The rise and fall and ongoing re-evaluation of Groclin Dyskobolia
The sign is still there, slap in the middle of the neat yet humble main stand of the Dyskobolia Stadium. ‘Groclin Dyskobolia: Champions of Poland 2002-03 2004-05’ it proudly declares in big white and yellow lettering. If you look long and hard enough, you’ll see an important prefix in tiny print between the lines of the team name and their proclamation as champions – Vice. Vice-champions (runners-up) is what the sign actually, if disingenuously, refers to. On the one hand, it’s a weird backdrop for a non-league ground. It’s also rather fitting, as Dyskobolia’s small yet remarkable list of honours around the start of the century continues to cause eyes to squint at Polish football’s record books – to such an extent that they provoke unease among their own small fan community and one honour is at risk of being retroactively taken away.
The name Groclin Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski is a bit of a mouthful even for Poles. Grodzisk Wielkopolski is the tiny town of 13,000 souls the club was based in. The name of the larger Wielkopolska region is required in the place name for clarification as there are 13 towns or villages dotted around Poland called Grodzisk – albeit only one whose football team has knocked Manchester City and Hertha Berlin out of Europe. Dyskobolia is Polish for the iconic classic Greek sculpture, Discobolus, who is depicted in his stooped and sinewy discus-throwing posture on the club’s badge. Groclin is the key to how the club embarked on its dreamy journey to the top of the Polish game and into European competition. It is also the key to the club’s sudden disappearance from the Polish top flight.
Zbigniew Drzymała, the founder of the Groclin car interior parts company, was an extremely talented businessman. He also found the whims of history in his favour at the start of the 1990s. As Poland transitioned from a communist economy to one of the most free-market oriented states in Europe, bountiful financial rewards were there for those capable of seizing their chance. Drzymała had begun making headrests from a workshop in Grodzisk in the 1970s as an accessory for Poles driving domestically produced cars without them. It started when he bought a Dacia car from Romania and his father was able to reproduce the headrest with machinery stored at the family home after his upholstery plant was nationalised following the Second World War.
Business was initially challenging under the communist government, which charged 85 per cent income tax and capped the number of people Drzymała could hire at four. As perestroika took hold further east in the 1980s, he took advantage of a scheme allowing investments in companies from the Polish diaspora. Drzymała’s willpower and persistence in making sales to the domestic car industry was notable as the business grew remarkably for its base in a fairly inconsequential rural town. The prevailing whiff of manure and call of cockerels as you head to the stadium from the closest train station are clear evidence of the predominance of agriculture in the local economy.
After the collapse of communism, the small town 400km from Warsaw (where the iconic if ridiculed Polski Fiat was made) was suddenly around 100km from a newly opened border with the world’s third-largest car producer of the time, a reunified Germany. A German partner invested in Groclin. A factory in Grodzisk with German machinery made car seats at a fraction of the cost further west, and business boomed. Contracts were secured to supply, among others, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen. Drzymała became one of the richest people in Poland.
Drzymała claimed his involvement with Dyskobolia began by chance. He said in a 2008 interview with Gazeta Wyborcza that he found himself at a tournament of lower-league clubs in the 90s feeling sorry for one team that looked poorly resourced with a “boring kit”. “It was obvious nobody was looking after them,” he said. After finding out it was his local team, he felt ashamed and visited their dressing room to offer a generous bonus for winning the tournament – which they supposedly then did against the odds. It’s a charming story, but it is hard to imagine the successful businessman suddenly stumbled across the club whose ground was a leisurely 10-minute walk away from the Groclin factory in Grodzisk – even more so when Drzymała’s uncle had been president of the club in the 1950s. His involvement with the club came at around the same time the white goods manufacturer Amica took over a club in nearby Wronki, and it is possible that Drzymała took inspiration from them.
