What happened to Wisła Kraków? Inside the fall of a Polish juggernaut
Pep Guardiola was suitably perplexed. All around him, Kraków’s municipal football stadium quaked with giddy disbelief. Cléber, the cumbersome Brazilian defender of Wisła, the hometown team, had just crashed a header beyond Victor Valdes and into the Barcelona net. Pep’s maestros still had a 4-1 aggregate lead in the vapid Champions League qualifier, but Wisła led on the night, 1-0, as their fans celebrated vociferously. They believed anything was possible – and, in a sense, it was. There was hope in the white star, which had rarely shined so bright.
Even with the sacred quartet of Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and Pique on the field, Barça could not muster a response. Even with Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o in attack, the Catalans could not plot a route back into the game. Sure, Barça progressed to the group stages, beating Wisła comfortably over two legs, but they lost on Polish soil, where a powerhouse was emerging in the quaint second city. Wisła Kraków was a force to be reckoned with on the continental stage, and it seemed only a matter of time before this latent juggernaut realised its huge potential.
The year was 2008, and Wisła was the first team to beat Pep Guardiola as a professional football manager. More importantly, Biała Gwiazda was once again the reigning Polish champion, having hoisted a sixth title in 11 seasons just a few months before the Barça encounter. Wisła added further Ekstraklasa crowns in 2009 and 2011, before falling off a cliff. The club has never returned to those lofty heights, lurching from one crisis to the next. Today, many fans are just happy that Wisła still exists, because at many points, that seemed highly unlikely.
In this regard, I find it incredibly important to tell the crazy, chaotic and calamitous tale of how Wisła Kraków, one of the most recognisable names in European football, went from beating Barcelona to battling bankruptcy in less than a decade. This is the bizarre, bitter and brutal yarn of how a jewel of Polish football went from contemplating continental glory to pondering criminal infestation. This is the real record of what happened to a proud club on life support, and how one philanthropic superstar hopes to lead a resuscitation.
This is the story of Wisła Kraków.
Welcome to anarchy.
The militia club – A whistle-stop tour of Wisła Kraków history
Wisła Kraków was formed in 1906 when students at a local school became hooked on football thanks to Tadeusz Łopuszański, an enthusiastic professor. Though Cracovia, a crosstown rival, is widely considered to be the older club, Wisła lays claim to a proud and illustrious history laden with silverware. Named after the longest river in Poland, Wisła became domestic football champions for the first time in 1927, with a further title in 1928. This solidified the club as a legitimate contender, even if its humongous potential was never quite realised.
Of course, throughout history, Poland has resided in a state of perpetual flux, and Wisła has never been immune to such oscillations. For instance, in 1949, amid Stalinist annexation, all Polish sports clubs were stripped of their legal rights and patriotic identities. As such, in order to operate, football teams had to be sponsored by organs of the state. No club could exist as a commercial enterprise, and all sporting successes were tethered to government machinery. That caused problems for Wisła, which was fiercely proud of its independence.
Elsewhere, a phalanx of top Polish football clubs scrambled to associate with the most lucrative public industries and infrastructure. Perhaps most famously, Legia Warsaw was managed by the Polish army. Meanwhile, Lech Poznań thrived under the auspices of the Polish railway, with Górnik Zabrze capitalising on Upper Silesia’s rich mining tradition.
Wisła first intended to cooperate with the railway, but was beaten to the punch by Lech. Rather than serve as a backup option – as Śląsk Wrocław did with the military – Wisła sought alternative support, and was eventually subsumed by the Gwardia, a kind of secret police force that roamed Polish society. As per communist custom, Wisła adopted a new name, operating as Gwardia Kraków for a short period while subordinate to the Ministry of Public Security. The grand Wisła identity was duly smothered.
In practical terms, the Gwardia included The Citizens’ Militia and the Security Office, bodies concerned with protecting state power through means of surveillance, repression and brutalist intervention. Many Wisła fans still bristle at this association, viewing it as oxymoronic compared to the club’s founding ethos of self-development. Indeed, the forefathers of Wisła Kraków were enmeshed in the local intelligentsia, often analogous with the underground anti-communist movement. Thus, the loss of Wisła to socialist attachés was galling for many diehards, who had little choice in the matter.
By 1954, control of the Gwardia – and, by extension, autonomy over its satellite football team – was transferred to the Ministry of the Interior. So-called militiamen – spies, investigators, judges, policemen, border agents and civic bureaucrats – worked their way into managerial positions within the football function, filling the role of Wisła president ex officio. Generally, then, those who ran Wisła had little sporting acumen. Adding football to their duties was akin to a promotion in socialist parlance, and one needed to inherit dead men’s shoes to earn a seat on the Wisła board.
The club’s founding fathers – arranged as Towarzystwo Sportowe Wisła, or TS Wisła, an ostensible supporters’ society – maintained a shadowy presence at activist level, but the Ministry of the Interior was responsible for all funding and managerial decisions. Seen as a relic of the club’s genesis, TS Wisła had no official involvement in day-to-day operations, but the group did volunteer with youth teams informally, maintaining its staunch bloodline, and such loyalty proved pivotal as time wore on.
Paradoxically, competitive balance in Polish football was heavily skewed by the communist patronage of teams, with success depending to a large extent on the wealth and interest of the respective state agency with which a club was aligned. The best players from military-backed clubs were always funnelled to Legia, for instance, while Górnik Zabrze was propelled to six Ekstraklasa titles during the 1960s by ambitious backers. Wisła had mixed fortunes during its militia association, winning three straight national championship between 1949 and 1951 before succumbing to a humiliating relegation in 1965. Hardcore fans could barely believe their eyes.
Indeed, by the 1970s, Ministry interest in, and influence over, Wisła had waned considerably. The state accounted for just a quarter of the club’s funding by that point, with the rest generated through events and attendance revenues. Wisła moved towards self-sustainability, in other words, boding well for the future decentralisation of Polish football. However, the club also became defined by inconsistency, winning a further Ekstraklasa title in 1978 and reaching the European Cup quarter-finals a year later, only to suffer another relegation in 1985. The topsy-turvy DNA of Wisła was duly instilled, and there was no turning back.
Of course, by that point, change was afoot in Poland, as the underground revolutionary movement began to organise in opposition to the communist government. Led by charismatic dissident Lech Wałęsa, protests, strikes and rallies became more common as unions sought liberation. Polish football clubs became fertile breeding grounds for the anti-establishment zeitgeist, which eventually morphed into all-out revolution. Meanwhile, Wisła just tried to weather the storm.
