Underrated Leagues: The Polish Ekstraklasa

In 2018, the Polish national team qualified for the World Cup. This was no big deal considering that 31 other teams qualified, but for Poland it was huge. In 1974-1982, for three consecutive World Cups, Poland finished as one of the top five teams at the tournament. They finished 3rd two of those times. In 1974 they beat mighty Brazil 1-0 in the third-placed game after being denied a place in the final with a 1-0 loss to eventual winners West Germany. In 1982, they beat a France team that included the likes of Michel Platini and Marius Trésor to finish third after again losing in the semifinals to the eventual winners, this time Italy thanks to a brace from the late Paolo Rossi.

However, Poland’s national team quickly started to decline. They qualified for just two World Cups following their 1982 feats until 2018. They won just one game in 2018, but it is a sign of improvement and a chance for Poland to return to the glory days.

This is in no small part to the rapid rise of the Polish top tier, the Ekstraklasa. With Polish teams now fixtures in Europe, Polish players are being sold all over Europe. Bayern marksman Robert Lewandowski got his start playing for both Lech Poznan and Legia Warsaw. Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny played for Legia Warsaw’s youth team before being signed by Arsenal. Newly-signed Marseille striker Arkadiusz Milik played for Gornik Zabrze at the start of his nomadic career that has taken him to the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and now France.

Similar to my post about the Egyptian Premier League, this post will be a guide to let you know all about one of the most underrated leagues in the world.

The Favorites

Within the past twenty years of Polish soccer, only six teams have won the league. Of those six teams, only three have won the league three or more times, including twice this century. They are:

Legia Warsaw. Arguably the most well-known team in Poland, Legia have won Poland’s top tier fourteen times, with eight of those titles coming this century. They are also the four-time winners of the Polish Super Cup and nineteen-time winners of the Polish Cup, the equivalent of the FA Cup. Whilst Legia haven’t played in a European competition since 2017, they made an impression, tying Real Madrid 3-3, beating Sporting Lisbon, and finishing third in the group to gain a Europa League spot. Legia Warsaw were formed around the start of the First World War and have very close ties with the military, as they play in the Polish Army Stadium. Whilst Legia have many rivalries, one you won’t see is the Warsaw Derby. Longtime rivals Polonia Warsaw are now in the fourth tier of Poland, but there is one version of the derby you can watch. Legia Warsaw’s second team also play in the fourth tier of Poland, so you can watch the future stars of Legia play their former hated rivals.

Lech Poznan are the seven-time champions of Poland and have some of the best young talent in Europe. Last year, Manchester United sent scouts to watch Poznan winger Kamil Joźwiak, who has since signed for Derby County. Twenty-one year old midfielder Jakub Moder is already a Polish international and was bought by Brighton for $11 million. Attacking midfielder Filip Marchwinski is reportedly being scouted by AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Torino among others. However, despite a talented core, Poznan are currently 10th in the Ekstraklasa after sixteen matches.

Wisla Krakow have won the league thirteen times but have not won since 2011. Wisla are best known for their ferocious derby, the Holy War. (Sounds a lot more menacing than the Merseyside derby, no?). The Holy War is between Wisla Krakow and Cracovia. The rivalry is considered one of the most violent rivalries in Europe. In 2011, a member of Wisla Krakow’s ultra group stabbed and killed a member of Cracovia’s ultras. The rivalry has racist roots and the anti-semitism still exists today in this derby, and isn’t exactly the best of Polish soccer.

The Rest

The Ekstraklasa has sixteen teams. I can’t go into great detail for all of them or this list would be longer than Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala’s name, so here is a quick run-down:

