Football in Kraków

more than a year ago
Like all sensible nations the most important sport in Poland is football, and though precious little Kraków wouldn’t strike you as a footballing hotbed you couldn’t be more wrong. There are two local sides of note here, Wisła and Cracovia, and there’s no love lost between them. Hit Kraków on the same day that these two are playing each other and you’ll think you’ve walked onto the set of Braveheart. Both sides were established within a year of each other early in the twentieth century, and thereby come with a long and contentious history that could fill a book, each having seen their fortunes rise and fall over the decades.

Cracovia were formed from a student club in 1906 while Wisła were born out of a two-team tournament that same year which saw the “blues” and the “reds” merge into one. These colours form the basis of the Wisła Kraków kits today.

In 1908, the very first Kraków Derby was played between Cracovia and Wisła on the large Błonia pasture that separates the clubs’ stadiums today, the game ending in a 1-1 draw.

For the first two decades of their existence, Cracovia not only dominated the local but also the national stage and this period saw them develop a large fan base. Among the many friendly games they played, the “Pasy” (which translates to the “Stripes”) lost to the Austrian national team (Cracovia were formed at a time when Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia) but gained enough experience to become champions of the Polish league five times in the inter-war years compared to only two wins by Wisła.

Both clubs were at the forefront of the establishment of the new domestic league (when Poland regained independence after WWI) as Kraków quickly became Poland’s biggest football city. The most important game between the two clubs is considered to be the one played just after the end of WWII, when in a playoff for the Polish championship played at a neutral site Cracovia defeated Wisła 3-1. This 1948 victory proved to be Cracovia’s last title success.

Wisła flourished temporarily, winning the league in 1949 as Cracovia stumbled, and in the same year, in keeping with the adoption of clubs by different parts of the new communist apparatus, Wisła became part of the state police organisation. For most of the next few decades there was little success aside from the odd cup victory or notable league campaign, though Wisła began to be regarded as the stronger club and saw their fan base grow steadily.

It was only after the end of communism in Poland, that better times returned to Kraków football. In 1998 Wisła were bought by telecoms tycoon Bogusław Cupiał who went on to pump millions of złoty into the club. Since 1999 the “Biała Gwiazda” (“White Star”) have won eight championship titles along with two Polish and two League cups.

Impressive results on the domestic stage have rarely been matched by Wisła’s performances in European competition, however. Despite huge pressure and Cupiał’s determination to join the continent’s elite, Wisła have never reached the group stages of the Champions League, although they have twice come within a few minutes from their dream in the last decade. In 2005 Wisla lost in extra-time to Panathinaikos in Athens, while in 2011 APOEL Nicosia overcame a first leg deficit by scoring in the dying seconds. Some consolation could be taken from what had appeared to be a disappointing defeat when APOEL went on to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions’ League.

Cracovia, on the other hand, went close to going out of the business in the same year Cupiał bought Wisła, but the supporters took the lead and eventually saved their club. In 2001, local investor Janusz Filipiak appeared, with a plan to rebuild the club and bring Cracovia back to their historic place at the top of Polish football. The journey from third division to the Ekstraklasa took them just two years as successive promotions were won under manager Wojciech Stawowy. In their first season back in the top division the “Pasy” finished in fifth place winning plaudits for their playing style. In 2007 Cracovia outplayed Wisła finishing fourth, as the “Biała Gwiazda” posted their worst season under Cupiał’s ownership.

The 2011/12 season, however, was one of the worst in recent decades. Despite both clubs occupying new impressive stadiums facing each other across the Błonia, Wisła finished seventh (changing managers twice), while Cracovia were relegated after defeat in the Kraków Derby.

Local rivalries are not restricted to the football pitch unfortunately, as Kraków is divided into districts that support either Wisła or Cracovia. In recent years, fighting between rival fans has become even more brutal, with different outside gangs involving themselves in the hooligan war. Even though the centre of the city is fairly save, Kraków is not regarded as the safest place to wear the colours of another club side due to the peculiar alliances which exist between the fans of different Polish teams. In addition, both clubs have long been accused of anti-Semitic chants and abuse of each other, despite the rich influence of Jewish culture on Kraków’s history. This naturally lead to some concerns when Poland was pegged by UEFA to co-host Euro 2012 with Ukraine, but negative pre-tournament publicity in the UK was largely unfounded when the championship went off without a hitch and proved to be a huge PR success for Poland (despite the host nation being knocked out in the group stage); though Kraków didn't host any matches, the Netherlands and eventual runners-up Italy both used the city as their home base during the tournament.

Did You Know?

One of the most interesting aspects of Cracovia’s history is the New Year match played every January 1st at exactly noon. The tradition can be traced back to 1924 when Cracovia players returning late from a New Year’s Eve ball decided that they should have a game. The oldest January 1st match reported by the local press is from 1930, when 800 fans came to watch.

One of the most important personalities in Cracovia’s history is Tadeusz Synowiec, who joined the club in 1909 as a player and quickly became an influential figure in the club’s early days. Synowiec first became Cracovia’s captain and then went on to lead out Poland’s national team in its first ever game in 1921. Synowiec played 318 games for Cracovia, before he became the national team’s manager and also worked as a journalist, being one of the founders of “Przeglad Sportowy” – which until this day is the most popular sports newspaper in Poland.

Wisła is well known for having several fantastic strikers play for the club over the decades. The highest scorer of all-time is Kazimierz Kmiecik, who scored 153 goals in 304 games between 1968 and 1982. During the last decade, foreign fans will likely recognise the names of Maciej Żurawski and Tomasz Frankowski, who both easily broke the one-hundred league goals barrier for Wisła. Żurawski is also the club’s all-time top scorer in Europe, while Frankowski owns third place in the Polish history books for goals scored.


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