By Maciej Iwanski
Under the franchise system that operates in American football, it is not unusual to see clubs move from city to city, but in football, it is still unusual.
In England, Wimbledon FC recently move from their London home to Milton Keynes in pursuit of the crowds that could sustain their footballing ambitions. However while the Wimbledon case caused a public outcry in England, Polish supporters have been far more amenable to clubs changing cities.
It all started in the early 1990s when Lechia Gdansk, then in the third division, merged with Ekstraklasa strugglers Olimpia Poznan. The move forced Olimpia to move 300 kilometres north, but took them out of the shadow of city rivals Lech Poznan and gave them a large fan base in a city that had been without a top-flight side for years.
However, the Polish Football Federation refused to recognise the new Olimpia/Lechia, objecting to their mid-season merger. Away teams were awarded three points without even travelling to Gdansk and the merged club soon collapsed.
Financial problems destroyed another team who tried their luck elsewhere, Sokol Pniewy who moved south to become Sokol Tychy, and as time passed it seemed that such moves were an anomaly of the early 1990s. However, with more and more clubs passing into the sole ownership of businessmen in recent years, wandering clubs have returned.
Pogon Szczecin are currently in rude health, vying for a return to the Ekstraklasa with 15,000 crowds cheering them all the way. However the current Pogon are not the same club who finished second in the Ekstraklasa in 2001, nor the same as the one relegated from the top flight last June.
In fact, the new Pogon - the brainchild of sponsor Antoni Ptak, who helped LKS Lódz win the league title in 1998 - used to be known as Pitrcovia and moved to Szczecin in the summer from their old home in Piotrkow Trybunalski.
The old Pogon had sunk like a stone last season as Turkish owner Sabri Bekdas sold the financially troubled club to Swede Les Gondor. Gondor argued bitterly with the local authorities, demanding control of Pogon's council-owned stadium, and eventually withdrew his sponsorship from the club - a move which saw players depart and results disintegrate.
When the club went under in the summer, Ptak made his move, acquiring the rights to Pogon's name and colours by giving MKS Pogon Szczecin, one of the companies which owned the old club, a one per cent share in the newly renamed Pitrcovia. The city authorities, happy to have a solvent club to take the old Pogon's place, were delighted to welcome them to their new home.
Pogon's success has encouraged other club owners to consider moves, and in one high-profile case, the owner of second division Ceramika Opoczno, Miroslaw Stasiak, has been offered the opportunity to rescue ailing Ekstraklasa side Widzew Lódz.
The crippled giants are €6m in debt and unlikely to receive a license to play Ekstraklasa football next season even if they avoid relegation. However, should they fail to survive, Ceramika may be happy to move to Lodz and start next season under a new name.
Some major Polish cities - like Wroclaw, Gdansk and Szczecin - lack a big football team while modest towns like Grodzisk Wielkopolski, Wronki, Polkowice and Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki have sides in the top flight but few supporters. Against this background, moves such as Pogon's could become commonplace in years to come.
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