Dyskobolia had been around since 1922, thanks in part to a donation to help build its ground from a Polish independence hero and statesman, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski. Zbigniew Drzymała has an even more alluring personal link to Polish national legend, with it being repeatedly claimed he is the great-grandson of Michał Drzymała, a peasant who defied Prussian repression at the start of the 20th century by ingeniously getting around a ban on Poles building their own homes with a circus wagon he moved a little every day (a moving object couldn’t be legally classed as a house). The local historian and journalist Andrzej Mańkowski doubts this claim to fame though, saying Zbigniew Drzymała hasn’t explicitly claimed to be a direct descendant of the legendary figure himself and it is not a link that is heard locally. Mańkowski thinks it is probably an inaccuracy that began circulating in the national press when the club began attracting publicity and that Drzymała was happy to tolerate.
Dyskobolia competed in the Polish lower leagues for seven decades, undergoing two brief spells of outside ownership in the 40s and 50s, first by the local railway workers’ association and then a meat processing plant. Twice they claimed to have been cheated by the authorities in efforts to advance up the divisions. Having beaten Wagmo Zielona Góra in a play-off for promotion to a regional league in 1948, the ruling party reportedly decided Zielona Góra as a provincial capital had more need of promotion and ordered a replay. Similar dark forces were apparently at work in 1960 in a play-off for promotion to the Polish second division with Górnik Konin. A Dyskobolia player at the time, Bolesław Stasiłowicz, said the play-off was only arranged after the preceding match against Olimpia Koło was fixed, with three players from a stronger club appearing for the opponents. A perfectly good late equaliser was disallowed for no reason in a 2-1 defeat in the play-off, with Drzymała’s own version of the story including a man in a black leather coat threatening the referee with a pistol before the match, demanding that Konin progress as a mine was being built there and the authorities wanted football to occupy the miners.
While he didn’t build the club entirely, Drzymała was the man who brought it to the tiny ground bordering fields, where Mańkowski said goats and sheep could once frequently be seen grazing behind a goalmouth. Drzymała said he started by making small donations to the club, but things began to develop when Włodzimierz Jakubowski, a former Lech Poznań player who was married to Drzymała’s cousin, became manager and recruited a few professionals to the then amateur team.
Drzymała said he continued to fund transfers every six months as Dyskobolia started to rise up the leagues. A merger with a team from a nearby village, Orkan Ptaszkowo, allowed fifth-tier Dyskobolia to take Orkan’s spot in the fourth tier of Polish football in 1993. Promotion to the third flight followed in 1995-96. The master of the Grodzisk brass band, who reluctantly agreed to a proposal from Drzymała to bring his musicians to provide atmosphere at matches, recalled being stunned the following season at being told by Drzymała that he wanted the club to become Polish champions. He said people had no knowledge at the time of the full extent of Drzymała’s resources and organisational ability. Promotion to the second tier immediately followed.
Wealth at this time was a novelty in Polish society, let alone Polish football. Drzymała appears to have revelled in the brashness his riches afforded him, as well as the ammunition it provided as the club battled their long-held grievance at being mistreated as small-town outsiders. He has told a story about gaining revenge after being insulted by the president of a rival third-division club, Intrat Wałcz, who gave Drzymała the middle finger after his side beat Dyskobolia 1-0, saying: “My club was better organised, and they didn’t even give their players contracts. During the winter break I signed nearly all their players and he came back from his holiday to find his club empty.” Drzymała claimed that while the club was in the second tier the head of the Polish football federation (PZPN), Marian Dziurowicz, summoned him to Warsaw to ask “why the hell do you want Dyskobolia to be in the top flight?”
Drzymała would be in contact with the PZPN again during their first season in Poland’s Ekstraklasa in 1997-98, complaining against what he felt was consistent bias from officials against his team. He even compiled a list of referees he didn’t want at his club’s matches.
Dyskobolia finished 16th and were relegated. Mańkowski said there was definite jealously among the rest of the country at how Dyskobolia had suddenly gained such impressive resources.
