Polish El Clásico. The rivalry of arguably two biggest clubs in Poland has been for years marked in conflicts and it is not looking like it will be over any time soon. Legia Warszawa and Lech Poznan have sets of fans that, as one of chants goes, are born to hate each other. Ahead of Saturday’s clash between eight Lech and third Legia it’s good to look at the reasons and history of the conflict.
More than three decades ago, Legia and Lech met in the 1980 Polish Cup final that was played on neutral ground in Czestochowa and almost 20 000 fans from Warszawa and Poznan came for the game. It remains uncertain who started the conflict and it is questionable whether it was the moment when it kicked off, but the whole day was not about cup final but hooligans battle, inside and outside the ground.
Communist government and militia did their best to hide the fact that hundreds were hurt and several were beaten to death that day, in probably one of the biggest hooligans battles in the eighties in Poland. Not many reports about this cup final survived the censorship standards of authorities, although there was danger of not broadcasting this game (ended in 5-0 Legia’s victory) just not show what happened off the pitch.
With poor standards of the grounds in Poland, every game between Lech and Legia was about tense atmosphere on the stands. That quickly get into fans heads and then players, for whom this has become a must-win – the pressure from terraces about getting results in this games, even though failing for the rest of the season, was and is unbearable and many times cost players sympathy of supporters. The respect for the rivals was never there.
To explain why there was no significant improvement of relationship between Legia and Lech we must look back to the early nineties, also last weekend of the 1992/1993 season – but this time it was league final round in June. The situation in the table was tense, Legia on top with just better goal difference on Łódzki Klub Sportowy and Lech in third place, counting on their mistakes to win back-to-back championship with last day miracle. The miracle happened but not necessarily in the way fans from Poznan wanted.
Lech drew with Widzew 3-3 but what happened simultaneously at stadiums in Krakow (where Legia played with Wisła) and Łódź (where ŁKS hosted Olimpia Poznan) caused huge anger among reigning champions. With goal difference being the most important that day, Legia nad ŁKS seemed to be scoring for fun in both games – whenever one team scored, the second one attacked as well and… scored. ŁKS won 7-1 with Olimpia, while Legia hit six in Krakow making title theirs. Not for long though.
When scores from Poznan and Krakow were announced at Lech’s game by the speaker, talking about great efficiency of ŁKS and Legia, one of the fans, as the legend goes, said: ‘We all know what that means’. And they were right. Although no one was caught by hand, just weeks later Polish Football Federation verified the table and Legia and ŁKS scores from the final round – points for their win were deducted, although clubs were not punished for corruption. Simply because nobody was found guilty of the obvious crime. Lech was given the championship as Legia fans grew in anger, arguing by this day that ‘title was handed to Lech not won by them’.
It is worth to take a look at Mirosław Okoński as well, Lech Poznan’s legend and gifted striker played also for Legia. He moved to Warszawa soon after that Polish Cup final, not because they paid the most but because he was called to the army and had to service in Legia, as many other footballers did before him – Legia was an army club. Lech fans were angry, as their main star was taken away from them, which caused another grow of the hate between both sets of fans, despite Okoński claiming that he actually welcomed this move as it gave him more opportunities in his career. Popular ‘Oko’ was never judged by Lech supporters of that move, he later came back to Poznan and helped them to win Polish championship in 1992 – he also was very successful during his spell in Bundesliga, once was second best player of the season (1987).
Saturday’s clash is fortunately less about emotions off the pitch, despite usually games between Legia and Lech are remembered for loud atmosphere, and more about situation both clubs found themselves in this season. Lech from the beginning is struggling and has no chance to defend title won last year, while Legia, spending huge this summer, never fulfilled the pre-season ambitions. With Wisła Krakow topping the table and unreachable for both teams in the final stages of the Ekstraklasa season, both managers are finding themselves at the hot seats.
Maciej Skorża’s Legia won just one point in their last three games, while Lech is not a happy place with Jose Mari Bakero reportedly being in conflict with their playmaker, Semir Stilić. Stilić, usually performing very well against Legia, this time is suspended but club from Warszawa should look at themselves rather than count on weaknesses in epic rivals squad.
Last time they played at new stadium in Warszawa, it was an epic match as well. High in emotions, loud on the stands, Legia have won 2-1 despite playing with ten men for most of the game, Michał Kucharczyk being the brightest star as he scored in his first performance in Polish El Clasico.
What can you expect this Saturday, except from full house at Bułgarska? Forty-thousands fans will create unique atmosphere but emotions should be also on the pitch – with as poor defence as Legia has, Artjoms Rudnevs will fancy scoring in his first game after injury, while Legia’s talents will try to expose deficiencies in Lech back line. Maybe provoke Manuel Arboleda, just as Smolarek and Sobiech did last week?
Nonetheless, this is the moment to shine, this is the moment for all twenty-two players and managers to save their season, jobs and respect among fans. Lech Poznan versus Legia Warszawa should be also in the spotlight for those seeking interest in football from Central-Eastern Europe – maybe both clubs made mistakes on their way up, but with huge money invested, large fan-base and new stadiums those teams may be soon joining European middle shelf, for so many years inaccessible for Polish clubs.