The Birth of Polish League Football

John Gillooley, Kraków. March 28th 2013:
Wisła Kraków, 1927. Wikipedia

Wisła Kraków, 1927. Wikipedia

In 1927 the top teams in Central Europe competed in the inaugural Mitropa Cup. A pre-war predecessor of today’s much-hyped Champions League; the competition pitted the elite teams of Budapest, Prague and Vienna against each other in a battle for continental supremacy. It was Sparta Prague who went on to claim the title in front of a baying Viennese crowd hurling stones and bottles onto the pitch. The competition itself has been largely forgotten as the European Cup continued its growth and dominance following its creation in 1955. However, it was ferociously contested and enjoyed great popularity at the time. It is all too easy to forget the legacy of inter-war European football.

Meanwhile, to the north-east, in neighbouring Poland, a country reborn following the Versailles Agreement of 1918, fourteen clubs began to organise a competitive league seeking to discover the Second Republic’s finest. Despite having the backing of the clubs, the country’s organising body, the PZPN opposed the idea. Led by Cracovia chairman Dr Edward Cetnarowski, the proposed league format was rejected and so the Krakow club, among the country’s best and most influential at that time, did not compete in the 1927 championship. Indeed Cracovia had, in 1921, become the first champions of Poland in a much more streamlined competition played out in the midst of war and border strife, as well as touring Spain in 1923 with games against Barcelona and Real Madrid. Despite their previous successes, the 1927 championship would offer clubs the first opportunity to earn the right to call themselves the true national champions.

A quick glance at the list of founding clubs makes for somewhat uncomfortable reading – the presence of 3 teams from the city of Lviv an unsavoury reminder of the future population displacement that would come to pass. The now Ukranian city was, at the time, a hotbed of Polish football and the first city to really popularise the sport in the country. Conversely, despite the future prominence of Silesian clubs, only 1.FC Katowice’s name appears on that league table of 1927.

It was quite clear after the first three games that both Wisla and 1.FC Katowice were going to be the front-runners for the title, with both teams recording impressive victories throughout the early rounds of April and May.  The Third Silesian Uprising had taken place only 6 years before the inaugural league championship and indeed Wisla’s captain and centre-forward, the phenomenal Henryk Reymon had taken part, fighting for the Polish army. The Katowice club were seen to represent the German minority and as such it was unthinkable that they could be crowned champions.

Every so often a football game takes place that resonates so strongly that it lives on through history – the Death Match of 1942 for instance, or the El Salvador and Honduras match of 1969 that led to the Soccer War of which Kapuscinski famously wrote. This game may not have had the strikingly stark and unfortunate consequences of those two, but at the time was seen as an intense struggle for national pride and recognition.

In the Autumn 1927, on 25th September, thousands of Poles travelled westwards by train for a football match, the importance of which has perhaps never been repeated in this country. If Wisla won the game, they were virtually guaranteed the title – which would be celebrated by Poles across the country. As Reymon suggested himself – ‘the biggest game in the history of Wisla.’

Looking at the line-ups of the two teams, it would appear that the reality of the situation may not have been as clear as a straight battle between Germany and Poland. As with today’s Silesian footballing culture both German names –  Pohl, Görlitz and Heidenreich and Polish names Wieczorek, Jonczyk and Wyleżoł appear alongside each other. Reading the hyperbolic Polish match reports of the time, it is difficult to know to what extent this really was a fully ‘German’ side. It does appear quite clearly though, that Wisla had the will of the rest of the country behind them.

The atmosphere inside the stadium must have been frightening and the first half certainly appears to have been played out with an apprehensive caution. In a time when scores of 7-3 were not unusual, the 0-0 half-time scoreline, despite the Katowicans losing 2 men to injury, would suggest nerves were playing their part.

10 minutes after the break and with the Silesian club back to 11 a-side, Reymon, spread the ball out to the wing to Balcer who centred it. Amidst confusion in the defence, Czulaka fired home to make it 1-0. Just five minutes later, top scorer Reymon slotted home to confirm the result and ensure the first league title in Polish history would remain, for certain, in Polish hands. Whatever the future may hold for the club, that game will remain an integral part of its identity.

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