Drzymała had managed to ensure everything off the pitch was looking top class. The ground had long existed with a single small, charming English-style wooden stand from the 1920s. Three more stands were built, extending the capacity to 5000. Most impressive was the new main stand that also housed a small four-star hotel – by some distance the finest hotel the town had ever seen. The extent of Drzymała’s ambitions are expressed by his words on a plaque installed by the hotel’s entrance on its opening – “A new vision of sport for a new millennium.”
After another year in the second tier, the club returned to the top flight in 1999. They struggled again, taking five points from their first 15 matches and looking doomed to relegation before finishing the season with an incredible nine wins in a row and a draw on the final day. The first of several remarkable runs of form in the spring took them to 11th.
Determined to go about things differently, Dyskobolia signed a host of young and hungry players, slashing the average age of the squad from over 30 in 1997-98 to 25 in 2000-01. Mariusz Lewandowski, who would later earn 66 caps for Poland and win the Uefa Cup with Shakhtar Donetsk, was signed aged 21, while a sprinkling of foreign players joined, with the Ghanaian Ni’i Lamptey making 14 appearances in 2000-01. Drzymała was able to use the proceeds from his booming business, with Groclin floating on the Warsaw stock exchange in 1998. At its height, Groclin said it was making 5 per cent of all car seats in Europe. The company’s involvement in the club was formalised in November 2000 as it was renamed Groclin Dyskobolia.
Sebastian Mila was one of the young talents brought into Groclin Dyskobolia. He arrived as a 19-year-old from third-tier Orlen Płock at the start of 2002. While the club stabilised their top-flight status with solid if unspectacular 10th and 11th-place finishes in 2001 and 2002, the set-up off the pitch was looking increasingly promising.
“Grodzisk was a fantastic place to develop as a footballer,” Mila said. “The infrastructure was better than anywhere else in Poland, we had several pitches to train on and the club would pay you a regular salary, which was a complete novelty in Poland.”
While a tiny town in an agricultural region wouldn’t appeal to all footballers, Mila was certain the environment was a benefit, saying you could concentrate totally on football with so few distractions. “It felt like we were training the whole time,” he said. The players would go fishing together but rarely go clubbing. After all, the only nightclub in the area required a drive out of town and unfortunately for the players had the great risk of being just 500 metres from the house of club president Zbigniew Drzymała.
Mila recalled Drzymała as being successful and generous to the club “but direct and demanding”. Every year the president would personally choose which player he wanted to present flowers to him for his birthday. The player with the most curious relationship with Drzymała was probably the midfielder Piotr Rocki, who had his contract terminated in acrimonious circumstances in 2001 as he was deemed a flop. He then enraged Drzymała by mouthing off at him from the pitch after scoring against Dyskobolia with his new club Odra Wodzisław Śląski before writing a public letter of apology when legal action was threatened. Dyskobolia then re-signed Rocki in 2003 and he became a mainstay in the years that followed.
Mila made 27 appearances in the 2002-03 season, scoring three goals and linking up well as an attacking midfielder with the centre-forward Grzegorz Rasiak, who was known for his strength in the air and scored 10 in the campaign. Groclin Dyskobolia had another sensational spring, winning 11 of their last 15 matches, and became Polish runners-up. That brought the chance for the club to compete in the Uefa Cup in 2003-04.
Drzymała made a hard-nosed decision in the summer of 2003 to replace Bogusław Kaczmarek as coach despite the historic second-placed league finish. Dušan Radolský’s Slovan Bratislava side had impressed the club president when they played Dyskobolia in a friendly in February and Drzymała duly convinced the Slovak to swap his capital for Grodzisk Wielkopolski. Radolský was known for his demanding training methods, and immediately helped the club make their mark in Europe.
Lithuania’s Atlantas Klaipėda were comfortably seen off in the qualifying round, setting up a high-profile first-round tie with Hertha Berlin. Dyskobolia held Hertha to a 0-0 draw at the Olympiastadion and when the sides returned to Grodzisk, and a stadium 17 times smaller, a scruffy Rasiak goal six minutes from time eliminated a side featuring Arne Friedrich, Niko Kovač and Fredi Bobic.