The fall of Polish communism, Piotr Voigt, Piotr Skrobowski and transformation of Wisła Kraków into a limited company
In Poland, this epochal thawing of Soviet dominance culminated in the 1989 legalisation of Solidarity, the trade union headed by Wałęsa that became a metonym for independence. Attempting to defuse mounting unrest, the Polish government met with opposition groups in Warsaw, with the resulting Round Table Agreement paving the way for parliamentary elections. Solidarity won in a landslide at the ballot box, and by 1990, Wałęsa was named president of a modern republic. Democracy was installed soon thereafter, completing Poland’s transition from communist outpost to progressive hub. The change was remarkable.
Led by economist Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland pivoted sharply from a financial system based on state ownership and central planning to a capitalist market economy more consistent with Western dogma. Referred to as ‘shock therapy,’ the economic plan abolished preferential laws on debt and credit for state-owned companies and opened Poland to foreign investment. Private enterprise was encouraged, diminishing governmental oversight in all aspects of business.
Naturally, these reforms also extended to football, with clubs no longer shackled to state departments. In 1990, TS Wisła regained control of Wisła Kraków, which became a self-sustained club in its own right. A bleak financial situation worsened as the 1990s wore on, however, to the point where Piotr Voigt, a local optician, was asked to step in as an influential sponsor.
The son of a former Wisła executive, Voigt amassed a large fortune manufacturing contact lenses, a nascent market devoid of serious competition in Poland. Once ranked among the 100 richest Poles by Wprost, a leading magazine, Voigt was duly ushered onto the TS Wisła board, wielding control commensurate to his major investment.
It later transpired that Voigt used his personal wealth to keep Wisła solvent in the early days of Polish capitalism, racking up huge debts while paying wages and other expenses singlehandedly. The benefactor promised a championship but could not deliver, and his reign ended in predictable anarchy.
On the final day of the 1992-93 Ekstraklasa season, Wisła was mired in mid-table mediocrity, but still played an influential role in deciding a controversial championship. Entering the final round of fixtures, Legia was joint-top with ŁKS Łódź, although the Warsaw club had a three-goal advantage in goal difference. Meanwhile, Lech Poznań entered the last round in third place, just one point behind the leaders, but with a much better goal difference. The margins of success could barely have been thinner.
Lech hosted Widzew Łódź on the last day; ŁKS faced already-relegated Olimpia Poznań; and Legia travelled to play Wisła in Kraków. Motivated by a deep dislike of Legia, Voigt promised his players significant bonuses if they won the much-hyped fixture, thwarting Legia in the process. Alas, Wisła lost 6-0 on their own ground, leading fans to protest vehemently, encouraging their players to walk off the field. Meanwhile, in Łódź, ŁKS won 7-1, fuelling conspiracies of match-fixing and high-level corruption.
As Voigt received death threats for his perceived role in the scandal, allowing Legia to win the title in suspicious circumstances, UEFA demanded a formal investigation into the unusual events. After weeks of handwringing, propaganda and postulation, the Polish football authorities eventually cancelled the inflated victories of Legia and ŁKS – despite a lack of evidence pointing to wrongdoing – and declared Lech champions by virtue of goal difference. Polish clubs were subsequently banned from participating in UEFA competitions for a season, while Wisła received a three-point penalty with which to start the subsequent campaign.
By that point, the writing was on the wall for Voigt, who was the target of a bomb scare as his reputation fell apart. Devoid of central funding, and with the scandal rumbling on, Wisła suffered the shame of relegation yet again in 1994, failing to recover from the public disgrace. At that point, despite all of his unsung generosity, Voigt was hounded out of Kraków, teetering on the brink of personal bankruptcy, as new owners were sought for Wisła. Owners who could revive the club and transform it into a modern force.
In the first instance, that task fell to Piotr Skrobowski, a former Wisła player who later ran a successful pizzeria chain while also investing in a brokerage house. Never the richest entrepreneur, Skrobowski drew investment from the Regional Cooperation Bank and Realbud – a construction company – to purchase Wisła. A limited liability company was formed as an engine of commercial progress, and that helped re-establish Wisła as a top tier club. However, the syndicate soon ran out of cash, necessitating yet another intervention. That one worked, to a greater or lesser extent, and it helped make Wisła a household name around the world.
Bogusław Cupiał, Tele-Fonika and the golden age of Wisła Kraków
Indeed, by the autumn of 1997, Wisła was still considered a sleeping giant of Polish football – full of incredible potential, yet lacking the vision and resource to make it reality. The club was without a national championship in 20 years, with just one solitary title in the past 45 seasons. Still, as Poland emerged as a capitalist project, owning sports clubs became a tantalising proposition, and with its illustrious heritage and large fanbase, Wisła was particularly appealing to nascent magnates. There was a sense of inevitability about the club’s corporate transformation. Somebody was always going to take a gamble on such an exciting prospect.
Ultimately, that somebody was Bogusław Cupiał, a reclusive billionaire who owned Tele-Fonika Kable SA, a successful manufacturer of cables and wires. Directed by Cupiał, Stanisław Ziętek and Zbigniew Urban, Tele-Fonika bought 95% of Wisła for 2.4 million PLN in 1997. The consortium paid off all club debts and established Wisła Kraków SA, a joint-stock company. Cupiał owned 10,600 of the initial shares, with Urban holding 3,200 and TS Wisła maintaining 1,500 for symbolic purposes. As part of the deal, TS Wisła was given the right of first refusal should Tele-Fonika wish to sell its stake at any point in the future – an important detail that had major ramifications down the line.
Before things turned sour, though, Tele-Fonika funded a halcyon period in Wisła history. Operating under a risky benefactor model that relied on Cupiał pumping funds into the club’s coffers, Wisła increased expenditure and revamped its squad. Promising coach Franciszek Smuda was hired, and he led Biała Gwiazda back to greatness with an Ekstraklasa title in 1999. For the first time in more than two decades, Wisła was champion of Poland, and this was a portent of glory to come.
Still, as one of the first great post-communist success stories of a revitalised Polish economy, Cupiał always wanted more. In his first 13 years as Wisła owner, the club won eight Ekstraklasa titles, including a rare threepeat and two domestic doubles. Nevertheless, Cupiał yearned to see his team compete in Europe, as well, and failure to do so saw numerous managers – including Smuda and Dan Petrescu, most notably – fired despite overseeing national hegemony.
In this regard, Tele-Fonika was somewhat myopic in its management of Wisła, failing to invest in the type of elite academy that made large clubs more sustainable. Moreover, the club lacked a cohesive philosophy under Cupiał’s distanced aegis. A group of intermediaries and functionaries was tasked with running Wisła at a granular level, creating a vacuum where the club’s undergirding ethos should have been. Meanwhile, on the field, frequent changes of coach gave Wisła’s success a rather disjointed veneer.
