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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

‘The hooligans were the club’: Polish football’s Pulp Fiction

Wisla Krakow’s problems were years in the making. But they started to accelerate in 2016, when the team’s longtime owner, Boguslaw Cupial, decided to sell the club

football Updated: Feb 17, 2019 20:33 IST
The New York Times
The New York Times
Myslenice, Poland
The home ground of Wisla Krakow in Krakow, Poland.
The home ground of Wisla Krakow in Krakow, Poland. (NYT)
         

The dark, uneven soil at Wisla Krakow’s training facility in this village 40 minutes south of Poland’s second largest city was frozen solid last month as a few hundred supporters trudged through the snow to greet Jakub Blaszczykowski.

Blaszczykowski, a 33-year-old midfielder, has played in some of soccer’s biggest matches, including the 2013 Champions League final as a member of Borussia Dortmund, two European championships, and a World Cup with Poland’s national team.

But on this January afternoon, Blaszczykowski was a long way from those moments. Instead, he was about to play his first exhibition game since rejoining Wisla Krakow, one of Poland’s most decorated teams. Wisla is the club Blaszczykowski made his name with, and the team he had promised to someday return to when he signed with Dortmund in 2007.

He was not returning to ease into retirement, though, or for a final payday. In fact, the opposite was true: Blaszczykowski, known as Kuba, had come home in an unusual deal in which he agreed to take virtually no money to play and to join with two Polish investors to lend the club 1.33 million zloty (about $350,000) to cover his new teammates’ unpaid wages.

The Wisla Krakow he rejoined, he knew, was in dire straits, its proud history besmirched after a series of disastrous events involving a hooligan takeover, missing money and a mysterious foreign investor who offered himself as a savior, collected the club’s ownership certificates and then — without producing even a single zloty — disappeared.

Two Sales Bring Trouble

Wisla Krakow’s problems were years in the making. But they started to accelerate in 2016, when the team’s longtime owner, Boguslaw Cupial, decided to sell the club.

Cupial had been one of Poland’s postcommunist success stories, earning millions through his cable company, Tele-Fonika. In 1997, he invested some of his fortune in Wisla, transforming the club into an eight-time league champion under his stewardship. But Cupial took a big hit in the 2008 global financial crisis and in 2016 sold the money-losing club to a local buyer.

That buyer promptly flipped the club to TS Wisla, a supporter-friendly umbrella organization that already controlled Wisla Krakow’s other sports teams. The businessman, it turned out, had no money, said Michal Trela, a reporter for Przeglad Sportowy, a Krakow sports daily. “After one month,” Trela said, “the supporters bought the club back for 1 zloty” — around 25 cents.

In an age of superrich foreign owners in soccer, a sale that actually gave fans a say in the running of their club should have been refreshing. But at Wisla, the purchase appeared to hand control to a group of soccer hooligans called the Sharks.

“Almost every club in Poland has a problem with hooligans,” said Szymon Jadczak, an investigative reporter for the Polish television network TVN. “But in Wisla, the hooligans were the club.”

The Sharks have a loud, intimidating presence at Wisla’s stadium and in 2015 a group of them made headlines when they were photographed giving the Nazi salute while in Rome to watch Roma play Lazio. Now they were calling the shots at Wisla Krakow, under the leadership of Pawel Michalski, who had served more than six years in prison for throwing a knife from the stands at an Italian player during a UEFA Cup match.

Through TS Wisla, Michalski was able to ensure that two people with close connections to the Sharks were put in charge of the club, and contracts for everything from cleaning the stadium to printing the match-day programs were signed with friends and associates at what were viewed as inflated rates. The club, Jadczak said, became a “sort of cash machine” for people connected to the Sharks’ leadership.

When questions were raised, the Wisla president installed after the Sharks’ takeover, Marzena Sarapata, held a news conference to dismiss the claims that the hooligan group effectively controlled the club. But a few months later, an arrest warrant was issued for Michalski, whom police charged with heading a criminal group and with having involvement in the drug trade. Shortly afterward, Poland’s Central Bureau of Investigation undertook a series of raids in which they arrested dozens of hooligans. Michalski left Poland.

Jadczak’s televised investigation about the takeover and mismanagement at Wisla — broadcast by TVN in September — was the last straw; the club’s top officials resigned, and the city of Krakow persuaded Poland’s soccer authorities to send any money owed to the club to the city instead, to cover unpaid rent at a city-owned stadium. Michalski was eventually arrested in Italy; he will stand trial later this year.

Sarapata did not respond to phone calls or messages from The New York Times but did give an interview to a website owned by the same Polish betting company that sponsors Wilsa and denied all the allegations.

Meanwhile, the video clips of hooligans being arrested and of searches at TS Wisla’s headquarters made finding a new investor for the club difficult. And the unpaid players merely fell into line with the other debtors.

Wisla needed a savior.