That set up an even more eagerly awaited encounter with Manchester City. City were playing European football for the first time in 25 years but there was great excitement in Grodzisk at the prospect of facing a well-known English club, and this was heightened by their star-studded squad. Mila recalled the thrill he felt hearing Radolský mention the names of world-famous players like Steve McManaman and Nicolas Anelka in tactical briefings before the encounter, saying “you dream of facing those kind of opponents when you’re young.”
While Dyskobolia were known for their extravagance by Polish standards, with Drzymała ploughing up to 15 million złoty per year into the club, their transfer spending was incomparable to their English opponents. Their record transfer spend at the time was £342,000 on Andrzej Niedzielan, while Manchester City spent some £55m in 2002-03 and 2003-04, in addition to signing McManaman and David Seaman on free transfers.
The TVP commentator and journalist Maciej Iwański was just starting to commentate on Polish television when the club had their Uefa Cup run. He fondly recalled the incongruity of the small-town club mixing with the big European names: a Hertha player, for instance, asked where the actual stadium was because he assumed Dyskobolia’s home was a training ground.
Manchester City were fifth in the Premier League when the Polish side travelled to the newly opened City of Manchester Stadium in November 2003. Mila explained how Dyskobolia made their comparative lack of experience a virtue in that “the most important thing was our hunger. None of us had achieved anything, but we had a well-built team and wanted to start achieving things together.”
The English side started in the ascendant as expected, with Claudio Reyna ballooning over a semi-open goal in the third minute and Anelka latching onto a Robbie Fowler through ball to give City a 1-0 lead seven minutes later. City failed to push home their advantage, though, and Groclin increasingly gained a foothold.
Ten minutes into the second half came a moment that would become legendary in modern Polish football. Dyskobolia won a free-kick 25 yards from goal after Sylvain Distin had fouled Rasiak. While Seaman was setting up his wall, the experienced Tomasz Wieszczycki, who was the team’s regular free-kick taker, chatted with the young Mila. “You take it,” Wieszczycki said, “If I score, nothing in my life would change, but if you do, yours will change completely.” Mila dispatched the effort out of Seaman’s reach and into the top right corner. The hosts couldn’t find a winner after that, seemingly to the great displeasure of their manager, Kevin Keegan. Iwański recalled Keegan ranting in the direction of the Dyskobolia team bus about how his side would knock them out in the second leg when getting into a car outside the stadium. The pressure was on the Manchester club going into the second meeting, with Tim Rich writing in the Independent that the first leg showed City were “a long way short of the [European] elite.” Keegan’s own insistence on a high-spending approach despite having encountered opposition at board level may explain his anger.
In many regards, Groclin Dyskobolia couldn’t really lose in the second leg. Local taxi drivers were already winners before kick-off as they transported at least 1000 English fans to Grodzisk. A couple of rogue drivers are even rumoured to have transported a few unsuspecting fans from Poznań to the wrong Grodzisk – Grodzisk Mazowiecki, which is 400km away, near Warsaw.
Clips of the second leg demonstrate the thrill of the straight knockout format with the away goals rule used in European competition at the time. Chances came at both ends, the best being Andrzej Niedzielan rounding Seaman and having a shot cleared in front of the line by Richard Dunne and Anelka being denied when one-on-one with the goalkeeper Mariusz Liberda. The mass of City fans behind a goal, who could only be distinguished on TV clips in the autumn fog by their flags of St George, would be disappointed as a flurry of fireworks were let off after a goalless draw. “The English are on their knees just like 26 years ago!” said Iwański in his commentary, in reference to Widzew Łódź’s Uefa Cup victory against City in 1977.
Dyskobolia were outclassed by Bordeaux 5-1 on aggregate the following March in the third round. Not having played a competitive match for close to four months beforehand during Poland’s long winter break clearly didn’t help their preparations. Nonetheless the club felt immense pride at their first campaign in Europe. Mila scored his first goal for the Polish national team in his third appearance the month after facing Manchester City, who clearly bore scars from their visit to Grodzisk and subsequently went on a 14-match winless streak.
