Give us a Ś, give us a l, give us an ą…
Last year, Polish club Śląsk Wrocław (pronounced Shlonsk Frot-swaf) swapped the bijou confines of their ramshackle Oporowska Street home for the newly built Stadion Miejski on the Silesian city’s north-western fringes. Built for the recently held Euros, the sleek new stadium incorporates all the features a new-build these days is supposed to: great visibility from each of the 42,000 seats; plentiful amenities; impeccable transport links; and a quirky exterior resembling a squashed IKEA paper lantern: by day an uninspiring pale beige, by night it’s lit up in Śląsk’s vivid emerald green.
Oporowska had none of these modern attributes, but it had soul. Five years ago, I went there to see them play Tur Turek in a Polish second division match. Śląsk – also known as WKS – has never been one of Poland’s elite clubs and back then they were fighting for promotion back to the Ekstraklasa, Poland’s top-flight, where their supporters believe they belong. The WKS fans are probably right: their team is ninth in the all-time Ekstraklasa rankings, and they collected a solitary league title in 1977. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw WKS make frequent excursions into Europe, notably in the 1975/1976 UEFA Cup where they lost in the third round to then-mighty Liverpool. The following season, Napoli knocked Śląsk out in the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Back in 2007, a routine league match against the minnows of Turek must have offered a huge contrast for the older supporters. Tur Turek’s fans were shepherded down a tunnel by police into a cage behind one of the goals. All Polish grounds have to have such pens, and they offer up easy opportunities for the home fans to joke at the visitors’ expense: in Polish, baran means both ‘sheep’ and ‘idiot’.
The home fans populated the other three stands. The one we were in ran the length of the touchline. It had a corrugated roof, wooden strip benches and a railway line running through the back of it. The fans in our stand traded chants with the opposite bank of supporters who were housed in a steeper, roofless affair. The two stands serenaded each other; completed chants like twins finishing each other’s sentences. Most of the people in our stand stood on the benches which were strewn like the floor below with the discarded husks of sunflower seeds that everyone seemed to be chewing on. It was the sort of stadium that needs time to build organically.
Most of the 8,000 crowd went home happy that day, as Śląsk strolled to an easy 4-0 win. A month later, they put 10 goals past Motor Lublin and carried the form through the rest of the season to secure promotion. Three seasons’ adjustment to the Ekstraklasa left Śląsk in a great position to challenge properly at the top of the table. Last season, they held out in a nervy end to the campaign to claim their second-ever title, under the dictatorial Orest Lenczyk.
Like all great dictators, his reign ended in confusion, mutiny and disarray. Never one to compromise, Lenczyk managed by the end of his tenure to be in conflict with the owners, players, fans and journalists alike. Czech Stanislav Levý, fresh from winning the Albanian championship with Skënderbeu Korcza, is the man charged with securing an unlikely title defence. I went to Stadion Miejski for Levý’s first home match in charge, against bottom-of-the-league GKS Bełchatów.
WKS had made a steady start to the campaign, lying fifth after four games; Bełchatów were yet to score a point. Their small knot of fans was penned into one section of the seating, gathered behind a ‘VALIANT BOYS’ banner. They had draped the banner over the end of the section and were grouped tightly behind it as if it were a battle standard. Aided by the stadium’s excellent acoustics, they kept up an impressive, and indeed valiant, noise throughout the match. Not to be outdone, the home supporters hissed chants of voo-ka-ess back at them from behind their banners at the other end: Furiaci; Fighters; Nabojka.
Before kick-off, both sets of fans fell silent to pay their respects to Dawid Zapisek, a Lechia Gdańsk fan who had recently died at the age of fourteen from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, an aggressive form of spinal muscular atrophy. Dawid was a huge football fan, known all over Poland for winning nationwide football quizzes and for the mature, intelligent way he handled his plight. When Lechia weren’t playing, he often travelled to watch Real Madrid and fulfilled his dream of meeting his hero Iker Casillas shortly before he died.
There was added poignancy for the Śląsk Wrocław supporters because their team has a zgoda with Lechia. A zgoda is a form of agreement that sounds utterly bizarre to English ears. It means that the two clubs have an amicable arrangement that draws them closer together. Not quite sister clubs, but certainly much friendlier than traditional rivals. Most clubs in the Polish leagues have these agreements and often with more than one club. They started out as formal truces between rival fans to cease fighting between them; the knock-on effect being that they could then band together to fight other groups. Some of the hooligan undertones have ebbed away, but the spirit of camaraderie remains.
