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UEFA EURO 2012 legacy proves fruitful for Poland

As the Under-21 finals draw to a close in Poland, the host country will be hoping the tournament's impact will be as long-lasting and far-reaching as the legacy of UEFA EURO 2012.

Fans gather in Lublin ahead of Poland's 2017 U21 EURO finals match against Slovakia
Fans gather in Lublin ahead of Poland's 2017 U21 EURO finals match against Slovakia ©Getty Images

Poland has been gripped by football fever once more, with Europe's brightest talents having descended on the country for the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.

Although the home team were unable to make it beyond the group stage, this has been the only downside to a tournament enjoying both strong attendances and plenty of media interest, with Poland again relishing the honour of staging a major UEFA event.

Five years ago the central European nation co-hosted with Ukraine the hugely successful UEFA EURO 2012 finals, which proved a springboard for the Polish Football Associaiton (PZPN) to go from strength to strength on and off the pitch.

Poland prepare to play Greece in Warsaw during UEFA EURO 2012
Poland prepare to play Greece in Warsaw during UEFA EURO 2012©Action Images


Indeed, while the tournament branding disappeared long ago, the legacy of UEFA EURO 2012 lives on. For example, fans attending Poland national-team games can travel for free on public transport just by displaying their match ticket – an initiative from the EURO.

That is just one illustration of how the PZPN continues to implement skills first learned from UEFA ahead of 2012. In fact, since those finals, some 20,000 stewards have been trained up, using a programme introduced for the matches five summers ago.

The benefits are also being felt on the field for the PZPN. In 2012, Poland were 70th in the FIFA ranking; now they are joint tenth with Spain, above Italy and England.

"In qualifying for UEFA EURO 2016, we had the second-best crowd figures in Europe with an average of 50,000. That has continued into our European Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup," said Maciej Sawicki, general secretary of the federation.

The PZPN has also embraced UEFA's GROW initiative which, among other things, aims to help member associations expand both grassroots participation and financial revenues.

Poland celebrate after scoring against Sweden at the 2017 U21 EURO finals
Poland celebrate after scoring against Sweden at the 2017 U21 EURO finals©Getty Images

As a development programme, UEFA GROW works to optimise football's potential in a strategic and systematic manner – utilising fact-based research, market intelligence and industry experts to build strategic plans for 'growing' the game.

"Without funding it's impossible to implement good projects, but we've also benefited from UEFA's expertise," Sawicki reflected. "The people at UEFA provide support by giving us the benefit of their know-how and experience, helping us improve our projects and make them really effective."

Remarkably, the PZPN has doubled its budget over the past four years, while 350,000 Poles are now actively playing the game. Sawiciki believes this is merely the tip of the iceberg, because GROW can help Polish football flourish even further.

"That's not a huge number," he explained, citing a target of getting 3% of the Polish population – more than a million people – playing football.

And while Poland is now blessed with state-of-the-art stadiums, the FA is striving to ensure top-notch facilities exist for grassroots players too. There are more than 2,600 artificial mini-pitches, with the association also intending to construct covered pitches, enabling football to be played in all conditions.

Social media provides another barometer of progress. The PZPN Twitter account increased its followers by more than 500% between January 2014 and January 2016. Meanwhile, its YouTube channel offers the chance to see what life is like for those involved in the national-team set-up, including for those Polish stars playing abroad.

The Polish Football Association is investing heavily in grassroots football
The Polish Football Association is investing heavily in grassroots football©Sportsfile

"We've done reports on Poles playing abroad for foreign clubs," said Łukasz Wiśniowski, who manages the YouTube account. "We did one with Robert Lewandowski in Munich, one with Arkadiusz Milik in Naples. It's a good way to inspire young players, who see just how far they can go if they work hard."

Additionally, a digital platform created by the PZPN in 2014 is helping grassroots football to truly bloom. The Laczynaspilka.pl site takes its name from the PZPN's slogan 'Łączy nas piłka' (United by football) and fosters communication between all stakeholders – administrators, fans, players, referees, children, coaches, and so on. Everyone can go and access information on the national teams, or check the results of hundreds of matches taking place across the country each week.

"Our friends in Poland, with the help of UEFA GROW, have implemented various initiatives to strategically and systematically grow the game," said Noel Mooney, a senior manager for UEFA's national associations' business development department.

"For example, the digital platform Łączy nas Piłka is a fantastic project that delivers real added value to the Polish football family," Mooney went on, "and it is no surprise that it has won several sports industry awards. Other federations looking to improve their digital marketing and football relationship management are getting in touch with the Polish federation."

Overall, two of the association's biggest selling points have been the popularity of the national side, which boasts top-level players such as Robert Lewandowski and Grzegorz Krychowiak, and also the association itself.

"In 2012 we had major problems, we were poorly thought of, the PZPN had a very negative image," Sawicki revealed. "But today our approval ratings are constantly improving, with the percentage of people having a good opinion of the association rising from 18% in 2012 to 45% in 2016."

So while UEFA EURO 2012 gave lift-off to the PZPN in many ways, the organisation will be hoping the U21 showpiece can have a similarly positive impact on this Polish footballing renaissance.