If you exit the stadium in Grodzisk and turn right, you soon see the grey and angular outlines of the former Groclin factory. If you turn left, after a couple of minutes strolling you see the steeple of the Church of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus, the favourite church of club president Zbigniew Drzymała. It was at this church Drzymała found a club chaplain, Father Piotr Loba.
For unknown reasons, the local bishop soon moved Father Loba to a new parish in the same diocese as the club’s regional rivals, Amica Wronki. He continued to work with Dyskobolia though and featured prominently in another notable moment in their remarkable history.
The day after Dyskobolia won their first ever trophy with a 2-1 aggregate win against Zagłębie Lubin in the 2005 Polish Cup final, Father Loba led a mass of thanksgiving at a well-attended stadium in Grodzisk. The victorious players read from the bible and asked for prayers, while the club’s press officer sang a psalm. Celebrations would later be held in the town’s market square.
Dyskobolia were deserved cup winners after dominating Lubin with their sharp and direct attacking play in the first leg at home and hanging on in the second encounter. They had just finished runners-up in the league for the second time thanks to another late-season run featuring six wins and two draws in eight matches from mid-April. Their squad was in flux, with just one player – the Czech centre-back Radek Mynář – in the 2005 cup final line-ups remaining from the team that knocked out Manchester City less than two years earlier. Rasiak left in September 2004 for Derby, for instance, and Mila switched to Austria Vienna at the start of 2005. The quality of the squad remained high, however.
The club were firmly established among the leading sides in the domestic game. Drzymała was investing three million złoty per year in the youth set-up as he sought to keep them there. Jonathan Wilson, who visited the club around this time while writing Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe, was struck by how well-run they were by Polish standards. They were able to press on after Dušan Radolský resigned following a poor start to the 2005-06 season to pick up more honours in the years that followed – another Polish Cup success in 2007 plus the Polish League Cup in 2007 and 2008 although two more Uefa Cup appearances failed to live up to the first experience in the competition.
While the foundations of the club appeared strong, the ground beneath was slowly, and then suddenly, crumbling. Poland joining the EU in 2004 had created an economic boom with plenty of opportunities. Groclin’s great advantage, though, had long been its low production costs, and with wages rising quickly and more regulations in manufacturing, Poland wasn’t such a cheap place to make car seating anymore. The company opened a factory in lower-wage Ukraine in 2004 and moved all production there from Grodzisk in 2007, but with Asian competition also gobbling up its business, it started posting losses in 2006. Its share price fell 96 per cent between 2004 and 2008. As any struggling business would do, Groclin tried to adjust and attract investors. Having an emotional and financial commitment to the folly of keeping a village football team contesting national honours hardly helped its appeal to the financial markets.
Drzymała was presumably well aware there was little chance of selling a club that was unable to stand on its own feet. Attendances had been falling at Groclin Dyskobolia home matches from an average of 3561 in 2003-04 to 2104 in 2006-07. The brutal reality that Grodzisk was too small to support a top-flight club finally had to be confronted.
Owning a team in the top flight in general remained an attractive proposition, though, as Drzymała could attest. In March 2008 a plan was announced to merge Dyskobolia with second-tier Śląsk Wrocław – although in reality it amounted to Śląsk consuming Dyskobolia. Wrocław would simply take Dyskobolia’s place in the top flight, a plan hatched with an eye on the new 40,000 stadium being planned for Wrocław ahead of Euro 2008. The mayor of Wrocław backed out at the last minute, though, and a similar merger idea was explored with fourth-tier Pogoń Szczecin. That didn’t work out, but the property developer Józef Wojciechowski then stepped in. Wojciechowski had bought Polonia Warsaw in 2006 and in 2007-08 was desperately trying to get the club promoted to the Ekstraklasa. That dream would be achieved by transferring 20 million złoty to Drzymała in July 2008 to take ownership of Groclin Dyskobolia and dissolve them into Polonia Warsaw. 18 Dyskobolia players moved to Polonia on free transfers and the Grodzisk club was disbanded, having finished third in the 2007-08 Ekstraklasa. Their place in the 2008-09 Uefa Cup was forfeited.