Indeed, Cupiał was one of the richest Poles of all-time, with a net worth exceeding 5 billion PLN at its zenith, but his investment in Wisła often lacked strategic direction. After each title win, Wisła typically rebuilt on the fly, with Cupiał selling players nonsensically, only to replace them with cheaper alternatives. Such persistent meddling rarely derailed the club domestically, but the instability thwarted Wisła as a continental force. They were very good, but they were never great, and that perplexed Cupiał, an enigmatic dreamer who became addicted to footballing experimentation.
It was telling that, even as Polish football evolved into a true golden phase, few of the leading protagonists were schooled by Wisła. Robert Lewandowski flourished at Lech Poznań after rising through the lower leagues. Kamil Glik emerged at Piast Gliwice following a similar ascent. And Wojciech Szczęsny came through the ranks at Legia. More pertinently, a phalanx of top Polish players – including Grzegorz Krychowiak, Łukasz Piszczek and Ludovic Obraniak – developed overseas. Jakub Błaszczykowski starred at Wisła early in his career, but even he had spells with Raków Częstochowa, Górnik Zabrze and KS Częstochowa before arriving in Kraków. By comparison, then, Wisła was an underproductive organisation, and that homegrown profligacy came back to haunt the club when it later hungered for a more efficient model.
Stan Valckx and the dawn of short-termism at Wisła Kraków
Lurking in the background, Cupiał eventually ceded day-to-day autonomy at Wisła to favoured executives, breeding a culture of complacency and nepotism that eventually derailed the club. Bogdan Basałaj was a successful club president between 2000 and 2004, but he eventually left Wisła to become managing director of the Ekstraklasa. Wisła struggled to fill that void, yet Cupiał’s serial investment maintained their status as the alpha dogs of Polish football. There was an air of impermanence to their success, though, and that transient identity was embodied by the incoming director of football hired in August 2010.
Stan Valckx was a football pariah when Wisła offered him a ticket back from the wilderness. A former Dutch international player, Valckx became technical director at PSV following his retirement. However, after leading the Eindhoven giants to much success, Valckx became embroiled in a civil war with Jan Reker, the club’s powerful general manager. According to Reker, Valckx harboured an unsavoury relationship with player agent Vlado Lemić, who facilitated a number of key transfers at PSV. Mateja Kežman, Jefferson Farfán and Heurelho Gomes were among the Lemić cohort in Eindhoven, and Reker grew suspicious of the quirky deals that brought them to PSV.
Before long, Valckx ushered Lemić into the inner sanctum of PSV, where the agent exerted unusual power for somebody not contracted to the club. Reker resented Lemić’s unspecified role in Eindhoven, sparking an ugly confrontation that eventually cost Valckx his job. Though no wrongdoing was ever definitively proved, Reker contended that Valckx and Lemić had pocketed profits from club transfers while also influencing team selection for unscrupulous ends, creating divisions within the squad. PSV fired Valckx and banned Lemić from club premises as the contagion spread far and wide.
Valckx has always protested his innocence, while Reker’s own tenure in Eindhoven ended acrimoniously, so these tales should be taken with a pinch of salt. “I gave up my confidence in Reker, then he started insinuating things about me,” said Valckx in a 2018 interview with PSV Inside, a leading fanzine. “He deliberately smeared me and I will never forgive him. He is the only man I do not shake hands with after 35 years in professional football.”
Regardless of what actually transpired at PSV, Valckx was seemingly blacklisted in European football circles, banished to Shanghai Shenhua in China, only for Cupiał and Wisła to come calling with an offer. Cupiał wanted to win, and Valckx had the contacts to make it happen.
“We must remember that our effort will be a group effort,” said Valckx at an introductory press conference. “Nobody will be able to build anything without the right players and the commitment that they all work as one team, as one family. Without it, success will be impossible, and I am very hungry for success.” Ah, the irony.
Taking a short-term approach in an uncertain football economy, Valckx sold a number of Wisła mainstays and replaced them with older veterans who knew how to win but who also presented very little financial upside for the club, in terms of salary efficiencies and resale values. For instance, Paweł Brożek, a prolific striker, was sold to Trabzonspor after 12 years at Wisła. His replacement, Maor Melikson, scored just 10 goals for Wisła after signing a four-and-a-half-year contract. Elsewhere, journeymen such as Serge Branco and Michael Lamey offered very little in Kraków. In this regard, under Valckx’ command, underwritten by Cupiał’s largesse, Wisła lived for today while forgetting about tomorrow. Crisis brewed on the horizon, as the club sleepwalked to disaster.
How the loss of European football caused a financial crisis at Wisła Kraków
In the first 13 seasons of Cupiał’s ownership, Wisła finished outside the top three only once. On eight occasions, they won the league. However, in the fourteenth campaign, 2011-12, the wheels fell off, and a seventh-place finish left Wisła without European football for just the second time since 1997.
Wisła were reigning champions that year, and many pundits tipped them to win another Ekstraklasa title. Nevertheless, persistent injuries and three changes of coach saw the club struggle for momentum. Śląsk upset the odds to win the Polish championship, clinching the title on Wisła’s turf. Kraków is still awaiting its next taste of champagne.
Lulled into a false sense of security, and lacking more pessimistic colleagues to moderate his ambition, Valckx was guilty of trying to reinforce the Wisła squad by bringing in more veterans – such as Marko Jovanović and Dudu Biton – on bigger wages. The club’s annual wage bill soared, with key powerbrokers hoping Wisła performed well in Europe, filling the fiscal chasm with prize money. When that did not happen, Wisła was swiftly found to be massively overleveraged, resulting in financial disharmony that rocked the club’s foundation.
Continental competition was almost viewed as an automatic right in Kraków, and Wisła’s budgetary model considered it a clichéd constant. The Champions League was always a tough nut to crack, but Wisła typically performed well in the UEFA Cup and its rebranded Europa League alias. In addition to the aforementioned triumph over Barcelona, Biała Gwiazda beat Parma, Schalke, Hajduk Split, Basel and Fulham over the years, putting a pin in the football map. More pertinently, Wisła routinely earned upwards of €2 million per year from their participation in UEFA competitions – a small fortune for Polish clubs mired in austerity. When that revenue stream dried up, the club was plunged into a state of fiscal shock.