Enter a Savior, on a Budget Airline

In December, it thought it had found one. A French-Cambodian businessman named Vanna Ly, who claimed to have extensive investments in soccer clubs around the world, announced he would be purchasing 60 percent of Wisla Krakow. The rest would be owned by Noble Capital Partners, a British investment firm represented by a Swedish businessman, Mats Hartling. The deal was reported to be for 12 million zloty ($3.2 million).

Ly arrived in Krakow to watch a game and began to meet people connected to the club. Invariably, they knew little about him beyond his name and his promise to invest.

“I met Vanna Ly, he’s real, he exists,” said Rafal Wislocki, one of the few team officials untainted by association with the Sharks. “He has ID. I saw this ID. French ID.”

Ly, Wislocki and other club officials took in a 1-0 league defeat against Lech Poznan on Dec. 21. It was the last game before the winter break, and Wisla Krakow, despite the crisis, sat a creditable eighth in the 16-team Polish league.

Ly made clear that he was not impressed with the standard of play, Wislocki said, but at least sounded as if he knew how to run a soccer club. “He knew the answer when I asked difficult questions,” Wislocki said.

The purchase contract was signed, though in hindsight, team officials said, even then something was awry: Despite claiming to control millions of dollars, Ly arrived in Krakow on a budget airline, and when he was spotted leaving Krakow’s city hall after a meeting, he attempted to hide from reporters under a black umbrella.

The bulk of the money to pay off the team’s debts was due a few days later, but it never arrived. At first, Ly told Wisla officials that his phone had been stolen, preventing him from sending the cash. Later, they were told that Ly had had a heart attack on his private jet as it flew to New York.

Ly was never heard from again. Despite repeated attempts by The Times to contact him by email and by phone, he did not respond. After initially hanging up the phone, Hartling emailed a one-line reply: “Ly is a criminal who will be pursued accordingly.”

Asked about Ly in a text message, Adam Pietrowski, the player agent who had brought Hartling to Wisla and was briefly club president, replied with an emoji: a sad face with a Pinocchio nose.

By then, Wisla Krakow had bigger problems than a missing investor. European soccer’s midseason transfer window would open Jan. 1, and with the club’s license to play suspended because of its grim financial state, and with its unpaid players likely to depart, Wisla had only a few weeks to stabilize its affairs.

Wislocki, who had successfully run the team’s youth academy, was appointed club president. Blaszczykowski, out of favor at his German club, Wolfsburg, suggested he would consider a return. In January, he and the two investors he had joined forces with delivered a vital infusion of cash to cover the team’s back wages. Still, he delayed his full commitment to play until the restoration of Wisla’s license was assured.

In the end, Wisla sold eight members of its squad in January, but the payment from Blaszczykowski, as well as the promise of playing alongside a player revered in Poland, stemmed the hemorrhaging of talent.

“Kuba gives us belief that we can make this club great again,” Wislocki said.

A Revival in the Cold

A few days after his first exhibition match, Blaszczykowski trotted onto the freezing field in Myslenice again as a large crowd sung his name. If anything, it was even colder. Again Wisla lost, again by 3-2, and again a crowd gathered by the entrance to the training ground in hopes of taking a photograph with Kuba.

As the second half of that game began, word arrived that Wisla’s most urgent crisis was over: The league had restored the team’s license, allowing it to sell tickets to its remaining games. Wislocki announced that the club was selling 5 percent of its shares to fans; in less than 24 hours, the offer raised 4 million zloty (a little more than $1 million).

Blaszczykowski eventually signed his contract, although league rules prevented him from playing for free. Instead, he will donate his minimum wage of 500 zloty ($130) to a local children’s home. He finally made his league debut in a 2-0 defeat against Gornik Zabrze last week.

A new owner still needs to be found — without one, said Trela, the journalist, “it will be impossible to get a new license for next season” — but Wisla is breathing a little easier.

Its coach, former Poland international Maciej Stolarczyk, who took the job last summer, has known only chaos and financial crisis at the club. He, too, had met Ly, whose bold promises, he said, had been magnified by the Polish news media.

“They said we will be another Manchester City in Poland!” Stolarczyk said, laughing. “But I want to say the team didn’t believe everything they were told.”

His only concern now is the second half of the season. Having one of Poland’s best players is a bonus, he said, but he is acutely aware of the weight that Blaszczykowski carries.

“Everyone will be looking at him, everyone will be talking about him, and also all the rivals will try to stop him,” Stolarczyk said. “So our task is to try and protect him.”

Long after the final whistle of his first game back, Blaszczykowski did not seem to need protection. He was standing stone-faced as he signed every shirt that was handed to him and posed for every selfie.

He was why parents had brought their children out in the biting cold to press against the fence, to squint into the low winter sun. He was why Wisla fans had hope again.

“We love Kuba,” one man said. “Kuba is our hero.”

First Published: Feb 17, 2019 20:33 IST

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