It was a sad moment for fans who had followed the club on their incredible journey, and there was some anger and one or two bits of anti-Drzymała graffiti. Without their benefactor, though, it was clear that the game was up.
As fantastic as the years at the top had been, one question continued to hover over Drzymała – why? Jonathan Wilson was told the club was a great outlet for the 3000 locals employed at the Groclin factory. That may be true, but the same may have been achieved more sustainably at a lower level. Why did Drzymała put so much into chasing honours that it eventually added to the troubles of his own business? There was clearly an interest in the marketing value for Groclin, with Drzymała once ordering a batch of scarves at the club shop to be binned as they carried the name Dyskobolia without Groclin. There were also boasts after the club’s European exploits at increased interest from overseas clients. Given Groclin’s business rested on selling to carmakers (or mostly to other suppliers of carmakers who incorporated Groclin’s products into their own) rather than consumers, the marketing value of the whole thing is questionable. You can be sure that decision makers at the likes of BMW and Renault would be at a trade fair, but how many were watching the Uefa Cup second round?
Iwański felt Drzymała was motivated largely by his ego, but Mila said he was a man who loved football. Drzymała himself said in the 2008 interview shortly after selling the club that he had no regrets, that the team did promote his company and the town and “some emotions are priceless. I felt a lump in my throat during so many matches.” On being asked what would become of Grodzisk now that its football team had moved to Warsaw and car seat production to Ukraine, Drzymała simply said: “Times change. Everything has an end.”
Polonia Warsaw couldn’t match Dyskobolia’s heights in the years following the 2008 merger and having failed in his ambition to win the league Wojciechowski suddenly pulled out of backing the club in 2012. The following year they went bankrupt and were demoted to the fourth tier.
The end of Groclin Dyskobolia was not the end of football in Grodzisk but it was an end to football at the highest level. A new team, Klub Sportowy Dyskobolia, was formed and inserted into the fourth tier, which proved to be far too high and two successive relegations took them deep into the regional league structure. They remained there between 2011 and 2015, when the manager of a local supermarket franchise renamed the club Dyskobolia InterMarche. Further woe came when this club went bankrupt in 2015.
For 18 months there was no football in Grodzisk until the club reformed again in 2017 as a fan-owned entity, Nasza Dyskobolia, which translates as Our Dyskobolia. They operate on a shoestring, having to crowdfund their expenses to survive, but are debt-free and seeking to be sustainable. They show few signs of being able to return to anything like Dyskobolia’s former strength. After a reorganisation of the local league structure moved them up to a district league for 2019-20 – the seventh-tier in the very broad-based Polish league pyramid – they gained two points in their opening six matches. They may operate firmly in the shadow of former triumphs, but at least those triumphs will always be there. Or that was assumed to be the case.
In May 2004, a couple of articles from a local newspaper found their way onto the desk of a district prosecutor in Wrocław. This small act would turn out to have a profound influence on Polish football.
“Who bought matches from Polar Wrocław?” asked the headline of one of the pieces from the local edition of the Gazeta Wyborcza. A shocked vice president of the second-division club had contacted the press after a player had confessed ahead of a 4-0 defeat to promotion-chasing Zagłębie Lubin to receiving an offer from an opposition player to throw the match. Lubin’s Grzegorz Niciński scored a hat-trick but was filmed chatting with an opponent who made a hand gesture to him just before he scored one goal, and another Wrocław player said Niciński had complained to him, asking: “Why am I being kicked so much when the match is arranged anyway?”
The prosecutor did his duty and investigated. It came at a momentous time for the country, with Poland having joined the EU at the start of May. One piece of the huge mass of legislation the country had introduced ahead of its accession was an act criminalising match fixing in sport in June 2003. While the prosecutor was looking into the Polar Wrocław allegations, the president of GKS Katowice visited police in Wrocław and told them how his club had also been fixing matches and bribing referees. It soon became clear that Polish football had a serious corruption problem. This came as no great surprise, as most agree match fixing had been commonplace in Polish football for decades. A 1980s black comedy film Piłkarski Poker [Football Poker] even satirised the widespread prevalence of corruption in the game at that time.