  • Pogon Szczecin are the stunning league-leaders this season. Based in the city of Szczecin, Pogon have never won the Ekstraklasa but have looked good this season. They have only lost two matches all season and have held second-place Legia Warsaw to a draw. They could surprise.
  • Rakow are based in Częstochowa in southern Poland, and are third in the Ekstraklasa. With just four losses (to Legia Warsaw (twice), first-placed Pogon, and fifth-placed Slask Wroclaw), Rakow are gaining a lot of attention, mainly thanks to 20-year old center back Kamil Piatkowski, who was being linked with Italy’s top teams before it was announced that he will join RB Salzburg in the summer. Financially, a move for him could propel the club to the Europa League.
  • Gornik Zabrze are located in the industrial city of Zabrze. The fourteen time champions of Poland are historically one of the better teams but can no longer be considered one of Poland’s elites. Gornik haven’t won a league title since 1988 or the Polish Cup since 1972.
  • Slask Wroclaw have won two league titles but are famous for their political contributions. The supporters were some of the most active in opposing the communist government and still are one of the most patriotic teams in Poland.
  • Jagiellonia are located in Białystok and are another club founded by soldiers. Founded 100 years ago, Jagiellonia have won the league once and finished second in the Ekstraklasa back-to-back in 2017 and 2018. They also were cup runner ups in 2019, so Jagiellonia’s fortunes could be changing.
  • Zaglebie Lubin come from the small mining town of Lubin with a population of under 80,000. Despite this disadvantage, Lubin are seventh in the Ekstraklasa. An excellent defense is the reason for this, with Lubin allowing just 17 goals in 16 games. Unfortunately for Lubin, they aren’t exactly high scorers with just 18 goals. Centre-back Lorenco Simic is the team’s leading scorer, with just four goals. The Polish transfer window doesn’t end until February 24th, so Lubin still could sign a striker and contend for Europe.
  • Wisla Plock were in the third tier of Poland just eight years ago but have had a fairytale return to the first tier, finishing in the top ten three of the past five seasons. The Oilers have a rich history with three UEFA Cup appearances from 2003-2007 but have few trophies to show for it, with just one league title.
  • Lechia Gdansk have won the Ekstraklasa twice and have had an up-and-down history, reaching the sixth tier of Poland in 2001. Since then, the team from the sixth-largest city in Poland have started to recover from their financial crisis and even played in the Europa League qualifiers in 2020, narrowly losing to Brondby.
  • If you think Lechia Gdansk have a fairytale story, meet Piast Gliwice. In 2018, they avoided relegation on the final match of the season, and looked like favorites to get relegated the following season. However, thanks to star player Joel Valencia, Piast stunned the world and won the league. Unfortunately Joel Valencia was sold the following season to Brentford and is now at Piast’s rivals Legia Warsaw. They finished third last season and are currently eighth in the table.
  • Warta Poznan have won two Ekstraklasa titles. Unfortunately for Warta, they have not won a title since 1947 whilst rivals Lech Poznan have won seven since then. Fortunes are looking up for Warta, however. For the first time in 25 years they are back in Poland’s first tier after earning promotion last season. Unfortunately, they have scored just 15 goals this season and are only three points above the relegation zone.
  • Cracovia, as previously mentioned, are the other party in the Holy War. Formed in 1906, Cracovia have won five titles but not one since 1948. However, things are looking good for Cracovia too. Despite the fact Cracovia are just two points off relegation, they are this season’s winner of the Polish Super Cup and the previous season’s winner of the Polish Cup.
  • Similarly to Warta, Stal Mielec also earned promotion this season. Coming from a town with a population of 60,000, Mielec won the Ekstraklasa twice in the 1970s but haven’t won since then. Stal are last in the Ekstraklasa with just two teams scoring fewer and only one conceding more. Improvement is necessary for Mielec to stay up but they have shown potential, beating Legia Warsaw earlier in the season.
  • The team currently in last place, Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala are more than just a long name and a relegation contender. Technically founded in 1997, Podbeskidzie originated from an Austro-Hungarian team founded 90 years prior. Podbeskidzie were the third team promoted last season and are struggling this season. However, they have won some important matches, with a relegation six-pointer against Stal Mielec and a win against second-placed Legia Warsaw. They are currently second to last in the Ekstraklasa.

The Ekstraklasa is finally becoming a big exporter of talents, with eight of the top ten record departures in the Ekstraklasa coming from within five seasons. However, for the Ekstraklasa to embrace its status as one of Europe’s top leagues, they need to start spending more money. Using the youth academies are important, but the record transfer was Bartosz Slisz’s move to Legia Warsaw for $2.02 million. That was last season, before the financial repercussions of coronavirus. In comparison, the top transfer this summer was Kai Havertz’s $88 million move to Chelsea. And whilst teams don’t need to be spending ridiculous fees, they need to start spending some money to compete.

Let me know which leagues you want me to write about next!

Image Courtesy of Michał Krzycki, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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