Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Poker-faced Poles cleaning up their act

Pilkarski Poker [Football Poker], the 1988 Polish film, illustrates a game rife with corruption, match-fixing and backhanders. Janusz Zaorski, the director, made a film so extreme that it could only be a black comedy, an überparody of a sport ruined by greed, excess and money. Indeed, Zaorski was an exponent of what is known as “Cinema of Moral Concern”, a movement preoccupied with weighty ethical themes.

Of course, we’re told that life imitates art and, true to form, Zaorski’s vision seems to have come true in Polish football. In the past two seasons, five top-flight clubs have been found guilty of match-fixing and were relegated, most notably Zaglebie Lubin, the champions, and Widzew Lodz, twice winners of the Polish league in the 1990s. Zaglebie were also docked ten points and fined 80,000 zloty (about £16,000). The relatively low sum was explained by the fact that Zaglebie are owned by a state company and, therefore, prosecutors did not want to burden the taxpayers.

But the web of corruption stretches far below the top flight. Indeed, dozens of clubs in the second and third tiers have also been implicated. More than seventy people have been arrested, many of them match officials.

The scandal’s roots go back to 2005, when Piotr Dziurowicz, chairman of GKS Katowice and son of the former head of the Polish FA, gave an explosive interview to Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper. “I have had enough of a football where I have to pay money to buy matches for the team so that it occupies the top positions, so that the players can stay in the league and have jobs,” Dziurowicz said. “Especially when they cheat me and then sell games [to opponents].”

Thus Dziurowicz became Polish football’s whistle-blower, albeit one not necessarily moved by a profound sense of moral outrage, but rather one who evidently could not pay bribes as effectively as his rivals.

Jacek Debski, the Polish sports minister, sounded the alarm in 2001, when he said: “We have seen a systematic degradation of Polish football. This must be addressed urgently. It’s partly due to the fact that the communist-era model of financial sports was destroyed and no coherent new model has been introduced.”

Debski made no secret of wanting to clean up the game, which is probably why, a few months after making that statement, he was shot in the head, execution-style, in what many suspect was a mob hit. His death came at a time when Poland was undergoing transformation, as the nation fought hard to adopt a more transparent free-market economy. While other sectors of society were cleaned up, football remained behind. Now, however, there is a sense that things are changing. With the economy booming, some feel it will be only a matter of time before football catches up.

Which, as many things in Poland do these days, brings us back to the Kaczynski twins: Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, who, until two months ago, was Prime Minister. In 1962, they shot to prominence as child actors in The Two Who Stole the Moon, the children’s film. It tells the tale of two boys, played by the Kaczynskis, who are cruel and lazy and decide to steal the moon (which, apparently, is made of gold) so that they will never have to work again. They manage to steal it but run into a gang of bad guys who capture them and the moon. But then the baddies – presumably as some sort of divine punishment – turn into gold themselves. The twins manage to escape and, having learnt their lesson, pledge to stop being lazy and help their parents on the family farm.

The moral is almost too obvious: you can’t achieve success by stealing (or, in this case, corrupting match officials). And you certainly can’t steal the moon. Success is achieved by intelligence, hard work and a bit of luck. Those elements have allowed the Polish economy to do well in recent years. They can help Polish football to do the same.