, but he has a lot to prove. Crashing out of the Champions League and Europa League is a terrible start. They played well against Nice at times and of course the Rosenborg tie was close too until the final 10 minutes, but it is a big sign of how far they have fallen in just a few months.
The tragedy of Abdelhak Nouri’s heart arrhythmia, leading to severe and permanent brain damage, has also devastated Ajax in the build up to this season. Appie was loved by everyone at Ajax and was already a big figure with the fans, so the club came to a halt while they awaited news and dealt with the immense grief. Overall, beyond the money they brought in for Davinson Sanchez, Davy Klaassen, Jairo Riedewald and Kenny Tete, the summer has been a tough one for Ajax.
With PSV, they have taken a big decline since their 2014-15 title win. They sold three key players before the first qualifier but needed much more depth to the squad than the three signings they made. They were always lagging behind Feyenoord and Ajax last season and just haven’t improved. There are few signs that Phillip Cocu can really take them forward as a coach. He is tactically weak and that has hindered them at times in Europe, despite the occasional uplifting Champions League result.
Dutch Eredivisie sides have been having problems for sometime in Europe. What’s the cause of this and is there hope for the future?
Despite Ajax’s impressive season, the struggles of Eredivisie sides in Europe has been going on for years and the gap is widening. With regards to the Eredivisie itself, that no teams have been capable of challenging the big three in recent years is a concern. Dutch football is in a very strange predicament at the moment.
But it stretches beyond that. It’s very much a collective issue. Dutch football has been frozen in time tactically while the rest of Europe progresses, heavily inspired by the famous Dutch style. Eredivisie teams generally play to the same template – 4-3-3 with width, building from the back and holding onto possession. There have been a few recent examples of more flexible, progressive coaches, like Peter Bosz and FC Utrecht’s Erik ten Hag, whose reputation is growing since his return from coaching Bayern Munich II (recruited by Pep Guardiola).
The traditional thinking is rife throughout Dutch football and affects the national team too. With a generational shift on their hands in the national team, the KNVB have reverted to old and inept coaches stuck in adhering to a typical Dutch style. The failures of the national team at the moment are of no great surprise, the real surprise is just how bad they look against sides they historically could contend with. The issues within the team can’t be fixed easily, but the Dutch FA the KNVB set them back a few years with the decision to replace Van Gaal with Hiddink and to have Danny Blind replace him. There is little direction from the top to see things in a different light, so the problem is easy to spread through.
Eventually, the right people will get into the right positions to fix it. Today it was reported that the KNVB will hold talks with consultancy firm Cruyff Football – run by Wim Jonk and Ruben Jongkind with Jordi Cruyff- over a partnership to develop more of a focus on the technical and tactical side of youth football. Jonk is a true proponent of the Cruyff philosophy, but he has a clearer interpretation than most who believe they are adhering to that philosophy.
Somewhere along the line, the message has been lost with many current coaches who don’t see the depth to it beyond playing a in a 4-3-3 formation with width, building from the back and keeping possession. There’s much more to the type of football that made the Dutch iconic and many of the more successful coaches in Europe adhere to the style more than most Dutch do, as was shown by Dutch journalist Pieter Zwart.
If they can further improve the education of players and coaches over the next few years, it will be a big step forward for Dutch football, but it will be a long process, I imagine.
Where should Dutch domestic football be aiming in the future?
It is low at the moment but it should be aiming to get to the level of Serie A and Ligue 1. You could say it wasn’t far off the level of the Premier League in the late 90s. Things have changed so much that it’s impossible for that gap to narrow, but the Dutch are still producing talented players. If they can improve again tactically and produce better coaches, they can make some progress.
What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?
It’s a shame to see of course because so many teams are being left behind and it will only lead to a wider gap. I can only see bad things happening for Dutch football as a result too. They already struggle to get in if not via the champions’ route, so the coefficient takes a battering. When PSV failed to qualify for the Europa League, it led to the sale of Davy Propper to Brighton and they are severely weakened this season, they don’t look capable of challenging and if they don’t get into Europe next season, they may have to downgrade the squad again. The knock on effects are huge so limiting the access to the big stage only hinders smaller leagues.
Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? Is so, what should it look like?
It’s not something I’ve ever considered but I can’t say I have an immediate desire for it. I’m not sure who it would benefit or what appeal it would have.
