Ekstra-special: a football tour of Poland

Liam Scarth spent a fascinating week exploring Polish football at many levels. Here are some of his memories:

“I would start in Poznań and end in Katowice, with a one-night stop in Wrocław. Flying into Poznań and working my way down towards Upper Silesia and its metropolitan hub Katowice over the course of seven days enabled me to explore more cities and stadiums.

Lech and Warta Poznań

Arriving at Poznań Airport late Tuesday afternoon from Liverpool, we – myself and two friends – ventured into the picturesque Old Town Market Square in search of food and beer. The lively Wrocławska Street, running off the market square, is full of interesting places to eat and drink.

With a full day ahead before the midnight FlixBus to Wrocław, my itinerary took in both Lech Poznań and the great pre-war power Warta Poznań. Lech’s 43,269-capacity Stadion Miejski, is 10 minutes west of the city centre via car or tram. Lech were only offering mini-tours of their imposing stadium. Despite not visiting the trophy room or players changing rooms, the tour guides are informative and proud to showcase their club.

Founded in 1922, nicknamed the Kolejorz (Railwaymen), Lech have a strong intertwined history with the Polish State Railways. Poznań is the fifth largest city in Poland, with Lech being the fifth most successful club. The restoration and celebration of their close ties to the railways are visible around the ground, notably in the form of a monumental Communist-era steam locomotive adorning Lech’s crest.

Two-time champion of Poland, Warta Poznań, founded 10 years before Lech, have a much more complicated stadium situation than Lech’s modern home. Warta’s current home Stadion przy Drodze Dębińskiej is only used as a training facility, its original purpose when Warta played out of Stadion Edmund Syzc next door. Matches are now played at Stadion Dyskbolii in Grodzisk, an hour train journey south-west of Poznań.

The main pull of Warta, especially for Eastern Bloc nostalgists, is Stadion Edmund Syzc. Built in 1929, and home to Zieloni (The Greens) until 1998, Stadion Edmund Syzc was a showcase arena. Once home to breath-taking gatherings of socialist collective propaganda, including the Peace Race games, the stadium has now been consumed both by nature – with trees and shrubbery exploding from its forgotten terraces – as well as the scribbles of squatters and urban artists.

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Slask Wrocław

The middle stop of our mini-tour was the city of Wrocław, in Silesia, one of Central Europe’s most historically important regions. Lying on the River Oder, the city is one of Poland’s most vibrant, culture-filled metropoles with a large student population.

As in Poznań, electric scooters are available for rent, meaning you can fly through Wrocław’s cobbled arteries nearly as swiftly as a Robert Lewandowski volley, taking in Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island), Wrocław Cathedral, the Old Market Square and St Mary Magdalene Church, before retiring to one of the many eateries for a hearty plate of Silesian dumplings, complimented by a crisp pint of Piast Wrocławski.

The city’s football club Śląsk Wrocław, Polish champions in 2011-12, the inaugural season of Stadion Miejski Wrocław, are 20 minutes west of the city centre by tram.

Established in 1947 after a merger of two military schools, aptly nicknamed Wojskowi (Military), their 45,105 capacity arena, like Lech Poznań, was constructed as part of Poland’s successful bid to joint-host the 2012 European Championships. From the outside the stadium has the familiar cold, sterile aesthetics of any identikit modern arena. However, once inside the steep grandstands suggest on matchdays Śląsk can generate an electric and intimidating cacophony.

Wroclaw game day

Poland’s football heartland

After two days of visiting stadiums without seeing a ball kicked, it was time to venture into what is considered the epicentre of Polish football, for five matches over three days. Our first match was at Górnik Zabrze. Joint second with their fierce rivals Ruch Chorzów on the honours table, with 14 league championships, Górnicy (The Miners) monopolised success in the 1960s and 1980s.

With Górnik Zabrze pulling in a fanbase from every corner of the Upper Silesian region, I was eager to secure tickets for their Friday night fixture against Wisła Kraków. Górnik’s 24,563 capacity Stadion Ernesta Pohla is in the south-west of Zabzre. Our match tickets were in the south stand upper, Górnik’s ultras (Torcida) orchestrate support from the lower. Polish football doesn’t take kindly to rowdy English stag dos turning up, nor photo-happy tourists, so, it is important to respect their approach to fandom, otherwise you may encounter trouble.

