Zbigniew Boniek rues Poland’s teams that have lost their soul

When Legia Warsaw welcome Rangers to their Polish Army Stadium tomorrow night, they will do so as sole flag bearers for a country whose credibility in European club football is very much on the line.

Zbigniew Boniek, president of the Polish FA, has been critical of the top  clubs in his country who have relied too heavily on foreign signings. Picture: Getty.
Zbigniew Boniek, president of the Polish FA, has been critical of the top clubs in his country who have relied too heavily on foreign signings. Picture: Getty.

If Legia fail to overcome Steven Gerrard’s side in the Europa League play-off tie, it would make it three consecutive seasons that no Polish team has reached the group stage of either of the two Uefa club competitions.

It’s a situation which has stoked the wrath of Zbigniew Boniek, widely regarded as Poland’s greatest ever footballer and now president of the Polish FA.

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Unlike his Scottish counterpart Rod Petrie, Boniek is not a man to shy away from public discourse on the state of the game.

In the aftermath of Legia’s effective but stuffy 2-0 aggregate win over Greek side Atromitos in the third qualifying round of the Europa League last week, Boniek delivered a withering assessment of the standard of Polish club football.

The nation’s three other European representatives this season have already been eliminated. Piast Gliwice, surprise champions last season when they won the Ekstraklasa title on goal difference from Legia, lost to BATE Borisov of Belarus in the first qualifying round of the Champions League then slumped to defeat on away goals against Latvian side Riga in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.

Lechia Gdansk and Cracovia, meanwhile, both lasted only one round in the Europa League qualifiers as they lost to Danish outfit Brondby and Dunajska Streda of Slovakia respectively.

Legia have proved more resilient so far, their progress through the first three qualifying rounds built on a well-drilled defence which has yet to concede a goal in the tournament. But the style of their football has attracted criticism with Boniek among those less than enthused. The former Juventus star, who played at three World Cup finals for Poland, also condemned a summer recruitment policy by Legia which was dominated by foreign signings.

“We have forgotten that a team must have a soul, concept, atmosphere, work rhythm, and not be a cluster of random people,” said Boniek.

“I looked at Legia in the match against Atromitos and from the midfield to the attack, I was not impressed by anything. How were these players, all from abroad, better than their predecessors at Legia who were able to advance to the group stage of European tournaments just a few years ago?

“Some random players land in the place of those who were allowed to leave. In football, you have to build and not always buy. Have a vision. I don’t see it in Polish clubs.

“I’m not singling out Legia here – at least they are still in Europe. But, generally, our clubs are heading towards a dead end. Their transfer policy breaks me down. The Polish transfer market is a lottery machine. They take footballers from abroad and, the next moment, they don’t know what to do with them.”

Like Rangers, Legia defeated Gibraltarian opponents in the first qualifying round with a 3-0 aggregate success over Europa FC, before a 1-0 aggregate win against Finnish club KuPS and then the victory over Atromitos which left Boniek so cold.

Among the foreign imports Boniek referred to is former Hearts winger Arvydas Novikovas, signed from Jagiellonia Bialystok for €300,000. The 28-year-old Lithuanian international, an injury doubt for the play-off against Rangers, spent four years in the second tier of German football after leaving Hearts in 2013 before moving to Poland with Jagiellonia in 2017.

Portuguese midfielder Cafu was Legia’s biggest signing of the summer, coming from Metz for €800,000, while Brazilian winger Luquinhas joined from Aves in Portugal for €400,000.

Legia coach Aleksandar 
Vukovic, a former midfielder at the club who has been in charge since April, will again look to his defence to provide the platform for success against Rangers.

A key factor in the tie could be how the Polish international central defensive duo of Igor Lewczuk and Artur Jedrzejczyk fare against the striking prowess of Rangers pair Alfredo Morelos and 
Jermain Defoe.

Under entrepreneur Dariusz Mioduski, a 55-year-old Harvard University graduate who became the sole owner of the club in 2017 after a long and fractious boardroom battle, Legia hope to reimpose themselves as a European force.

They have flirted with ultimate glory in the past. They reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1970, with a side including the brilliant Kazimierz Deyna, missing out on a final showdown against Celtic when they lost 2-0 on aggregate to eventual winners 

Legia made it to the last four of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, eliminating Aberdeen en route, where they lost to Manchester United.

During the past decade they have made four group-stage appearances – three in the Europa League, including the 2014-15 season when their 6-1 aggregate drubbing of Celtic in the Champions League qualifiers was overturned because they fielded an ineligible player, and most recently in the 2016-17 Champions League.

In that campaign they finished third in their group behind Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, before going on to lose narrowly to Ajax in the last 32 of the Europa League.

But they appear to have been in decline since then, losing to Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova in the Europa League play-off round two years ago and then suffering elimination at the hands of Dudelange of Luxembourg in the third qualifying round last season.

Rangers will hope to become the latest to bar their entry to the group stage and ensure Zbigniew Boniek has further reason to conduct the soul searching into the state of Polish football.