Of course, Poland’s hosting of UEFA Euro 2012 was seen as a promised financial elixir for struggling domestic clubs, with new stadiums and increased interest set to boost commercial revenues. However, in truth, much of that additional income was used to make the national team more productive, at the expense of Poland’s grassroots game. Most Ekstraklasa clubs ran up annual operating losses, while a general lack of investment saw the league frequently lose its best players to clubs in Turkey, Holland, Belgium and Russia – not even England, Germany, France and Spain.
Adding to this dilemma, Wisła also faced increased competition at home, especially from Warsaw, where Legia emerged as a dominant force, winning five national titles in the 2010s. Moreover, each season, the UEFA bounties seemed to increase, with fewer Polish clubs benefitting from the associated windfall. From 2012 through 2021, for instance, Legia earned almost €20 million by participating in the Champions League and Europa League. By comparison, Wisła never earned a single grosz in that area, creating a chasm in the domestic transfer market that left Kraków far behind.
Other Polish clubs came forth to challenge Legia, with even the slightest iota of financial acumen giving anybody a fighting chance. Lech sold Lewandowksi to Borussia Dortmund for €4.5 million, then later won a title after reinvesting chunks of the money. Śląsk inherited a 45,000-seater stadium after the Euros and began to think like a big club. Even Piast figured out how to win a championship with meagre resources, while Wisła receded into obscurity.
Biała Gwiazda finished seventh in 2013, followed by two fifth-place showings thereafter. After returning briefly as president, Bogdan Basałaj resigned, and Valckx left for VVV Venlo in 2014. A string of under-qualified managers lasted three or four months, on average, before being chased out of town. While Valckx undoubtedly improved the club’s scouting network and recruitment processes, there was never enough liquidity to spark a Wisła revival, and fan protests became a common occurrence. There was no cogent vision for how this football club wanted to operate, and so it meandered on – falling, helplessly, from one ignominious episode to another.
The fall of Tele-Fonika and the sale of a debt-ridden Wisła
Yielding to such financial pressure, Polish football clubs have long been prone to chaos and entropy. In the past decade, prestigious institutions such as Widzew Łódź, ŁKS Łódź and Polonia Warsaw have all gone bust and started again in the lower divisions, characterised by caged away ends and weed-infested terraces. A lack of entrepreneurial vision plagues the Polish game, which has struggled to emerge from its communist patronage. Clubs are routinely mismanaged and underfunded, resulting in unsustainable situations that leave fans heartbroken and disenfranchised. Wisła Kraków was exposed to that faltering economy.
Indeed, though turbocharged by the loss of income from participation in UEFA competitions, the club’s monetary struggles can be traced to the late-2000s, when Tele-Fonika took a major hit amid the global financial crisis. With exports down by around 45%, Tele-Fonika made a number of job cuts, hoping to weather the storm. This did not bode well for Wisła, whose budget was also slashed considerably.
Wprost suggests Cupiał lost around 3 billion PLN in the economic downturn. Determining the accuracy of such estimates is difficult, but Cupiał did tire of funding Wisła, which became a burdensome drain on his static empire. The owner stopped appearing at Wisła matches and declined to even meet some of the coaches hired to oversee his team. Once a fine visionary, Cupiał ran out of passion for football, and Wisła’s golden age came to a shuddering halt.
Word soon spread that Cupiał wanted out, and in the summer of 2016, he sold Wisła for 4.7 million PLN to a consortium headed by insurance magnate Jakub Meresiński and – somewhat strangely – former Cracovia midfielder Marek Citko. According to reports, Meresiński and Citko only turned to Wisła after failing to buy Korona Kielce, another faltering club, due to a lack of funds. Apparently, that did not set off alarm bells in Wisła HQ, where Cupiał wanted out.
Of course, in addition to owning the club, Tele-Fonika was also a major sponsor of Wisła. Indeed, for many years, this had been a covert tactic deployed by Cupiał to nourish the club without impacting his own bottom line. The dispersal of shares presaged a thawing of commercial sponsorship, as well, leaving major holes in the Wisła budget. The club had already made a loss every year since at least 2011, and by the time Cupiał left the picture in 2016, Wisła faced financial liabilities of 129 million PLN, by far the most of any Ekstraklasa club. Meresiński and Citko had bought a grand old name, but a horror show lurked behind the headline brand.
Falsified records, money laundering and tax fraud – The chaotic 24-day reign of Jakub Meresiński at Wisła Kraków
Somewhat predictably, Meresiński was never transparent about his plans for Wisła. To wit, he did not appear to have any. By all accounts, Meresiński was a shady character who lacked morality. He was once found guilty of falsifying high school records on a university application, for instance, while allegations of money laundering and tax fraud were analogous with his rise up the corporate ladder. Furthermore, Meresiński inherited severe wage arrears at Wisła, which became the focus of scrutiny from local government officials and the leaders of Polish football. The situation became dire.
To that end, Citko quit within three weeks of taking the reins at Wisła, citing chronic deception by Meresiński as rationale. This led to further scrutiny by the prosecutor’s office in Częstochowa, which uncovered tax fraud on a massive scale by the businessman and his associates. According to the prosecutor, Meresiński established a slew of fake entities in Poland, England and the Czech Republic, through which fictitious invoices were filtered, defrauding the state treasury on a mass scale.
Amid the furore, Tele-Fonika was forced to release a statement, defending its decision to strike a deal with Meresiński. “We had no knowledge or suspicion that Jakub Meresiński was a person who could have problems with the law,” said the former ownership group. “The documents available to us clearly showed that he was entitled to effectively represent the buyer.”
Nevertheless, Meresiński clearly lacked the resources to own or operate an Ekstraklasa football club, and his escape options diminished with each passing hour. Seeking an opportunity to reassert itself, TS Wisła, the aforementioned organ of fan control, entered takeover negotiations with Meresiński – less than a month after he took charge. A deal was swiftly agreed, with TS Wisła reassuming total control just 24 days after Meresiński’s ascension.
As the implied guardians of Wisła’s non-commercial powerbase, descended from the club’s founding mission as a means of student recreation, TS Wisła still owned – or, more accurately, moderated – other club elements, such as those concerned with basketball, volleyball and gymnastics. The football team was folded back into that portfolio for 1 PLN – or 18p. In effect, then, a packet of Paluszki twiglets cost triple the price of the 14-time Polish football champions. The mind began to boggle.
Reports soon began to circulate of wider criminality involving Meresiński, who was accused of stealing 500,000 PLN from Wisła accounts. Kraków investigators launched a formal probe into Meresiński, seeking to ascertain the true extent of his dodgy dealings. The disgraced former owner was subsequently arrested by Silesian police on suspicion of fraud during the Wisła takeover process. Meresiński admitted using false bank guarantees to expedite negotiations with Tele-Fonika, and he was duly banned from leaving Poland.
