In the footsteps of footballing greatness
These last couple of decades haven’t half seen Poland change, and I say that from the perspective of someone who well remembers the times when executives and diplomats would receive a hardship allowance for just living in Warsaw.
And of course, the capital wasn’t the only place that embodied the dark, sleazy spirit of Gotham City; let us not forget Pruszków.
For years, Warsaw’s western satellite was synonymous with one thing and one thing alone – organised crime. Home to the notorious Pruszków Mafia, it was here that mobsters with nicknames such as Wańka, Kiełbasa, Masa and Barabas would plot their rackets and robberies and contract hits.
Yet Pruszków is also a place that can count itself well and truly part of Poland’s PR revolution – and for that, tip your hat towards Robert Lewandowski.
Where once this town of 60,000 was a bi-word for nefarious underworld dealings, newer generations are more likely to know it as the place that launched Lewandowski’s career.
And with the forward recently making a dream move to Barcelona just a few days ago, Pruszków again found itself thrust back into Poland’s sports press after it was revealed that the town’s football club, Znicz, would receive a windfall of EUR 450,000 as a result of his transfer.
All in all, that’s not a bad return for a player acquired from something akin to football’s scrapheap.
Founded 99 years ago, and traditionally something of a minnow, Znicz saw their fortunes turn around the millennium. Having flirted with outright liquidation, the club’s foundations were solidified under an ambitious president, and in 2000 the team celebrated a historic promotion to Poland’s third tier.
A few years later, a modern stand was added, and the club began crafting a reputation for grooming young talent: enter a player that many knew as Bobek.
Raised in the nearby village of Leszno (not to be confused with the town of the same name), Lewandowski’s early years saw him start out representing youth teams at Partyzant Leszno and MKS Varsovia Warsaw (where for a while he turned out in the colours of Polonia Warszawa following a tie-up between the clubs).
As a senior, Lewandowski then went to Delta Warszawa before ending up at Legia. This was not, however, the break that it should have been – handed a one-year contract with their reserve side, a knee injury towards the end of his term saw Legia opt against renewing his contract.
Simultaneously reeling from the recent death of his father, Lewandowski was informed that he had no future at the club. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” the striker would later confess. “My dad was gone and my career was hanging in the balance.”
Znicz, as it would prove, were there just at the right time. Already bleeping on the club’s radar, Marek Śliwiński, the club’s president at the time, recalls he was approached inside a swimming pool by Sylwiusz Mucha-Orliński (the club’s current president).
“I was taking a swimming class at the time when Sylwiusz approached me and told me, ‘there’s a player I like the look of’,” remembers Śliwiński. Committed to completing his class, Śliwiński took some persuasion but found himself leaving to attend a training match at Legia’s facility on Myśliwiecka street.
Peering through a fence, what he saw of Lewandowski was enough. “Of course though,” says Śliwiński, “I could not have guessed he would one day captain Poland!”
Looking for a new club, Lewandowski’s decision to join Znicz was heavily influenced by his mother, who herself worked as a volleyball coach in Pruszków.
Familiar with both the club and the town, she realised it would be the ideal environment for Robert to recover from the disappointment he endured at Legia. Moreover, it would bring him closer to the family home.
For Znicz, meanwhile, snapping up Lewandowski was something of a no-brainer. “There was no haggling [with Legia],” says Śliwiński. Formalising the move for approximately PLN 5,000, Lewandowski signed for Znicz in 2006.
Earning little more than PLN 1,000 per month, it would be incorrect to say that Lewandowski made an immediate impact. Still carrying the lingering effects of his injury, he took time to break into the team, yet from the start his attitude impressed.
Although rejecting the ‘footballer lifestyle’, colleagues fondly recall sharing rides with him in his silver Fiat Brava, stuck in rush hour traffic on Warsaw’s Jerozolimskie street as they drove to make training.
Humble and willing to knuckle down, he began to carve a name as an efficient goal scorer with an eye for the net. Striking up a deadly partnership with Bartek Wiśniewski, for many, though, Lewandowski was still far from the finished article.
Indeed, there could have been nothing to suggest he would go on to become a global superstar, a point underlined by his captain at the time, Tomasz Piotrowski. “I’m overwhelmed with pride when I watch him now and think we were in the same team,” Piotrowski told TVN. “But honestly, I don’t think any of us imagined he’d go this far – it’s all down to work, work, work.”
Finishing the 2007-2008 season as the division’s top scorer with 21 goals, the bigger clubs came calling. But it all began here, in the sedate town of Pruszków.
For his part, Lewandowski has not forgotten his roots. Still occasionally appearing at the club’s academy, his fondness for the town is two-fold – not only was it the place that gave him his springboard, but it was also where he met his wife-to-be.
Firmly established as Poland’s premier power couple, Anna Lewandowska (nee Stachurska), was a member of the local karate club, winning three international medals during her time training with them.
As for the town, that too has grown in stature and reputation. Once tainted by its uncomfortable associations with the mafia, today it has stepped from the shadows of the past to assert itself as an affluent town not short of merits.
Walking it, that much becomes apparent visiting the fascinating Dulag 121. Once a transit camp for thousands of Varsovians expelled in light of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, today the museum established on the grounds is a repository of items and documents that remember these times.
The sense of history is further enriched by the striking buildings that pepper the town: for instance, the Neo Gothic ZNTK building close to Dulag and the mysterious palace on ul. Broniewskiego – long abandoned, this derelict masterpiece once held a hospital for rail workers and later a hotel by the name of Tramp.
A favourite of urbex snoopers, rumours persist of devil worship practices being conducted in the tower.
Yet there is elegance, as well, and this comes to the fore walking the classicist Park Potulickich – with its meandering trails shaded by elms and poplars, there can be few more romantic spots than its cute humpbacked bridge.
And though Lewandowski can be flagged as being the town’s biggest claim to fame, Pruszków found itself back in the national spotlight last year when an ice cream emporium by the name of Quattro Si was ranked 42nd in the Gelato Festival World Rankings. A legend in its own right, it’s not uncommon to find people commuting in from Warsaw for a scoop of their finest.
A town of pretty promise, Pruszków has flourished since the years of Lewandowski. Plugging away in the third tier, Znicz, too, have continued to sow a name for nurturing youth and developing it further. Playing inside a neat ground in front of a largely calm crowd, they’ve become seemingly an entrenched feature of this league.
Even so, admiring the billiard green turf from the comfort of the stand, it takes a moment to focus and think that it was on the pitch out in front that the planet’s deadliest striker resurrected his career.