Thanks go to Peter, who you can follow here. Stay tuned for further instalments!
In Poland recently there has been a feverish debate concerning the reasons for Polish clubs’ failure to get a club into the 2017-8 European group stages. People have bemoaned pretty much everything from inefficient club scouting systems, to poorly-run academies to short-termism among owners. In an attempt to wider the focus a bit Rightbankwarsaw has decided to look more broadly at the qualifying rounds for the Champions League and the Europa League and talk to journalists from countries whose sides have underachieved and countries who have exceeded expectations. In this way we can see if what is happening in Poland is a Europe-wide problem and understand what should and should not be done in the future.
First we’re going to look at countries who have underachieved. Our first case study is Turkey, where the mighty Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe both failed to qualify for the Europa League group stages. To tell us what went wrong we interviewed Freelance Turkish journalist Alp Ulagay who has previously written for the Turkish daily newspapers Hürriyet, Habertürk and Cumhuriyet.
Hi Alp, Can you explain the roots of Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe’s failures this season to qualify?
Both clubs were late hiring the much-awaited and much-needed new players during the off season. Galatasaray had to play their Europa League (UEL) second qualifying round games in mid July. Even though they knew they’d have to play games that early they weren’t ready at all against the weak Swedish side Östersunds and were outmatched in both games and ousted from the competition immediately. They were still planning to bring in new players as late as in August. Their manager Igor Tudor, appointed early this year, still has to prove himself at this level. Now he’s been given all the squad he wished for and it’s up to him to provide the results.
Meanwhile Fenerbahçe had more time to prepare for their UEL third qualifying and playoff rounds. Despite overcoming Sturm Graz in the third round they were upset by an inexperienced Vardar team in the playoff round. The same goes for them as Galatasaray: they were far from fielding their preferred lineup due to injuries, ongoing hiring negotiations and a lack of cohesion. Fenerbahçe had just brought in Soldado before the Vardar games, and still keep on signing new players well into late August which is obviously way too late. Their newly appointed manager Aykut Kocaman, who already guided Fenerbahçe between 2010 and 2013, tends to emphasize a defensive side of the game which is quite unusual for the club. The fans might well lose patience with him quickly.
How would you describe the state of Turkish domestic football? Would you say it is improving or regressing?
Turkish League seems to have certain qualities over the past 15 years: A mid-level European league with broadcasting rights of more than $450 million per season, an appealing wage structure for foreign players and coaches, and access to European competitions. But the broadcasting money is not well-spent. Many clubs have chosen to bring in European stars who are well past 30 years old and some injury-ridden, including Pepe, Eto’o, Gomis, Menez, Nasri, Soldado, Van Persie. This investment hasn’t brought the expected results. We need better results in European competitions to be able to say the situation is improving.
Are the failures of individual clubs purely down to those clubs or does it have anything to do with the failures of the Turkish FA/Turkish league administration?
Those failures are mostly up to the clubs. Two years ago the Turkish FA changed the limits on foreign players to what the clubs had demanded for a number of years. They were thus able to sign up to 14 foreign players in order to get some success in European competitions. But it hasn’t worked that well. We’ve only had one UEL quarter final during the last two seasons.
Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have both been suffering from administrative and financial deficiencies for a number of years. They have kept spending good money on players during recent seasons but due to the wrong choices they haven’t got the results on the pitch that they had expected. Now they are heavily in debt and they are consistently making the same mistakes regarding managing the football team: In the absence of a sporting director the presidents themselves or board members are involved in player-hiring process on a day to day basis, and managers tend to count too much on experienced players.
How do you see Turkish domestic football developing in the future?
Turkish domestic football needs to improve on a few key points in order to develop as a major league. First of all the fans. The average gate in the Turkish Super League was under 10 thousand fans per game last season. With newly-built stadiums in every major football city, the FA and the clubs have to work in hand in hand to bring more fans to the games. The target might be 15 thousand average attendances in five years and 20 thousand in ten years.
Secondly Turkish clubs need to get some results on the European front. Turkish fans put a lot of emphasis on successful results in European competitions. But since the famous UEFA cup victory by Galatasaray in 2000, Turkish clubs have only had one UEL semi-final, two UEL quarter-finals and two Champions League (UCL) quarter-finals.