Meanwhile, confusion mounted as to who even controlled Wisła during this fiasco, as fans prepared for the worst, discussing plans to reform the club in the fourth division should it be liquidated. Tele-Fonika claimed its sales agreement with Meresiński contained a 40 million PLN voluntary sales clause, which would automatically ratify a sale if triggered by new investors. Moreover, with Meresiński deposed, Tele-Fonika claimed power of attorney over Wisła while attempting to broker another sale – for the convenient sum of 40 million PLN – to Stechert, a German manufacturing firm that subsequently declared bankruptcy. In turn, TS Wisła refused to acknowledge Tele-Fonika as the club’s patron, kiboshing any attempt to transfer power.
It was difficult for mainstream supporters to envision a more defective ownership regime, but worse was yet to come – somewhat remarkably. Indeed, when all was said and done, neither Meresiński nor Cupiał would rank as the worst Wisła owner of this tumultuous epoch. In fact, compared to what came next, they were relatively tame in terms of contribution. TS Wisła proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as the soap opera rumbled on. Wisła edged closer than ever to capitulation, with little hope of transformation.
How a notorious gang of football hooligans infiltrated – and ran – Wisła Kraków
While fan involvement is often lauded as a paragon of football club ownership, that is not always the case in Poland, and certainly not in Kraków. You see, as unveiled by brave investigative journalists, TS Wisła was deeply aligned with - if not totally infested by - the Sharks, a notorious hooligan firm of ultras. At best, TS Wisła was too weak to deal with this violent faction. At worst, TS Wisła was in league with the hooligans, allowing them to use football as a front to deal drugs and launder money. Either way, the actual football team of Wisła Kraków suffered as a result of this sickening symbiosis, with unpaid wages and demotivated players combining with rent arrears at the city-owned stadium to create a cauldron of anarchy.
In this regard, Poland has struggled to deal with football hooliganism for generations. Unlike other countries, however, a culture of extreme violence is incubated on Polish terraces, with weapons and organised battles a staple of many jousts. The so-called Holy War between Wisła and Cracovia – diametrically opposed clubs separated by just 700 metres in the district of Krowodrza – has even featured in documentaries by Ross Kemp and Danny Dyer, almost certifying it as a magnet for nutcase urchins. Now just imagine those people running a football club, and you have a pretty accurate portrayal of Wisła Kraków between 2016 and 2018. In other words, complete and utter bedlam.
Though such malleable concepts can be difficult to quantify, the Sharks are known to harbour right-wing political beliefs, while more hard-line sections of the group have long engaged in criminality. In 2015, for instance, several Sharks were pictured giving Nazi salutes at a Lazio-Roma match, which they attended as guests of the Irriducibili, a group of Lazio ultras described as ‘neofascist’ in a 2020 GQ feature. Meanwhile, a simple Google Image search yields several photos of Nazi paraphernalia linked to the Sharks, who adhere to a complex worldview.
Paweł Michalski, the Sharks’ leader, once served more than six years in prison for throwing a knife from the stands at Dino Baggio during a UEFA Cup match between Wisła and Parma in 1998. Upon his release, Michalski yearned for vengeance, seeking to transform the Sharks into a highly efficient gang. The cartel was duly imbued with sinister intentions, culminating in the savage murder of a prominent Cracovia hooligan known as Tomasz C. The Cracovia ultra was stabbed 64 times with machetes, knives and pitchforks, illustrating the murky depths of Polish hooliganism.
To wit, the Wisła Sharks were much more than a football gang. Led by Michalski, the group embraced nihilism in society, as in the stadium, according to collated testimony. Many Sharks shunned formal employment, surviving through various shades of criminality. Prominent case files have linked the Sharks to theft, arson, robbery and torture, among other offences. A culture of drug dealing also dominated the clique, which struck fear into the heart of everyday civilians throughout Kraków.
As detailed in later accounts, by 2016, Michalski used his clout to infiltrate TS Wisła, which was duly oppressed by the hooligans. Michalski ran a gym at Henryka Reymana Stadium, operating with impunity while turning Wisła Kraków – once the Sharks’ greatest passion – into a mercenary cash cow for its duplicitous leaders. The Sharks even trained for street brawls at the gym, using club premises for nefarious ends. Michalski paid a ridiculously low rental fee on the gym space, which helmed a martial arts section officially tethered to TS Wisła. Through that pipeline, Michalski ensured that functionaries sympathetic to the Sharks – such as Marzena Sarapata, a lawyer who once represented Michalski – were put in charge of the football branch, allowing the hooligans to run it by proxy.
Elected to the TS Wisła board as a delegate of the martial arts section, Sarapata was eventually made club president, and such a role allowed her to award supplier contracts – for cleaning the stadium, printing matchday programmes and other ancillary tasks – to the friends of senior Sharks at inflated rates. Moreover, when Michalski and other protagonists were eventually convicted, Wisła guaranteed them employment upon release from prison, satisfying parole conditions. Meanwhile, the Sharks were believed to have free reign of the VIP suites on Wisła matchdays while commandeering club stores, adding to the incestuous relationship.
Digging deeper, Robert Szymański, a long-time leader in the Wisła fan community, was a key advocate of the club returning to supporter control through TS Wisła. Indeed, Szymański acted as an enthusiastic agent of the takeover, despite being charged with VAT fraud, money laundering and participation in a criminal organisation during the course of his private business affairs. He later served as a vice president in the new Wisła regime, wielding unusual control before being fired unceremoniously. Such absurdities became common at Wisła, which was slowly consumed by a toxic culture.
Elsewhere, Damian Dukat, another Wisła vice president, previously managed Michalski’s gym, helping to coordinate Shark activities. When Wisła fans were once banned from attending a match against Ruch Chorzów, Dukat participated in the hurling of flares, firecrackers and smoke bombs over the stadium walls, according to historic social media posts. The press also linked him to brawls and confrontations, developing a sinister reputation on the terraces before transitioning to the boardroom.
In this respect, then, highly-trained hooligans formed part of the body responsible for driving Wisła Kraków forward. It became increasingly difficult to separate criminal cells from the club’s managerial infrastructure, as shame and scandal reigned supreme. Genuine fans were threatened or ignored, creating conditions ripe for civil war. It would be difficult to replicate such a scenario anywhere else in world football, as Wisła attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Drug deals, kidnappings and police raids – How scandal engulfed the Wisła Kraków Sharks, leaving their club on the brink of homelessness
According to Goal, during Sarapata’s two-year reign as Wisła president, the club’s debt quadrupled as board members took inflated salaries and players went unpaid for prolonged periods. Wisła managed to finish fifth in the 2016-17 season, somewhat remarkably, but subsequently plummeted down the Ekstraklasa table amid frequent managerial changes and chronic underinvestment.
