Wisla Krakov, Cracovia, Legia Warsaw, National Stadium, Polonia Warsaw 2004
The first leg of a trip through Central Europe saw me first stop off in Krakov and Warsaw. I had hopes of seeing games in both cities, but in the end saw neither.
In Krakov, Wisla had been drawn at home to Real Madrid. As I recall ticket prices had been put up ten-fold from normal league rates, yet the game still easily sold out. Touts were asking £100 apparently, and that was far more than I was prepared to pay.
As luck would have it, on the day of the game, there looked to be a large screen erected in the main square. Currently the screen just had an advert up, but people began taking positions in the square ready to watch the game. The closer it got to kick off though, the more obvious it was that people had been had. There was to be no screening. A company really had just erected an advert and got people to look at it for up to an hour.
All the bars were rammed, so with little option of going in one even for a drink, I had to watch the game on the tv in my hotel room.
I’d visited Wisla’s stadium a couple of days before the game, and it wasn’t hard to see why tickets were in short supply. The stadium was terrible. Two bleak uncovered stands of about 5000 blue seats faced each other across a wide pitch. One end had a temporary stand holding perhaps 1000 more seats. This was at least covered, but also had a mass of thick pillars at the front holding it up.
At the other end three tiny uncovered temporary stands had just been randomly placed in a way that made Brighton’s Withdean Stadium look impressive. Behind these, two strange structures, looking like concrete gazebos, formed an unusual gateway to the ground.
Across the park from this end, about half a mile away, is the ground of Wisla’s 2nd club, Cracovia. This ground was having some work done to it, and was a bit of a mess, but still felt more like a stadium than Wisla’s. It was clearly once a velodrome, as some of the track was still there, and the oval of the banking around the ground followed the contours of the track, rather than the usual football lines. Removing this track looked to be part of the ongoing work, but more seats were being added, and it also looked like roof supports were being put in place for this otherwise completely open arena.
It did then dawn on me that this was a building site, and unlike other grounds where gates are left open, this time I probably shouldn’t be there. One or two choice words in Polish from a workman aided me on my way after this brief stop.
Both of these grounds, as well as two of the three others I’d see in the country, have been since been redeveloped beyond recognition of their mothers. This open oval velodrome is now a fully covered rectangular stadium. Wisla’s ground is now an imposing all covered 30,000 seat venue. Neither will form any part of Euro 2012, but the Polish game, very much in the doldrums in 2004, is in the middle of a rebuilding frenzy. I guess all those Polish builders needed something to do once the work in the UK dried up.
Krakov city centre though, is as it was then, and as it has been for centuries. It’s one of the gems of Central Europe. Small, but perfectly formed.
Next up was Warsaw. Warsaw isn’t perhaps as picturesque, but then again it was completely and systematically razed to the ground by the Nazis in retaliation for the Warsaw uprising, and then rebuilt by communists, who rebuilt it with the style and verve communist architecture is famous for.
One exception is the Palace of Science and Culture, based on the seven Moscow “Wedding Cake” skyscrapers. It would be a much loved building in most cities, but in Warsaw it is a reminder of occupation.
Just over a mile east of there is Legia Warsaw’s stadium. I had planned to see a game here too, but a mistake of the UEFA website had them playing a UEFA Cup tie on this date. In reality they were playing several hundred miles away, in a different country, with the dates of each leg reversed. Not to worry. I took the chance to have a look round. While basic, it wasn’t a bad ground. You could definitely sense it being an intimidating sort of place on big games nights, not least when the fence on the far side would be ablaze with the burning scarves stolen from opposition supporters.
Three sides of the stadium were once an open oval of terracing, since converted to fading red, green and black seats. Amongst these, LEGIA was picked out in white of the far side. Grass poked through between the seats on these open sections, while anti-climb fences all round hinted at the less than friendly nature of Polish support.
The main stand was smarter. A large flat roof covered the whole of this side, much taller than the rest of the ground. Only the front section hinted that it too was a terrace until fairly recently. It was certainly the best part of the ground, but probably not the most fun part to be in.
The giraffe-like floodlights, with legs splayed, and an angled head of lights, looked down upon the field, but they wouldn’t be lighting anything up tonight. I’d have to find something else to do that evening.
Across the river was the old national stadium. Or at least what used to be a stadium. It was still there, but this giant bowl cut into earth banking, once supposedly holding 100,000 people, was now just a crumbling ruin. It was sad. I’d seen photos of it before and it looked grim in its prime, but being there you could picture how it could have been when full. But now the bench seating was all gone. Smashed and taken away. The steps were crumbling and some of the barriers has been vandalised. The pitch was still there, as were a set of goalposts, but the pitch looked severely waterlogged and in a very poor state.
The future then was uncertain. Close enough to the centre to see the skyline and be walkable, its only purpose now seemed to be to host a rather shabby market. Its days as a football stadium looked over though. That was until Euro 2012 was awarded to Poland and the Ukraine. All trace of the old stadium was removed, and a new National Stadium for Poland is rising in its place.
Legia’s ground has also been completely redeveloped too. It’s now rectangular and two-tiered, fully covered, holding 32,000. Like the two Krakov grounds, this too won’t be used for Euro 2012, but is instead just an example of the growth of Polish domestic football. By the end of next season, typical crowds should be double the level of 2004.
Last, and for once, actually least, was the ground of Polonia Warsaw. Laying just north of the reconstructed city walls, Polonia’s ground was even more basic than Wisla’s. Again, it just consisted of two banks of seats either side of the pitch and what may have once been a running track. At least here, on the far side, the seats were in the middle of rebuilding with a new roof. A thin line of terracing curving round the far goal looked a long time unused. The main stand was bigger, but completely open beyond a small propped cover for perhaps 100 people. That grounds such as this one and Wisla’s regularly hosted games in front of thousands of people seemed quite incredible. To English eyes they looked like they been long since abandoned.
Since then this ground had been tidied up a bit, but nowhere near the degree of the other four. The main stand is now fully covered with a proper roof. The opposite stand is finished now, roofed and seated, and this one will be used in Euro 2012, albeit only as a training venue.
I was hoping to revisit these grounds next summer during Euro 2012, but unfortunately of the six games I applied for, only two came through, and Donetsk and Kiev are about as far away as possible. I would like to go back to Warsaw though. Yes, much of it is ugly, but possibly because they lost so much, the reconstruction of the city centre is immaculate. And I would like to actually go to a game in the country for once, rather than nearly doing so twice.
For comparison, here are links to photos of the grounds as they are now. None of these are my pictures, so I’m linking them rather than using the photos directly.