Kickin’ For Krak’: Witnessing the Polish III Liga Title Decider

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Garbarnia Kraków (in white) line-up against Unia Tarnów (in blue), both accompanied by mascots (the little folks).

Picture the scene: four thirty-something Englishman are on a Saturday morning train heading from Kielce, where we’d witnessed a dire 0–0 draw between England and Sweden in the European Under-21 championship, to Kraków, where the afternoon’s modest goal is to see if Garbarnia Kraków can claim the III Liga (fourth tier) Group IV title.

Sharing our charmingly dated train carriage is a man with the fierce expression of a younger Vladimir Putin. He interjects our chatter with questions concerning the members of England’s 1990 World Cup squad, but looks sufficiently crestfallen when he learns of Gazza’s fate that we decide to end the tale before we reach the Raoul Moat incident. This doesn’t discourage his interest in us.

“Tony Adams,” states the Polish Putin with solemn dignity, “is dead.”

Despite having two Polish speakers in our group, the best explanation we can offer is that Adams’ career might be dead which, judging from his expression, he interprets as an immensely bad joke. Luckily we trickle into the city before we need to explain that Stuart Pearce once deployed David James as a striker.

Arriving back in Kraków, we have a mission: to find the one specific bar on the outskirts of the city that’s selling tickets to see Garbarnia — top flight champions way back in 1931 — play mid-table side Unia Tarnów, who are better known for their speedway team.

A draw will be enough to see our new heroes win both the title and promotion. Defeat, together with a win for the nearest challenger Motor Lublin, will result in catastrophic failure as III Liga is a harsh mistress: there’s not so much as a play-off spot for the runner-up. After finding the bar — definitively a local drinking den for local people — we hand over 60 złotys later (approximately £10.40) to ensure that three tickets and accompanying pints are rightfully ours.

Fast-forward two hours and our Uber driver has arrived. He chatters and booms with laughter. Between being utterly inadequate at languages and Polish being notoriously tricky, I’m at a loss to explain the joke. “I asked him to take us to the stadium,” explains my friend, “And he just said ‘Stadium?’ and laughed.”

Our driver was right, if somewhat mean-spirited, to laugh at it being a stadium. The main (and indeed only) stand features half-a-dozen rows of adequate green seating stretching from corner flag to corner flag. Behind the goal to our right stands an impressively modernistic clubhouse. Behind the goal to our left is some woodland which doubles up as an emergency urinal. Directly opposite there are familiar sights from games at home — seating areas for both teams’ staff and substitutes — and others which aren’t, like a big fuck off plough.

The game kicks off to a quick flurry of reducers with both teams eager to physically leave their mark on their counterpart. While the tackling is rudimentary and the quantity of completely unforced errors seems excessive even by League Two standards, the game is hardly aesthetically unappealing. Both teams try to make a breakthrough with zippy short balls rather than the agricultural punts that the adjacent plough would hint at.

Less welcome, however, is the stadium announcer who follows a pre-game playlist of relentless Euro trance by talking incessantly. The PA carries his voice with the fury of a jet engine and the clarity of a Napalm Death covers band rehearsing in next door’s garage. Our hangovers (we’ll blame the deceptively delicious Soplica Wiśniowa, a cherry vodka) fear that he’ll commentate for the entire game, but thankfully he’s soon silent.

In contrast to a typical English lower league game, the crowd (officially 750, but there could easily be 1000 people here) seems to be drawn from all parts of society, from men old enough to witness some of the city’s darkest moments to gaggles of teenage girls who seem overdressed for what amounts to standing underneath black clouds for two hours. A drum booms erratically and the chants — variations on the same old tunes, but in Polish — are led by a carefully groomed and sharp-suited young man who looks suspiciously stylish for his surroundings.

It’s an uneventful contest until 10 minutes into the second-half. The Garbarnia right-back collects the ball on the touchline just inside the opposition half, powers forward unchallenged and darts an optimistic cross into the box where Tomasz Ogar eludes the attention of his marker to power home a header. In a match of frustrating mistakes, it’s fitting that it only took two expert touches to break the deadlock. Ogar and his teammates hurtle to the home support in celebration. The suited chap looks like he’s about to lose his mind in delirium.

Despite having little more than pride to play for, Unia Tarnόw remain physically committed and the game briefly boils over with a half-hearted round of handbags. By this point everyone realises that we’re on a procession towards Garbarnia’s title. With seven minutes left, a corner-kick is punted optimistically right in front of the Unia goal line. At least three defenders and the goalkeeper all misjudge its trajectory leaving Krystian Kujawa — on loan from top flight near neighbours Wisła— to stab home.

With full-time comes a celebratory pitch invasion, but the Garbarnia fans dutifully obey instructions to return to the stands. The team goes through the usual celebrations — spraying each other with champagne, giving coach Mirosław Hajdo the bumps, hoisting their children on their shoulders — as We Are The Champions plays, seemingly live-streamed direct from the 80s. When the fans finally hurtle on it’s a sight to behold as players, fans, the Garbarnia schoolboys team and the occasional stray Englishman slap high-fives and holler celebrations at friends and strangers alike.

One game, one win, one league title. As fans of rather middling teams (Gillingham, Colchester, Arsenal) we find it to be a weirdly intoxicating experience. By the time we head back to the city centre, it feels less like an alien football experience and more like a moment of brutally effective yet entirely unorthodox glory hunting.

Garbarnia Kraków are III Liga: Group IV champions!

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