Facing increased pressure, Sarapata was forced to hold impromptu press conferences, during which she downplayed links between the Wisła board and its feared hooligans. Nevertheless, when Krzysztof Michalski, Pawel’s younger brother, was sentenced to 7 years and 2 months in prison for gang-related crimes – including drug trafficking, arson, assault and extortion – investigations continued in the background. An arrest warrant was issued for Pawel Michalski, who police charged with leading a criminal organisation and similar drug offences.
The crisis deepened in September 2018, when Szymon Jadczak, a TVN journalist, uncovered the true extent of Wisła’s destruction. After months spent undercover, Jadczak produced a documentary that aired on free-to-air television, shocking Poland to its core. The film depicted a mafia-type organisation that infested Wisła at every level, while also accusing state officials and local lawmakers of convenient inertia and gross duplicity.
According to materials unearthed by Jadczak, Wisła employed a number of convicted gangsters, including one who participated in the aforementioned Cracovia fan murder. Jadczak later published a book about the fiasco, and his extraordinary work liberated much of the drama that is now common knowledge. This article would not be possible without his incredible efforts.
Needless to say, club powerbrokers were furious with the documentary, which fascinated talk radio shows and dominated nightly news for weeks. “The film material broadcast on the TVN 24 station in the Superwizjer program on September 15, 2018, devoted to Wisła Kraków, contains harmful and unfounded allegations of alleged links between Wisła and the criminal world,” read a statement from TS Wisła. “There are no such relationships and never have been. We urge you to stop repeating the obvious untruths about Wisła Kraków and shifting the responsibility for unfulfilled acts onto our shoulders. We did not have and do not have any connection with the criminal world.”
Dukat, the aforementioned flamethrower turned board member, was particularly vociferous in disputing the TVN reporting. “In my whole life, I never hit anyone,” he said in an interview with Wirtualna Polska. “I’m neither dangerous nor a wanted criminal. I do not have any charges or sentences.” Still, Dukat mysteriously resigned a few weeks before the explosive documentary aired, perhaps after receiving a primer from TVN as to its damaging content.
Despite many protagonists threatening legal action for slander and defamation in this manner, no such lawsuits were successful. Few - if any - were even pursued. Moreover, three days after the TVN documentary aired, Paweł Gieras, vice-chair of the TS Wisła council, resigned from his position, promulgating a belief that the society’s management ‘ignored pathologies’ and allowed criminal elements to influence its operation. Such proclamations were difficult for Wisła to refute, especially when they came from within.
When Poland’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) undertook a series of raids on Wisła properties and Sharks targets, arresting dozens of hooligans, Michalski fled Poland and was later arrested in Italy. The Sharks' leader later cooperated with the authorities, detailing decades of crime – from drug-dealing and kidnapping to racketeering and fraud – with the gang. Money stopped flowing to Wisła with Michalski out of circulation, and a promising start to the 2018-19 season soon unravelled. Sarapata resigned in December 2018, never to return to professional football. Meanwhile, Michalski and his chief confidant, Grzegorz Z, were eventually charged with 188 crimes. They are still awaiting trial.
Amid the radioactive fallout from Jadczak’s documentary, Kraków politicians convinced the Polish football authorities to redirect Wisła revenue to the city instead, seeking to recoup unpaid rent at the municipal stadium. Wisła owed the city 6.5 million PLN in rent arrears, having failed to make any payments for two seasons, throughout Sarapata’s premiership. Wisła had long been unhappy at unaddressed fundamental issues with the stadium, refusing to take control of its full-time management, but the spiralling costs made homelessness a realistic danger.
Accordingly, a bumper crowd of 22,491 flocked to Henryka Reymana Stadium four days before Christmas, 2018, to watch Wisła, the battered giant, play against Lech, the sleek innovator. With average attendances down to around 14,000, this resembled a funeral of sorts for Kraków’s most storied football club – a hearty congregation gathered to witness the team’s last game before a prolonged winter break. Perhaps its last game forever, if some reports were to be believed. Fittingly, Lech scored a late goal to snatch a 1-0 win, leaving wounded Wisła supporters to trudge slowly into the winter abyss, defeated and disconsolate.
Indeed, at that chaotic moment in time, nobody knew whether Wisła would survive, let alone whether it would continue playing at the same stadium in which it defeated Barcelona 10 years earlier. The future looked bleak, with even the default life raft of fan ownership malfunctioning spectacularly. Some questioned whether the club could ever rise again, but the nadir had yet to be reached. Disgrace soon morphed into calamity as another ludicrous chapter was written. The most bizarre episode was yet to come.
Stolen phones, phantom funds, papal friends and convenient heart attacks – Introducing Vanna Ly, the French-Cambodian enigma who owned Wisła Kraków for a month before disappearing
Around this time, Wisła seemed to find a quixotic saviour in the eccentric person of Vanna Ly, a French-Cambodian businessman who claimed to have major investments in a number of football clubs around the world, including Slavia Prague, Vitória de Guimarães, New York City FC and Yokohama FC. Ly announced that he would purchase 60% of Wisła shares from the broken supporters’ group, with Noble Capital Partners – a British corporate finance firm – buying the other 40%. The complete transaction was rumoured to value 12 million PLN, but confirming the actual exchange of such a fee has often proved difficult.
For a period, many observers questioned if Ly even existed, such was his sudden and superfluous arrival. A scarcity of information online, coupled with the general mysticism of his character, fuelled conspiracy theories among the Wisła cognoscenti. Moreover, two minority partners in the takeover – Swede Mats Hartling and Pole Adam Pietrowski – were similarly obscure, causing ripples of anxiety among the Biała Gwiazda fanbase.
According to the Khmer Times, a definitive source of English-language Cambodian news, Ly was somehow associated with the Cambodian royal family. Playing up to this successful charade, Ly promised to pay all outstanding debts at Wisła, then to reinvigorate the club by transforming it into a hub of commercial activity. There was talk of a money-spinning hotel and retail complex to be constructed near the stadium. There were overtures to revamp the Wisła academy, alongside plans for a warm weather training camp in Turkey. It all seemed rather farfetched and grandiose, and those suspicions proved valid – somewhat predictably – when the trail ran cold on Wisła’s eccentric saviour.
