Back from the brink – but pelted off the pitch
It says a lot about the recent fortunes of Polonia Warsaw that when they finally make it onto the field, after two years of upheaval – financial catastrophe, player exodus, banishment from the league, enforced relegation, reorganisation under a new banner – their game is abandoned as they come under a hail of flares.
Such was the story for Polonia last Saturday, when they finally took to the field to begin their 2013/14 season - over two weeks later than their league rivals, and in the full glare of the media spotlight. But rather than a meeting with one of the country's top clubs, the new-look team at one of Poland's oldest clubs found themselves on a small field just a couple of miles north of the capital.
Things started well on the field, with the team going into an early 2-0 lead against KS Łomianki. However, after 36 minutes, the referee was forced to abandon the game as the players came under a barrage of fruit and flares from the 250-strong crowd.
Łomianki are friends of Polonia's traditional arch-rivals Legia, but it seems that Polonia are finding enemies rather easier to find than friends at the moment. Now having to face off with a number of other clubs who are also chummy with their biggest rivals, and without the organisation and security that they have benefited from for many years, fans and players are having to quickly face the stark realities of life outside of the Ekstraklasa, Poland's top flight.
After the 3-1 loss to Pogoń Szczecin on the final day of 2012/13, the tears were free-flowing in the stands and on the pitch at Polonia's Konwiktorska stadium.
While it meant Górnik Zabrze leapfrogged them into fifth position, Polonia's fate had effectively been decided much earlier. Denied a licence to play in Poland's top flight for the 2013/14 season due to financial issues, the club weren't just going out of the Ekstraklasa: they were going out of existence.
With over one hundred years of history behind them – from players fighting in the Warsaw Uprising to standing up to the authorities during the Russian partition of Poland – Polonia have never been a stranger to adversity. Even during the country's Stalinist period, when Polish clubs were given a state sponsor, Polonia drew the short straw.
While rivals Legia were linked to the army, Polonia were left with the much poorer railroad industry to provide funding – but even they chose to pile the majority of their funds into Lech Poznań instead, causing a long spell in the second tier.
But despite their return to the top flight, their title win at the turn of the millennium, and a relatively wealthy backer in recent years, the club's toughest test was yet to come. When former owner Józef Wojciechowski sold the club to businessman Ireneusz Król in the summer of 2012, things quickly descended into a downward spiral for the Black Shirts.
Although Wojciechowski may not have done the club too many favours during his six years at the helm, the introduction of Król almost saw its destruction in the opening weeks. He intended to move the club 180 miles south and merge it with GKS Katowice, the second-tier Silesian club in which he held shares. Opposition (and a few threats) from both sets of fans foiled that, and Polonia stayed in the capital.
The fans won that summer battle, but troubled flared again before the year was out. Strong rumours flew around Konwiktorska that a number of the club's top players hadn't been paid since Wociechowski left, and by the time the league's winter break arrived, Polonia – sitting third in the table – were about to suffer a mass exodus.
Six-goal striker Łukasz Teodorczyk left for Lech Poznań, while top scorer Vladimir Dvalishvili and full-back-cum-winger Tomasz Brzyski both headed across the city to league leaders Legia. Three of the back four were also able to terminate their contacts after going four months without pay. By the time the league restarted in February, the side which had been challenging for the title had been torn apart.
Off the field the financial problems only got worse. Król's seemingly constant promises of payment were repeatedly broken, whilst it was revealed that all Polonia's players had been playing for free since the summer. When Król's company Ideon (whose name previously adorned Polonia's shirts) filed for bankruptcy in April, the club's time in the top flight seemed numbered.
“At first I believed that maybe he wanted to build something good, but the longer he was at Polonia, the more it became clear that he wanted to take the money and file for bankruptcy of the club” says an angered 'Kwikster', the founder of Polonia's biggest supporter group Duma Stolicy. “First he plunged GKS Katowice, now he has plunged Polonia. Business people know that he has led several other companies to problems. He will probably continue to work, but if it is in sport, the club he takes over will be sorry.
“Polonia fans however will hope that this man is going to see the world from behind bars. Król destroyed and dug a grave for Polonia. This man can't be defined as anything other than a negative”.
With the league's licensing committee inevitably deciding in late May not to grant Polonia a license to play in the Ekstraklasa, and fans angered by the owner's lack of regard, the final day's game was to be the last association that supporters had with Król's Polonia. Despite a consortium of supporters coming close to purchasing the club, Król finally reneged on the deal – deciding instead to try to enter Polonia into one of the lower leagues by himself.
In response, fans decided to start a new club descending from Polonia's youth team – which confusingly had evolved as a completely separate entity to the first team. However, the new MKS Polonia (as opposed to Król's KSP) weren't affiliated to the Polish FA; and with KSP Polonia were still applying for licences for the third and fourth tiers, MKS were told that they would start life in the Mazovian A Klasa – Poland's sixth tier.
Many fans believe such a decision comes because both the region's football association and the Warsaw city authorities favour their city rivals Legia, with little or no disregard for the city's second club.
“That's not fair,” says 'Kwikster' of Polonia's proposed new place in the league structure. “As a distinguished club, the PZPN should allow us to play in the III or IV Liga [the fourth or fifth tiers]. The sixth level is unfair. It is clear that they believe that the only club in Warsaw is Legia – The city have done nothing to help Polonia.”
But although a late decision was made to allow Polonia to enter the IV Liga after Król eventually declared KSP bankrupt, the club still find themselves in their lowest ever position. The resilient Black Shirts supporters remain optimistic as ever. “The lowest Polonia have ever played before was in the third division. Now the fastest path to the top will take six years... It's a long time. But we believe!”