And finally the Turkish FA have to eliminate dirty play on the pitch. There are too many brutal kicks in the Turkish league which hamper the flow of the play and leaves many players injured during the season.
What do you think of UEFA’s new reforms making it more difficult for smaller clubs to qualify?
As far as we know UEFA seems to be dividing Europe into two in terms of quality. The major leagues will still be able to play regularly in the UCL in the years to come. That being said, clubs from midsize and small leagues will have great difficulty in reaching the groups of the UCL. Meanwhile that means more room in the UEL groups for those clubs from midsize and small leagues. Nonetheless UEFA should avoid the passage of third ranked clubs in the UCL group stages to the UEL knockout stages. Otherwise big clubs will still play an important role the UEL as well.
Would you like to see a new third competition being developed by UEFA? If so, what should it look like?
Definitely not. It’s taken years to make the UEL a competent competition in terms of its financial rewards. UEFA would not be able to manage a third European competition.
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It’s been a rather rough summer for Polish sides in European competitions. By 3 August only one club, Legia Warsaw, remains in with a shot of European group stages but even the Polish champions have suffered a fall from grace, being eliminated from the Champions League by the Kazakh champions FC Astana. In order for Poland, a country of 38 million people with the 11th biggest GDP in Europe, to have even one club in the group stages Legia must defeat Moldova’s FC Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League playoff round. It’s a sad situation and one that is repeated year after year with some exceptions and in order to improve there are no easy answers.
There were certainly not high hopes regarding the four Polish sides entering European competitions this season. Jagiellonia Białystok lost their talismanic coach Michał Probierz to Cracovia in June and their key attacking midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev at the same time. The club from the North East of Poland do not have a large budget and overachieved in finishing second in the Ekstraklasa last season – indeed many worried that many key players would leave the club in the summer and they would not make it far in Europe. This turned out to be the case, after an easy dispatching of Georgia’s Dinamo Batumi and a decent 1-1 draw at Gabala FK in the next round, Jaga just couldn’t find the right passes in the home leg and went out rather disappointingly, despite the fact Gabala’s budget far exceeds theirs.
The club with the least expectations was Arka Gdynia. Arka surprised everyone by beating Lech Poznań in the Polish cup final in May and only stayed up in the Ekstraklasa after a handball goal from Rafał Siemaszko and some strange shenanigans at their friend club Zagłębie Lubin on the last day of the season. Arka, a club with a very small budget even by Ekstraklasa standards, are however a team of fighters, as they showed very clearly in their Europa League third qualifying round tie against the Danes of FC Midtjylland, a club who beat Manchester United in the 2015-6 Europa League. In the first leg Arka played with great pride and passion, fighting all over the pitch in front of a passionate, record crowd at their cute, compact little stadium. The Danes didn’t know what hit them and in the last minute the diminutive Siemaszko scored a lovely headed goal to give Arka a 3-2 win.
In the second leg it looked for a long time as if Arka would come away with an unexpected triumph, especially after Dawid Sołdecki put them ahead in the 59th minute. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be as a freak own goal and a FC Midtjylland goal in injury time knocked Arka’s plucky fighters out of the Europa League. Arka had almost qualified simply through strength of will but it was not quite enough.
What then would be the fate of the two Polish clubs with by far the biggest budgets and expectations, Lech Poznań and Legia Warsaw? Lech and Legia, since the decline of Wisła Kraków have been the clubs which Poland’s coefficient has most relied on. In the case of Lech – their cause was made much harder by losing to Arka Gdynia in the Polish Cup final. A win would have allowed them to start in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, giving them an extra three weeks before entering the European fray, instead they had to start in round one. Although they easily made it past Macedonia’s FC Pelister and rather more difficultly FK Haugesund, they never looked that impressive. This summer has also been a hectic one at the club due to the profitable sales of DawidKownacki to Sampdoria, Jan Bednarek to Southampton and Tomasz Kędziora to Dynamo Kyiv and a host of incoming new transfers which have needed time to settle in.
In the third qualifying round Lech faced Holland’s FC Utrecht, a side that Lech were expected to overcome. In the first game Lech had the better of a 0-0 draw in Holland, and in front of a large crowd at home Lech defended chaotically, conceding two while scoring two but never being in full control of the match. Lech’s exit from Europe was in many ways the most disappointing of all. They made it difficult for themselves by not winning the Polish cup in May but even starting in round one they were expected to make the playoff round of the Europa League at the very least.
