Two weeks back and no one could hardly believe how easy draw for Polish clubs in European competitions looked like. Teams from Sweden, Austria and Czech Republic are not among top competitors on the continent and as progression of each of four teams looked easy, there was a hope that most of them will make their way to the latter stages.
After first games we are wiser. We know that this will not happen. Four defeats, ten goals lost, one scored and not much optimism about the second legs that will be played next week. Lech was easily defeated by AIK Stockholm and, during few reports, should be happy about the scoreline. Śląsk was nowhere near the level of Swedish champions, Helsingborgs IF, as they cruised to 3-0 victory in Wrocław. Ruch was much closer to extending their chances for the revenge in Plzen, yet two late goals conceeded proved too costly for them to have hope. Legia lost in Reid and, according to their manager Jan Urban, were second best throughout the game. Late header from Ljuboja makes it possible to overcome Austrian team next Thursday.
"All our problems combined into the result of the game" - claimed Mariusz Rumak, Lech's manager. "The sleepless night we had prior to the game... but this is only the first half. We have own ambition, pride and we will put up a fight in the second leg."
"I believe in this team" - said Śląsk captain, Sebastian Mila. "The game was pretty even, but they have scored in the worst moment, when I thought we can create something positive" - Tomasz Fornalik, Ruch's manager claimed.
Only Jan Urban came out and was not afraid to say that his side's defeat was deserved, using exactly these words. He made no excuses, did not blame referee or hotel's alarm that went off in the middle of the night. Nothing like that. No wonder that only his team is regarded as the one that may still progress on to the next round of Europa League.
Now, media are full of discussions over the causes of quadruple defeat Polish export sides have suffered. For once, the discussion finally reached the finances and players' wages - just in the same day that Deloitte Poland revealed their annual report on money involved in the Ekstraklasa. The sums are not making any impression on Europe's finest leagues - for example, the combined incomes of the clubs are 29 times less than the ones in the Premier League.
Wages are high and this is hardly players' fault - they simply took advantage of clubs' willingness to raise the numbers to inadequate level, level at which it is obvious that footballers earn way too much to the qualities they offer instead. Unfortunately, even with shy and unreal proposals of introducing salary cap, this trend will not be stopped. A certain caste was created, one that, in own opinion, is blameless, innocent of continuos defeats on domestic and international stage. Football, according to Polish professionals, is something that they own, they have a key to it, the knowledge about the sport is only theirs. Whoever tries to argue with this theory is quickly grounded - the caste tryumphs again, showing its independence and different, higher status.
But Polish football does not need a financial revolution - perhaps enviromental one, the one in attitude of football people towards fans, critics and media. For years, the neglection of certain way to achieve success was preceded by conviction that only huge investments in experienced players can bring European cups and domestic glory. Wages rose to unreasonable levels, while no one even tried to do it, achieve it all, in a different way. To be an example.
That is why Polish football is in desperate need of an European and domestic success, a domination even, of Legia Warszawa.
Legia's youth - Borysiuk is congratulated by Żyro as Wolski joins them in goal celebrations
Arguably, this is the only club that is so willing to bring young players through their ranks - and for whatever reason they do it, even if they seem unable to compete on the transfer market or in offering wages at least anywhere near the average European level. Ariel Borysiuk, Michał Kucharczyk, Rafał Wolski, Michał Żyro - there is no other club in Poland that can be proud of four players with already international experience in their age. And with futher products of Legia's academy or effects of scouting network coming through the ranks and breaking into the starting line up, there is welcomed and long forgotten continuity of the work.
Polish clubs cannot dream of being something more than a feeders for bigger and wealthier opponents from stronger leagues. The trend of Polish finest talents emigrating to better clubs will only grow, especially with current attitude towards youngsters in the Ekstraklasa.
The example of such unwillingness to invest time and patience - even results - was shown in Wroclaw, after Śląsk's 0-3 defeat to Helsingborgs. First, came out Åge Hareide, Norwegian in charge of Swedish champions, former manager of Norway's national team, also footballer of Manchester City and Norwich, to name a few. He was asked about inability of Polish players to adapt to certain conditions in modern football - pace, technique, combinations... He smiled and replied, that there is too much looking back in history, that changes may come slower because of that. But, as he argued, problems are similar in Sweden and Poland - both countries have struggled in keeping top talents in domestic leagues. "From the boot room to the board, every member of the club must be aware of the challenge, patience and work that must be put in to achieve greater things" - Hareide said - "I think that this knowledge gave us an important advantage over Śląsk tonight."
Then it was Orest Lenczyk's turn. He came, disappointed about the outcome but surprisingly honest about the shortage of class of his own team that failed against Helsingborgs. As usually, on and on went his press conference, but at the end he was asked question - whether young players breaking into the squad (journalist named two, Paweł Garyga and Kamil Juraszek - both have played reasonably well against Athletic Bilbao in the Polish Masters tournament just ten days ago) will be given chance in the return leg, to gain invaluable experience for the future. "I know the difference between a player that plays football and one that kicks the thing" - was Lenczyk's response, as he openly disregarded Juraszek's impression and talent. But that was only one example of his continuos and disrespectful treatment to Śląsk's youth - even if there is truth in his statements that scouting, selection and coaching talents at the club is of poor standards.
He is expected to give them support and, possibly, a chance to prove themselves on the level above. Knowing that Orest Lenczyk is so unwilling to introduce young players to the team - Śląsk had the oldest squad while winning the championship few months ago - the hard of club workers is much harder. It is highly unlikely that any reasonable and talented footballer of young age will come to Śląsk knowing that he will not be given the chance, simple as that.
As mentioned, at Legia there might be different reasons for which young guns are given their chance. But, surely, Jan Urban is aware of the fact that Daniel Łukasik, Bartosz Żurek, Dominik Furman are talented players, worth a shot. He may be cursing the fact that he wasn't given enough resources to strengthen his squad enough before the challenges, though there is no other club that would have players stepping up in such short term. Legia is the only club that transfers talent from youth league to senior squad.
Legia can be a shining example of completely different path, one that should be followed from the start. For years, academies were regarded as unnecessary invention of the western world, while license regulations were bypassed by simply buying the rights of local youth clubs to play under club's name. To silence the league, not actually prepare own players, invest in the football base, coaching staff and time to produce decent footballers. Legia may not be different in thinking that experience will give them eventual success, but by winning anything this season - or at least achieving more than their rivals - they may show that, indeed, there is something clever in their plan. That the investment, crazy, somewhat reverse plan to the familiar one has finally paid off.
If any other club will try to copy such obvious system and introduce it on their own - Legia's success will be one for Polish football.