You are probably in the best place in the country to watch football. Because believe it or not Lech Poznan, rather than Wisła Kraków or Legia Warsaw, is Poland’s best supported club. A rich football heritage, enthusiastic and vocal support and of course a modern, supporter friendly stadium, mean that this is one of the best places in the country to watch Polish football.
Back in 2010 Poznan seemed to have confirmed its place as the new capital of Polish football. Local club Lech’s 3-1 win over Manchester City and exciting 3-3 draw with Juventus in Turin gave the local fans hope, especially as Poznan was the first 2012 venue to be opened and played host to the largest and the loudest support in Poland.
Lech’s championship, won in some style that year after a seventeen year wait, was only the sixth in the club’s history. However, the roots of the club can be traced back to the 1920s, with probably the key moment coming on the 1st May 1930 – when, as it was popular back in those days, the railway decided to take patronage of Lech. This relationship lasted for sixty-four years and gave the nickname to the club and its fans that they identify with to this day – “Kolejorz”, which is a local variation of the Polish word for “Railwaymen”.
Lech’s first big success came in the seventies, when the club became very popular locally – in 1972 the all-time attendance record was broken when over sixty thousand people came to the game with Zawisza Bydgoszcz. That was the start of better times, and under the management of Jerzy Kopa Lech secured their first European place in the UEFA Cup following a third place finish in the 1978 championship. Despite huge hopes, German club MSV Duisburg proved too good for “Kolejorz”.
One of the most popular players was Mirosław Okoński, who made his debut for the club just before his twentieth birthday, but was vilified for moving to Legia Warsaw after defeat in 1980 Polish Cup final. It was a game that would become infamous as the start of a long-lasting hatred between the clubs, as host city Częstochowa witnessed with day long fighting between rival hooligans. Okoński, after two unsuccessful seasons in the capital, came back to Poznań and was welcomed back by the Lech crowds. This skilful attacking midfielder played 27 times for Poland, making his third debut for Lech in 1992, when he returned at the end of his career after spells with Hamburg and AEK Athens.
In 1982 Lech won their first silverware after defeating Pogoń Szczecin in the Polish Cup final, while the next two seasons brought back-to-back triumphs in the league as “Kolejorz” started to make a name for themselves in Europe as well. Despite losing to the likes of Athletico Bilbao, Liverpool and Aberdeen, Lech were remembered for their attractive, attacking football. In 1988, Lech went out in the Cup Winners’ Cup to a Barcelona side after two dramatic draws which ended with the Catalonians going through on penalties. That Barcelona team featured among others Gary Lineker and Jose Mari Bakero the latter of whom would become Lech’s manager more than twenty years later.
The early nineties brought the third and fourth championships to Poznań as Lech dominated the national scene but it was the fifth triumph in 1993 that brought the biggest controversy. In the final round of matches, with Lech in third place and unable to win the title, Legia Warsaw and ŁKS Lódź played their final games knowing it could go down to the number of goals scored. In what can best be described as a very strange final matchday, Legia won 6-0 in Krakow pipping ŁKS to the title despite their 7-1 defeat of Olimpia. Although no person was actually accused of anything both clubs were disqualified and the title went to Lech. Until today, Legia fans claim that the “Railwaymen” won the league around the table and not on the pitch.
That turned out to be Lech’s last success for many years, and disastrous management in the following seasons sealed relegation in 2000 after twenty-eight years in the Polish top flight. It only took two years to return and in 2003, as the first steps towards the building of the new stadium were made, Lech won the Polish Cup, despite minimal resources, under manager Czesław Michniewicz. The triumph was even sweeter as it was Legia who were defeated in the final over two legs. In 2006 Lech controversially merged with fellow Ekstraklasa side Amica Wronki who though much smaller were well financed, while Lech attracted all the attention and support in the Wielkopolska region. Despite all the protests, the fans eventually agreed and the fusion of the two clubs was completed.
This turned out to be a very successful move as Lech went onto win the Polish Cup, the Super Cup and then in 2010, their sixth championship. The biggest star of this new team was the young striker Robert Lewandowski, who, with eighteen goals, won the Ekstraklasa Golden Boot. Semir Stilić was the league’s leading playmaker, while very good performances from Colombian defender Manuel Arboleda were enough for the Polish media to demand Polish citizenship for him. Lewandowski left soon after for Borussia Dortmund but the signing of Latvian Artiom Rudnev proved more than a decent replacement – he became famous for hitting a hat-trick in Turin against Juventus.
2011/2012 was a less enjoyable season for Lech’s supporters and without any European adventures to interest them, “Kolejorz” had to focus on the domestic scene. Under the management of Jose Mari Bakero they struggled for long periods and the Basque was finally sacked after a painful 0-3 defeat to Ruch Chorzów. The new, young manager, Mariusz Rumak, restored confidence as they hit impressive form which saw them go into the final day of the season still in with an outside chance of winning the league. They eventually finished the day in third but that was enough to guarantee another season in European competition.
Lech is not the oldest club in Poznań as Warta beats them to that honour by ten years. Two-times Polish champions – the last time in 1947 – Warta have suffered financially for decades, rarely playing in the top division. The club was saved by a local developer in 2011, when ambitious former Playboy model, Izabella Łukomska-Pyżalska took over and “The Greens” now enjoy a higher profile thanks to their new managing director. Not known for being publicity-shy, Ms. Łukomska-Pyżalska’s media exploits include sending a photo of herself and some tissues to Mario Balotelli after the Italian star was seen crying in the wake of his team’s loss to Spain in the final of Euro 2012. The letter included the plea to ‘Super Mario’ to stop crying and the hope that he might come to play for Warta Poznań.
Warta play just to the south of the centre at the remodelled Droga Dębińska and strangely, bearing in mind the mentality in other Polish cities, there is no local rivalry between Lech and Warta fans. One thing you should be aware of in Polish football though is the peculiar allegiances that exist between supporters of different teams and more importantly the animosity amongst others. When two ‘friends’ are playing each other expect a cheery atmosphere, bbq and beer being provided by the hosts and the distinct lack of uniformed police and security. If, however, enemies are playing each other, don’t be surprised to see baton wielding, armoured police and scenes reminiscent of Braveheart. Complete lunacy. For the record Lech Poznań are good friends with Arka Gdynia and Cracovia while ‘enemies’ would be Śląsk Wrocław, Wisła Kraków and Lechia Gdańsk.