Remarkably, while seeking to reassure the Kraków public, Pietrowski claimed that Ly was a close personal friend of the late Pope John Paul II, arguably the most beloved Pole of all-time. In this regard, the situation became more farcical with each passing hour, but many myths were assuaged when Ly appeared at the aforementioned defeat to Lech. Despite takeover negotiations continuing in earnest, Ly decided he did not like the standard of play, and promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. The businessman was pictured fleeing Kraków under the shade of an umbrella – utterly incongruous and entirely inept, as Wisła gawped into the abyss yet again.
Pietrowski said Ly suffered with a skin condition that made him sensitive to light and cameras – hence the umbrella. That may well be true, but Ly was also likely embarrassed by his own barefaced lies and unprecedented gall. Alas, for all its trouble, Wisła Kraków, once the pride of Polish football, continued to be a laughingstock – rudderless, directionless and spiralling towards homelessness. Even the whackiest Hollywood screenwriter would struggle to concoct such a raucous shambles and have it feel believable. Yet, amid the toxic cacophony of Kraków football, nothing was implausible anymore. Henryka Reymana Stadium is where convention went to die, and a tortured fanbase was left to pick through the rubble.
Local, national and international news outlets began to focus on Wisła, whose rapid degeneration emitted a peculiar brand of morbid fascination. Digging deep into the chaotic storyline, reporters found that Vanna Ly did sign paperwork to take control of Wisła, promising to pay off all club debts. Something did not add up, however, because few records of Ly’s entrepreneurial success could be found. Ly claimed to have millions of dollars in personal wealth, yet he flew on budget airlines and stayed in cheap Kraków hotels. Nobody seemed to know who this guy was, let alone how he came to buy one of European football’s sleeping giants. The farce deepened.
When Ly did not provide the promised investment, Wisła officials covered for him at first. According to the party line, Ly had his phone stolen in Luxembourg, precluding his ability to interact with fans and media members. Then, he apparently suffered a heart attack – conveniently – on his ‘private jet’ as it flew to New York on a business trip. Ultimately, Ly was never heard from again, save for a few gossip column inches linking him with a bid for Turkish club Göztepe in 2020. He left Wisła Kraków on the edge of Armageddon, devoid of avenues for preservation. The end was nigh for Biała Gwiazda. The only question was when it would go bust, not if, as the reservoir of hope ran dry.
A fallen powerhouse on the brink of liquidation – How unpaid wages and managerial incompetence led to Wisła Kraków having its Ekstraklasa licence suspended
In January 2019, TS Wisła seized another opportunity to take back control, voiding the club’s conditional sale to Ly and reinstalling itself as the body of power. A paucity of funds made TS Wisła relatively ineffective, however, as an impasse loomed into view. Something had to give, and eventually it did, bringing further shame on a once-proud institution.
On the field, Wisła continued to struggle, as the subpar players they did manage to attract lacked motivation due to unpaid wages and chronic mismanagement. The Wisła players went six months without receiving a single payment, leading many to ask for their contracts to be dissolved. Early in 2019, several players left Wisła on free transfers, weakening the on-field product and highlighting the off-field turmoil. Without the means to replenish a depleted squad, Wisła looked set to die within a matter of weeks.
Back when Ly went AWOL, the Polish football authorities were forced to intervene, seeking to uphold the integrity of a jaded competition. During the January transfer window, which coincides with the winter break in Poland, Wisła had its licence to play in the Ekstraklasa suspended by the Polish Football Association (PZPN). A power vacuum threatened to swallow Wisła whole, and the club’s days seemed numbered.
“The decision was made due to the lack of contact from both the previous and new owners of Wisła Kraków,” read a PZPN statement. “In fact, all information about the club comes only from press reports. We do not have direct contact with the club’s authorities. We do not know who the current owner of Wisła is officially, and who manages the club.
“We understand that the formalities have happened, about which we have not been formally informed. This is a violation of the rules contained in the License Manual, hence our response could be only one: the suspension of the licence for playing in Ekstraklasa.”
Perhaps chastened by such bleak declarations, TS Wisła moved to clean up its image, hoping to be seen as more professional and progressive than in previous eras. Rafał Wisłocki, a 32-year old protégé, was named interim president of TS Wisła – and thus, almost by proxy, president of Wisła Kraków – in a last-ditch bid to resuscitate the spluttering behemoth.
A diehard Wisła fan, Wisłocki joined the club in 2009 as a youth coach and rose to managing director of the academy within six years. A modern strategist, Wisłocki earned a place on the Wisła board in 2018, and he was widely regarded as the most trustworthy member of that committee. When the PZPN interjected, attempting to crystalise the future of Wisła, Wisłocki was handed the reins, tasked with presiding over a humane death, if nothing else. In actuality, he managed to achieve far more than that, keeping the club alive long enough for it to be saved.
In his quest to cleanse TS Wisła and revitalise its distinctive footballing arm, Wisłocki accepted an offer of help from Bogusław Leśnodorski, a qualified lawyer who had previously served as a co-owner and president of Legia during its rise to power in the 2010s. Leśnodorski offered Wisła free access to his law firm, helping to sort the club’s finances and plot a route to the reinstatement of its playing licence. Leśnodorski was granted power of attorney over Wisła, acting as a de facto administrator, tasked with auditing potential new owners and clarifying the club’s legal position. Without Wisłocki and Leśnodorski, then, the subsequent fairytale would not have been possible.
Why Jakub Błaszczykowski returned to save Wisła Kraków
Watching from afar, Jakub Błaszczykowski had seen enough by this point. A boyhood Wisła fan who grew up a couple of hours from Kraków, Błaszczykowski launched his professional career with Biała Gwiazda between 2004 and 2007. Known affectionately as Kuba, Błaszczykowski became a household name at Borussia Dortmund during their surge to hipster immortality, before signing for Wolfsburg in 2016. The dynamic winger saw his playing time cut dramatically over three seasons in Lower Saxony, however, to a point where a new challenge was desperately needed by 2019.
Thus, at the age of 34, Poland’s most capped international player began to think of home. Of course, for Kuba Błaszczykowski, home was not always a repository of happy memories. He came from a family torn asunder by violence and alcoholism. As a 10-year-old kid, Błaszczykowski witnessed his father stab his mother to death in the childhood home. When his dad was imprisoned, Kuba and his older brother, Dawid, were raised by their grandmother. Indeed, Błaszczykowski stopped playing football for a period, overcome by grief at such a young age, only for a caring uncle to encourage a revival.
From those anguished roots, Błaszczykowski went on to win an Ekstraklasa title with Wisła, two Bundesliga crowns with Dortmund, and a slew of personal accolades that glistened on an impressive resume. Moreover, Kuba became an elite player during football’s financial explosion, and various media outlets report his consequent net worth at almost $20 million. He learned early to invest in ambitious projects, and that instinct led him back to Kraków in the winter of 2019. Wisła needed a superhero – a real one, not a sly criminal or a bogus opportunist – and Kuba seemed destined for the role.