Which brings us to Legia Warsaw. Legia’s star shone in Europe last season after becoming the first Polish club in twenty years to make the group stages of the Champions League. Their performances in the group stage were also considered to be a success after high octane (if a little chaotic) matches against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and an excellent victory against Sporting Lisbon. Big things were thus expected of them this season. Despite this, behind the scenes all is not right at Legia.
The crucial issue was how to deal with last season’s Polish league player of the season Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe. Vadis’ agent declared in public that the player was in love with Warsaw at the end of the season, but if this was the case he had a funny way of showing it. By the end of June it was clear that Vadis was doing anything he could to leave the club, first he delayed coming back to training due to the birth of his child, then he openly stated he wanted to leave. Legia were forced to arrange a transfer, first Vadis failed a medical at FK Krasnodar, then he eventually left to join his former coach Besnik Hasi at Greek champions Olimpiacos. The Vadis saga was important for Legia’s chances in Europe as it slowed down their recruitment process. Legia have brought in new players – Armando Sadiku, Cristian Pasquato, Hildeberto Pereira and Krzysztof Mączyński but (apart from Mączyński) they have not fitted into the side that well with Hildeberto carrying a lot of extra pounds. This has impacted Legia’s league and European form.
In the second qualifying round of the Champions League Legia easily made it past the frankly awful Finnish Champions IFK Mariehamn by an aggregate score of 9-0. In the third round Legia were unlucky to come up against the Kazakhstani regime club FK Astana fuelled by petro dollars and a club with recent experience in both the group stages of the Champions and Europa League. Legia defended complacently in the away leg – losing 3-1 and giving themselves a very difficult task in the second leg. In that match Legia played far too slowly, lacked dynamism and only came alive in the last twenty minutes after the introduction of young substitute Sebastian Szymański. They achieved a 1-0 victory but it wasn’t enough to go through.
How big a failure was it to go out for Legia? On the face of it is very disappointing, especially after last season’s Champions League successes but if you look closer it’s not that surprising. Last season Legia’s play was also pretty leaden in the qualifying rounds to the Champions League but they were lucky enough to get Slovakian champions AS Trenčín and Irish Champions Dundalk in the draw. Legia came up against a far more potent challenger this time at an earlier stage and they were simply not good enough to get past them. Legia still have a good chance of making the group stages – they should have enough to eliminate Sheriff but their play needs to improve quickly to have any chance of picking up points in the group stage if they make it.
So what answers are there for Polish clubs in their year on year battle to achieve acceptable results in European competitions? Polish club budgets, while large compared to other sides in Central and Eastern Europe, can not compete with clubs in the West – and in the raw material rich East of the continent. Polish domestic magnates don’t seem to be very interested in investing in Polish football, perhaps because of the stigma that’s still attached to the game in Poland as a hotbed of hooliganism and radicalism or perhaps because of the old fashioned attitudes in most Polish clubs. It’s therefore unlikely that a domestic saviour can be found. Is there a chance for an international oligarch to invest in Polish football? This possibility always exists – especially when looking at the recent Chinese takeover at Slavia Prague but praying for someone like this to come along is certainly not the best attitude.
All that is left then is to improve the organisational side of Polish clubs, allowing step by step progress to ensure stable and achievable aims. It has taken Polish clubs an awfully long time to come to terms with the economic realities of the global game. Clubs such as Dinamo Zagreb have learned the lesson rather more quickly, the key being to improve Polish academies, bring through quality players and then sell them to the West for large amounts of money which can then be reinvested into the club to bring through more top quality young players. If there is a bright light in the Polish darkness it is what is going on at Lech Poznań, in recent years Lech has sold top Polish youngsters to Italy and England for good sums of money and Lech continues to bring good young players through. Legia have also shown that clubs which are generally well run can achieve successes, although their recruitment policies in the last two summers have not worked out that well. Legia in future seasons need to make sure they make their summer transfers as quickly as possible to make sure they have a chance of making the Champions League group stages.
The situation at Polish clubs is not ideal, but with clever organisation and long-term planning Poland has the potential to compete with clubs from medium sized leagues including Holland. Certainly Poland should be able to achieve as much as clubs from the Czech Republic in European competitions. It may look bleak now but in the future this does not have to be the case.