Shifting the posts: Warsaw's AKS Zły redefines the meaning of football
Across the planet, football clubs and their governing bodies are facing a backlash from supporters disenfranchised by the alarming commercialisation of the game that they love.
Away from the world of TV deals, VIP boxes and general avarice, a new trend towards fan-owned clubs is reconnecting followers not just to the grass roots of the sport, but also the communities in which they play. Poland, too, has proved no exception. And as with all notable revolutions, the idea came about following some beers down the pub...
“We were watching a match three years back in a bar out in Warsaw’s Praga district,” says Kris Gorniak, one of the original forces behind AKS Zły, “and found ourselves sharing our disappointment about how Polish clubs were run, not to mention how those in the stands chose to support their teams. We had all heard of sides like AFC Wimbledon and FCUM, so figured why not create our own football revolution in the capital’s East End.”
But what might have started out as idle pub talk quickly gathered steam. The dozen or so ‘founding mothers and fathers’ were soon joined by others: some of them friends, others total strangers seduced by this dream. Within a short space of time, over 100 members had signed-up to join the ‘association’, with approximately twenty of this number currently involved in the day-to-day running of the club.
Fielding two first teams – one male, one female – players were assembled via a poster campaign, online appeals and general word of mouth, with the result being a melting pot of characters utterly reflective of the openness at the core of Zły’s philosophy. Managed by Antonio ‘Toto’ Shehadee, an Israeli Arab of Christian faith, the composition of the male team says much for it all; turning out alongside native Poles are players of Georgian, German and Vietnamese origin, their everyday lives as varied as their backgrounds. “There’s an accordionist in the ranks,” says Kris, “piano players, a car fleet manager, a lawyer, etc. We’ve even got a psychotherapist playing for us.”
The surprise, if there is one, is that they’re not bad at all. Now in their third full season, and competing in the eighth tier of Polish football, the team have gelled in such a manner that they currently ride high in the league that they appear in: touting an adventurous brand of cavalier football, and having averaged over seven goals a game in their first six outings, the team is proudly perched top of their Klasa B Warszawa I group. Promotion is not a fantasy, rather a very realistic and attainable target.
This has come as good news for their followers in the stands. In a league notorious for its sparse, near non-existent attendances, Zły have become a phenomenon with crowds that peak at around 300. Playing at the Don Pedro Arena, in the shadow of an ornate Neo-Classical basilica, the club draws on a passionate fan base that flies in the face of thuggish football stereotypes. Swearing is frowned upon, women are prominent (up to 40% of the crowd, estimates Kris), and baby buggies prevalent.
“If you ask who watches us,” says Kris, “then it’s everyone from ‘working class heroes’ to pensioners and professors. Being honest, I think the only group we don’t really get is teenagers – they seem to prefer to sit at home and stare at a console.”
The diversity of this supporter profile manifests itself in a unique carnival-style atmosphere. From kick-off, Zły’s band of ultras gather to fly flags, beat drums, unfurl banners and even – when the occasion demands – let off the odd cheeky flare. Bouncing in unison with them becomes an addictive pursuit that pauses only for half-time vegan snacks and bottles of Fritz Kola.
Yet if this sounds like some pseudo-hipster movement, then it most certainly is not. A beacon for fans marginalized from the hype and neo-conservatism of mainstream football, Zły have become a thundering force for good. “Are we more than just a football project, yes we are,” states Kris. “Of course our aim is to climb the leagues and own our own stadium, but above all we want our club to be a place where the community can gather, whether it be to discuss local problems, join actions or simply sing together. We want people to learn to be conscious citizens and to cooperate with each other, and that’s what this has all been about: friendship, cooperation, passion. You’d be right if you said we used football as a tool for social cohesion, but there’s nothing controversial about that at all – that’s actually the very essence of football!”
AKS ZŁY, Don Pedro Arena (ul. Kawęczyńska 44, Warsaw), fb.com/akszly