On 3rd October, Wisława Szymborska, Polish poet and essayist was awarded Nobel Prize in Literature. On 2nd November, to the sadness of millions of viewers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were aired for the last time, ending this fascinating series. Three days later, Bill Clinton got his second term in the White House. Also the same fall, the certain drug was patented, now known worldwide as Viagra. But if the year 1996 should be remember for one thing, it is not connected with US politics, green ninjas, world’s literature or… blue pills that make people happier. On December 4th, Widzew Łódź have lost to Atletico in Madrid and that was the last time Polish team played in the group stages of Champions League.
Fifteen years on and there is yet another chance to break the deadlock. Fans may not feel as sure of themselves as they were six years ago, when Wisła Krakow faced Panathinaikos in Athens had won the first game 3-1 in Poland. It was all going more or less in the right direction, although they did not spare the nerves, leaving it late, until 78th minute for Radoslaw Sobolewski to answer the two goals Greek team have scored earlier on. Unfortunately, nine minutes later the disaster came, easy mistake from defence and goalkeeper allowed Papadopoulos to tie the score and get the game into the extra time. Six minutes from penalties, Kotzios’ strike ended the dreams and made this Polish nightmare continue for another season.
Since that game in Madrid, narrow win of Atletico over Widzew, several Polish teams have tried. Widzew had another chance the next year but failed against Parma. Then ŁKS was not enough to stop Manchester United’s march for the cup. Polonia Warszawa lost to Panathinaikos, Widzew stood no chance against Fiorentina when Wisła was suspended from European football. Legia tried twice, Lech Poznan failed last season, Zagłębie Lubin easily fell out of Champions League qualifications in 2007, while Wisła Krakow is now taking their seventh chance in last decade to make the dream come true.
Seeing how Polish teams are struggling, Michel Platini thought about helping the minnows of eastern European football to get their slice of Champions League cake. The reorganization introduced before 09/10 season already introduced MSK Zilina from Slovakia, Debreceni from Hungary and Maccabi Haifa from Israel. Seeing how clubs smaller than Polish champions, from countries that cannot be compared in terms of potential with Poland, enter arguably the most entertaining club football tournament world has ever seen, is painful. Today, Wisła Krakow will enter the pitch in Nicosia to face APOEL, Cyprian champions and they have one goal advantage from the game played in Krakow.
For many fans the current situation is close to being ‘now or never’ for Polish clubs. For years we have been looking at smaller clubs entering the Champions League and cursing at the state of domestic football. Cyprus has been one ofthe symbols of them all, Artmedia’s, Zilina’s and others, who showed us that it can be done with even less money.
It is all about money. As Bogdan Basałaj, Wisła’s chairman said lately, the possible place in the Champions’ League group stage will help them develop the whole club. Money gained from six games will allow them to invest in training base, build an academy… it seems like the whole future depends on the ninety minutes Robert Maaskant and his players will play tonight. Or maybe even more.
The holy grail for Polish football is the achievement the whole country awaits. Opening new stadiums one after another, drawing attention of footballers (once) from European top level (the likes of Ljuboja), gathering larger crowds than ever we need a success that will sustain the hope of fans that indeed, everything is going in the right direction. Once Wisła will try to capitalizing on the introduction to the European’s elite, other Polish clubs will have to invest to match them in the terms that once were put aside. Although not everyone will agree, Polish league is expanding rapidly but if there is a chance to step up the tempo, then it must be taken.
All depends on Wisła. It would be pure speculation to say that they are just one step from the Champions League glory. First game proved that their opposition is a strong one as APOEL dominated for the large spells in Krakow and had their chance. Single strike from Patryk Małecki may be not enough to win the tie and Wisła knows this. The reports from Nicosia are telling that the most valuable player of Polish side, Maor Melikson may not be ready to play for the whole game. Maaskant gambled on the last league game, introducing many replacements and resting best players but the question whether his players will survive the heat of the evening in Cyprian capital still stands.
Nobody said it would be easy, even Platini won’t give us one place in Champions League just because Zbigniew Boniek passed him the ball perfectly at few occasions during their time in Juventus. But he gave the best opportunity to challenge for it and that chance must be taken tonight. The believe is there and that’s a good start.