Warta Poznan has always been Poznan’s other club - smaller, rather treated with kindness but their ambitions were taken with a smile and as a dream that will never come true. While Lech got higher crowds, better players, more money from city hall, warmer reception, Warta struggled with small budget and growing debts, coming close to extinction more than once. But this winter, an unexpected savior came with a big bang and much has changed – for the better.
To be perfectly honest, there is potential in Poznan for a second club playing one league lower than Lech, especially since Warta has a good reception with the Kolejorz fans with many attending their games as well, even more so since the crowd’s favorite, Piotr Reiss, decided to finish his career playing for the Greens. He may be thirty-nine but he is still scoring for the 1st League outfit and nobody would be brave (or stupid) enough to make any comment about his age or ability to compete at this level.
But let’s get back to Warta Poznan - as mentioned, they were struggling recently to make ends meet but sadly that isn’t anything special for clubs in the same league as they were. While Lech for years gathered the biggest crowds in the country, Warta’s games were watched by 500-1000 fans. While Lech had to wait for the new stadium build not only for EURO 2012 but also to connect them with Europe, Warta had to host other teams at their ruined old ground that was an embarrassment for a city as involved in sport as Poznan. How lowly regarded Warta were could be seen in investments made by the city – Lech got millions of Zlotys, Warta barely more than thirty thousand.
A lack of training grounds, awful stadium, debts, a squad focused on survival on a daily basis rather than thinking about staying in the league, Warta was most certainly not a happy place. A place, worth mentioning, that gathered many renegades of Polish football – like Piotr Reiss who wanted to end his career at Lech but whose connections with corruption found him out of the club and straight into Warta.
There is Andrzej Bledzewski, once regarded as one of the hottest talents in Polish football, the best goalkeeper in the Ekstraklasa, but who was easily left out of Arka Gdynia squad this season. Zbigniew Zakrzewski even played and scored abroad, one of the favorites among Kolejorz crowds, but his class was quickly unwanted in the Polish top division, leaving him to find his place and scoring abilities at Poznan’s other club. Maciej Scherfen’s history is similar, as is Artur Marciniak and Krzysztof Gajtkowski. Even Warta’s current manager, Bogusław Baniak, was regarded as a firefighter, not a cup winner – this is his second spell in this club after his first one didn’t end well – he suffered a heart attack…
This season was supposed to be like every other, despite small changes – with new stadium opening, the city hall kindly agreed to let Warta play there as well but, even with improved crowds of around two thousand fans, it still looked strange at the shiny forty-two thousand capacity ground. Surviving on and off the pitch was the main goal for Warta and Baniak, despite continuous problems with the squad, chiefly its class and depth. With players unpaid for months, atmosphere like a funeral and no bright future for this family club – if it wasn’t for the surprising savior, the history of two times Polish championship winner would end with this season, along with dozens of youth groups that Warta has under its wings.
Winter was cold and dark for Warta as they struggled to find a place to train but finally they saw some chance to change this unhappy situation – exactly in the same moment when ex-model, ex-Playboy model!, Izabela Lukomska-Pyzalska decided to invest in Warta Poznan. Still beautiful and now running a modeling agency along with a development company with her husband, this was regarded as the most unexpected thing that could happen to Warta. Good thing, of course.
From the very first moment she walked into the club on high-heels, Warta’s image was changed forever. The oldest fans could not remember when was the last time their beloved club was as trending, as hot a topic as it was when Mrs Lukomska-Pyzalska took over the Greens. She paid off the debts, promised new singings, invested in the club’s facilities and pictured a welcome and bright future for all people connected with football in Poznan. She maybe doesn’t know a thing about the offside rule but she doesn’t care – this is an investment, another business and everything that was connected with football she left to those who knew all about the sport.
But one thing is to make a good impression and the other is to actually make a change. That paying off wasn’t just a single show-off or statement of intention but she really decided to work with the club on what she knew the best – media, marketing – areas up to this moment undeveloped at Warta. The difference? She announced that tickets for her club’s games at the new stadium will be completely free and everybody is welcomed to cheer them on. To encourage fans to come, she made her attractive female models work as hostesses at the match. How that worked out for Warta? Just look at their first spring game at Miejski Stadium, when 19 000 fans turned out, gates just little lower than those of Lech. The biggest crowd this season in 1st League. A crowd that many clubs should be envious of.
With the new atmosphere in the club, brighter future, the confidence is back also on the pitch. From four games played this spring, Warta won ten points and made their way out of the relegation zone – it’s worth noting that three of those matches Baniak’s squad had to play away. That single one played in Poznan that gathered such crowds was a dramatic win against GKS Katowice – fans could enjoy the game and they did everything to make them come again.
To be honest, apart from the personality of Warta’s new owner, there is nothing special at all about how the football club should be run. Taking the best examples from western companies, working miracles on marketing and media area, Warta’s image has been not only rescued but also painted in bright colors and made attractive to possible sponsors and fans. The most impressive thing though is the road that Warta took in such a short time – from a club that was in total mess and huge debt, they are now an example of how to attract fans and sponsors with interesting, fresh ideas – something that is unknown to those that have been in the game much longer than Izabela Lukomska-Pyzalska.
Where are the limits for Warta? Surely even the new owner doesn’t know this as the reputation of Poznan’s other, smaller club will not go away easily and anytime soon. As Lech and Warta enjoy a good relationship there might be more sense in some cooperation between those two than any kind of rivalry. Fans have no doubts though – they are happy with the current transformation that they could not have dream of just months ago.
Unprecedented but welcomed – Warta’s new owner has a club with one of the most attractive and colorful histories but is now devoted to the new project. With many other controversial people in charge of Polish clubs, Izabela Lukomska-Pyzalska does well to stand out – not only with her look but also her ideas for football club management.
Michał Zachodny is a freelance football writer and the editor of polishscout.blogspot.com, an intriguing look at the colourful world of Polish football.