Our second match was supposed to be at Polonia Bytom, unfortunately with a limited crowd of 500, I had to spend Saturday morning in my Chorzów apartment trawling the extremely useful 90minut.pl website to find an alternative game. After much deliberating, we set off to watch yet more miners, this time in the form of Górnik 09 Mysłowice. Founded in 1909 as the name suggests, the Mysłowice miners are one of Poland’s oldest clubs, located in a small town just east of Katowice.

Admission to the stadium was 5 złoty (£1), with your ticket stub also acting as a voucher for either beer or food. It is a modest stadium in a quaint leafy corner of the district, lined by trees on three sides with a modern main stand and large beer garden adjacent. The walk to Piasek is 10 minutes, allowing you to take a walking tour of the area’s industrial heritage and footballing loyalties in the form of urban art.

Due to doubling up on games, we opted for an Uber between Mysłowice and GKS Katowice. GKS Katowice’s 9,511-seater two-sided stadium is on the edge of the Silesian Culture and Recreation Park. As with Górnik Zabrze and Mysłowice’s strong links to local industry, GKS (Miners Sport Club) Katowice are no different. Founded in 1965, GieKSa have long played second fiddle to more illustrious neighbours Górnik Zabrze and Ruch Chorzów, meaning the small fanbase that they do possess is limited in numbers yet fiercely loyal.

I would recommend buying tickets in the main stand, as the views across Chorzów from the top of the stand give extra value to the already measly admission cost. The stand opposite the main stand is where the GieKSa ultras congregate, so the main stand is probably best catered for snapping photographs freely without encountering any potential trouble. A food stall to the right of the turnstiles serves locally brewed beer and wonderful kiełbasa.

Alongside, a small merchandise hut sells the usual paraphernalia as well as more niche items such as a GKS Katowice-Baník Ostrava ‘Silesian Family’ lanyards, with a hard-hat-clad miner on. The two clubs share a close friendship due to their mutual identity as Silesians.

After taking in the exciting 2-2 draw, which heated up in the dying embers with a red card and penalty equaliser for the Siedlce visitors, we headed to Katowice’s nightlife hub, Mariacki. If you want to taste the local cuisine, then I highly recommend the Silesia Roulade from Browar Mariacki: a pickled style sausage complimented by dumplings, on a bed of red cabbage, covered in a unique barbecue sauce.


Szombierki Bytom

For Sunday’s football fix we ventured to Bytom. Szombierki Bytom, are one-time Polish champions, reaching the summit in 1980. Their 20,000 capacity Stadion Szombiereki has been dramatically downsized, with grass and shrubbery consuming the oval of terracing where Szombierki supporters once stood rallying behind their team in Europe against Feyenoord, CSKA Sofia and Trabzonspor. Szombierki’s opponents were Szczakiwianka Jaworzno from the south-eastern edge of Silesia. There was no clear demarcated away sector, with the green of Szombierki and red of Szczakiwianka seemingly mixed in, and a red pyrotechnic display from the home supporters in the second-half. After a second consecutive 2-2 deadlock, we headed to the sleepy Silesian highland town of Tarnowskie Góry for the final match of the weekend.

Tarnowskie Góry can be reached from Katowice by both bus and train, the latter taking about 50 minutes. The town is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the form of a historic silver mine, however the main priority was food and football. Gwarek Tarnowskie Góry’s TS Gwarek Stadion is next door to a sports centre, which handily has a restaurant attached to the side.

Gwarek Tarnowksie Góry play in the same league as Silesian giants Ruch Chorzów, who after financial irregularities were demoted to the regionalised Liga III (fourth tier). Given the primitive facilities TS Gwarek Stadion offers in the form of an athletics track, a small modern stand in the corner of the stadium, a clubhouse with a viewing balcony, and vast swathes of predominately grass verged terracing, it is hard to envisage the crazy travelling horde of Ruch converging on the stadium. Given the weekend began in the pyrotechnic filled hooligan nest of Górnik Zabrze’s south stand, it was a nice contrast to conclude proceedings at the humble, peaceful and modest confines of Gwarek Tarnowksie Góry.

Upper Silesia is not as pleasing on the eye as Lower Silesia, with its jewel in the crown Wrocław. However, you quickly get the feel of the region, with its pertinacious working-class mentality and turbulent history of being pulled to and fro by expansive empires; only endearing Silesian loyalty ever more to the yellow eagle at the heart of their flag, instead of the white eagle of Poland. The industrial importance of the region, and its footballing culture has made Upper Silesia a groundhopping nirvana.

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This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.