Śląsk’s other main zgoda is with Wisła Kraków (the ‘ł’ is pronounced like a ‘w’; the ‘w’ like a ‘v’!) and I’m caught off guard midway through the first half when the WKS fans start to sing Wisła songs. Imagine the home support at a match between Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town suddenly breaking into strains of Delilah. It’s disconcerting, but heart-warming. Śląsk had to win at Wisła to seal last season’s title and when Rok Elsner headed home the winner, the whole stadium erupted with chants of Hej Śląsk! which were kept up to the end of the match. Wisła had no chance of winning the league, so this was the next best thing for them. Especially as the hated Legia Warszawa finished third. I think it’s great, but can’t see it catching on over here somehow.
Bełchatów were torn apart down the flanks from the off. Winger Waldemar Sobota, a local boy who scored on his debut for Poland last year in a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina, raided at will down the right. He tormented the GKS left back Adrian Basta, who was guilty of drifting constantly inside to offer Sobota acres of green to attack. He did so again and again, tricking his way past his supposed marker with ease before letting himself down with scuffed centres and wildly over-hit crosses.
Midway through the first half, Sobota switched wings with Sylwester Patejuk, who further tormented Basta. The hapless left back twice gave the ball to Patejuk, whose final balls were as disappointing as Sobota’s. I have seen my team play from League One down to the Conference; Basta’s first half display was one of the most inept I’ve ever witnessed. His every pass was misplaced, his white shorts green from being repeatedly dumped on his rear. I actually felt sorry for the guy; he must have been shouting his own surname, pleading for it all to stop.
It was a fairly dull half, but Śląsk were in total control. Shots from Slovenian Elsner, Dutchman Johan Voskamp and Sebastian Mila all went close. Sobota continued to delight and frustrate in equal measure. Just as we were sagely musing on how disjointed and weak Bełchatów were, they broke away to score the opener. Miroslav Božok waltzed unhindered through midfield to set up Tomasz Wróbel for a simple chance that he eventually converted: his shot that dribbled over the line was as weak as the 0.5% beer we’d been reduced to drinking as the only option inside the stadium. Half-time. We trooped off downstairs for another pointless fix.
Which, I’m embarrassed to admit, caused us to miss the equaliser. I’m sure centre back Tomasz Jodłowiec’s early second-half goal was an absolute screamer, but the delay in getting our near-non-alcoholic pint meant that we could only reconstruct it with the aid of the cheers echoing down the concrete steps.
When we got back to our seats, one of the rolling advertising hoardings offered up a simple plea to armchair supporters: ‘Don’t sit at home, come to the match’. Unfortunately, not many had taken the advice. There were 12,700 rattling around the Miejski and although they made a surprising racket, they were well outnumbered by the 30,000 empty seats, which didn’t make for an impressive spectacle. The stadium was full once or twice last season; our tickets were less than a fiver, it’s a shame they don’t fill it more often.
Another advert on the electronic scoreboard scrolled round: a plug for the upcoming Japan v Brazil friendly due to be played at the ground in a month’s time. It was a stark reminder of football’s globalism, and how far Śląsk have come in a short time: much as I would have loved it to happen, it’s unlikely that the rickety old Oporowska would have rocked to a Samba beat as well as the passing trains.
Śląsk were better all over the pitch for the whole of the second half. Goalscorer Jodłowiec was a commanding, unruffled presence at the back, Mila dictated matters in the middle and Sobota and Patejuk continued to run their men ragged on the flanks. The winner was inevitable. Midway through the half, substitute Łukasz Gikiewicz atoned for an earlier appalling miss by neatly sliding home Mila’s excellent pass. The WKS supporters strangely responded with a reworking of Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon. Sobota and Mila missed a couple of very good chances apiece to make it 3-1 before the ref blew for full-time. Śląsk will struggle to retain their title; Bełchatów will struggle to stay up.
We trooped away from the Stadion Miejski with its fantastic transport links and its wonderful visibility and its 30,000 empty seats and its nondescript soullessness. Where were the sunflower seed sellers? Who had decreed that our beer be neutered? Even the name is bland: The Municipal Stadium. It’s not a name to set the pulse racing; it’s the sort of name generated by football games that have failed to secure an official license.
There’s a great line in a Polish poem: Najlepsze te małe kina, w rozterce i udręce. I’m sure you don’t need a translation, but here’s a rough approximation just in case: Those small cinemas are the best, for distraction and distress. Oporowska Street was the best kind of quirky arthouse cinema; Stadion Miejski is a flavourless multiplex. Us supporters are all being shepherded that way of course, like Tur Turek fans into a pen, but it doesn’t mean we can’t bleat along the way.