Ever the philanthropist, Błaszczykowski firstly agreed to play for Wisła during its hour of gravest need, the prodigal son returning to light a fire under a dormant juggernaut. Ekstraklasa rules precluded Błaszczykowski from playing for free, as per his original intention, so he signed a contract for the 500 PLN minimum wage. In turn, that nominal fee was donated to a children’s home in Kraków, a classy gesture from the returning messiah.
From the trough of despair, Wisła suddenly possessed one of the greatest Polish players of all-time, paying him the equivalent of £95 per week. Błaszczykowski was the clean-cut savant in whom people could believe, a restorative icon who could heal the many wounds of bygone calamities. Błaszczykowski was viewed as a working class demigod among Wisła fans, who saw fit to support their team again, for it had been joyously reclaimed from more sinister factions.
To that end, after getting a look under the bonnet, Błaszczykowski decided to do even more to help Wisła. Kuba joined with two Polish investors – Jarosław Królewski and Tomasz Jażdżyński – to lend the club 1.33 million PLN, or £245,000, to cover the cost of his new teammates’ wages, allowing Wisła to finish the season. Satisfied by this last-gasp economic stimulus, the PZPN restored Wisła’s licence, meaning the club could sell tickets to matches once again, kickstarting yet another recovery.
Thinking outside the box, and steered by this new cabal of progressive executives, Wisła sold 40,000 club shares – or 5% of its stock – to fans, raising 4 million PLN in 24 hours through floatation on equity crowdfunding site Beesfund. The club again lost eight players in the January transfer window, but several stalwarts decided to stay, energised by the prospect of playing with Błaszczykowski, a living legend.
Wisła surged in form following the winter break, winning three straight matches while scoring 13 goals in the process. Błaszczykowski was a regular on the scoresheet, and his dazzling reintroduction peaked with a 4-0 thumping of Legia before a sold-out crowd of 33,000 in Kraków. Wisła still wound up playing in the relegation round once the Ekstraklasa separated in April, and they finished the 2018-19 season in ninth place, but there was life in the club at long last, and fans could see hope on the horizon.
How Jakub Błaszczykowski became Wisła Kraków owner as former powerbrokers were arrested
Of course, in keeping with this absurd plot, Wisła made a horrendous start to the 2019-20 campaign, losing 10 straight matches through autumn and winter. A 7-0 revenge spanking in Warsaw cast further shame on the Kraków club. By early-December, through 18 matches, Wisła was bottom of the Ekstraklasa table - shamefully. Still, with his appetite duly whetted, Błaszczykowski went one step further and began working on a complete takeover of Wisła, which would allow it to be incubated back to full health.
A change of coach and an impressive uptick in form eased Wisła’s relegation worries, only for the Covid-19 pandemic to throw another wrench in the works. In April 2020, expedited by the health emergency causing fiscal carnage, a deal was formalised, with Kuba and his investors taking full control of football operations. TS Wisła agreed to certain trademark and copyright provisions that effectively made the football arm of Wisła Kraków a self-sustained entity, with the Błaszczykowski group becoming the predominant shareholder.
Wisła eventually finished 13th in the 2019-20 season, just one place and five points above the relegation zone. Dawid Błaszczykowski was appointed club president, charged with instilling a long-term vision for prosperity. Wisła focused primarily on revitalising its stagnant academy in this regard, taking the long road back to respectability as opposed to the superfast highway.
In September 2020, several architects of Wisła’s demise – including Sarapata and other members of the defective TS Wisła supervisory board – were detained by the CBI. Among other charges, they were investigated for abusing power, acting in ways detrimental to the club, participating in criminal organisations and committing financial misdemeanours. The case is still rumbling on, with closure yet to be found. One can only hope for justice to be served, so the real fans can find peace.
What does the future hold for Wisła Kraków with Jakub Błaszczykowski as owner?
At this point, 10 years have passed since Wisła Kraków was last crowned champion of Poland. The club has 13 titles to its credit – 14 if you include the debacle of 1951, when cup winners Ruch were declared champions despite Wisła winning the league. No Polish club has surpassed that tally, although Legia will likely do so in a few weeks’ time. Just as worryingly, Wisła has not played in a UEFA competition – not even a qualifier – since 2012, its longest stretch without continental exposure in almost four decades. This shows the true scope of potential harnessed by Błaszczykowski, on whom genuine fans are relying to rebuild a broken dynasty.
Wisła is currently 12th in the Ekstraklasa table, another mediocre showing devoid of thrills. Błaszczykowski has appeared in less than half of the club’s matches, struggling with persistent injuries at 35. Felicio Brown Forbes has been a welcome addition, leading the line as a powerful target man, and Yaw Yeboah has impressed with pace and ingenuity, but Wisła still shoots itself in the foot far too frequently, and there is little sign of that abating anytime soon.
Indeed, at this point, the club’s DNA seems to have been altered. Once a fearsome powerhouse that ran roughshod over Polish football, Wisła is now a paragon of capitulation. The very foundations of this football club need excavating, examining and exorcising. Cultural, philosophical and structural change is needed to start a new chapter and replenish a dusty trophy cabinet. When it comes to Wisła Kraków, though, such things are easier said than done.
For example, since Cupiał bought the club in 1997, Wisła has changed manager more than 40 times, or roughly once every seven months. Until that strategic vacuum is plugged, the club will never find the poise it needs to recover. Until stability can be guaranteed, rather than merely promised, there will always be fear of another ludicrous meltdown. And until there is harmony between the boardroom and the dugout, between the dugout and the locker room, and between the locker room and the terraces, the glory days will not return, because it takes more than one star to revive an entire football club.
Nevertheless, there is hope for Biała Gwiazda fans. In particular, the ethos and track record of co-owner Królewski points to a more sustainable future. A serial entrepreneur, Królewski is a major player in the world of big data and artificial intelligence. One wonders whether he can translate that penchant for disruptive innovation to football, using science, maths and robotics to rebuild a football club ruined by greed, indulgence and criminality.
Above all else, though, Wisła Kraków needs cohesion. Wisła Kraków needs impetus. And Wisła Kraków needs quality – an ingredient it has sadly lacked for too long. Whether Jakub Błaszczykowski is the figurehead to provide those intangibles, only time will tell. Yet, for all the pain and humiliation of recent times, true defenders of the white star are content just to have a club to root for at this stage. On so many occasions, that was nearly not the case, so at least Wisła Kraków still exists. The future is hers to write.
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