The investigation snowballed, and police, prosecutors and – after its founding in 2006 – Poland’s Central Anticorruption Bureau, the CBA, were soon scrutinising the whole of Polish football from June 2003 to the start of 2006. This involved analysing thousands of matches and tracking huge amounts of mobile phone data.
More and more clubs became embroiled – as many as 68. In March 2012 the affair entangled Dyskobolia too. A former sporting director of the club was arrested by CBA agents. He would change his story during proceedings against him, but initially said that Dyskobolia had bought a number of matches to gain promotion to the top flight in 1998-99. He also said the buying of matches continued in the top flight and was reduced – but not ended – after the strong team that finished runners-up in 2002-03 was built. The former sporting director claimed the president, who would become known as Zbigniew D in reporting on the case, had ordered bribes to be given to fix certain matches, always towards the end of the season.
Crucially, prosecutors felt they had clear evidence of match fixing at games played after the practice was criminalised in 2003. The sporting director was charged in 2015 with fixing three Dyskobolia matches. Two were derbies with Amica Wronki, in May 2004 and April 2005. They featured the same referee, who pleaded guilty to being bribed.
The third match on the charge sheet was the first leg of the 2005 Polish Cup final against Zagłębie Lubin. Prosecutors claimed Dyskobolia’s president had asked his sporting director to approach the referee, who agreed to favour them, and somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 złoty was handed over to a friend of the referee in a car outside Warsaw Central train station.
In June 2019, the sporting director and referee were both convicted of their involvement and given suspended prison sentences, under a right to appeal.
That raised the prospect of one of Dyskobolia’s greatest achievements being retrospectively expunged from the record books. The disciplinary code of the PZPN states any club found to have offered incentives to influence the outcome of a competition can be stripped of the honour.
Mańkowski said the corruption is an uncomfortable and inconvenient subject in Grodzisk Wielkopolski. Few fans he spoke to for local news site PGO24 wanted to comment in detail, but one described it as “an unpleasant situation for many fans... we thought we were part of a great sporting story but now it turns out it was senseless.”
Exactly a month after the end of Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, news broke that the former Dyskobolia president and Groclin owner had been questioned by prosecutors under suspicion of match fixing. Zbigniew D faced charges relating to the same three matches as his sporting director. He denied them and as of September 2019 remained on trial, and in poor health.
While the verdict on his part in match fixing after it became illegal in Poland in 2003 remains to be seen, in the 2008 interview he admitted to fixing matches before the point it was criminalised. He claimed to have encountered a culture of corruption on Dyskobolia entering the Ekstraklasa, saying: “I dropped from the first division because we didn’t fit in... I learned we had to behave like everyone else... If you didn’t fit in with the company you couldn’t play there... everyone had to submit... We were no better or no worse than any other big club at the time... When I hear that some clubs were ‘different’ [not corrupt] back then, it makes me laugh.”
There is little doubt the Groclin owner entered Polish football at a time corruption was already all-pervasive. Dominik Panek, a journalist who has documented every turn in the long-running corruption saga in exhaustive detail on his Piłkarska Mafia [Football Mafia] blog, has kept a tally of how many matches each club fixed or attempted to fix according to prosecutors’ claims. Dyskobolia punch well below their weight from the era in this list of shame – down in 42nd place with three matches. Arka Gdynia had the dubious honour of being involved in the highest number of matches prosecutors were pursuing – a staggering 40 – and were relegated at the end of the 2006-07 season as punishment.
Dyskobolia’s defeated 2005 cup final opponents Zagłębie Lubin stated they have no interest in pursuing attempts to reassign the trophy. The club has said it prefers to focus on the future and “win trophies on the pitch”.
Zagłębie Lubin has reasons of its own not to look back on the era too closely. Six players from the Zagłębie squad in the 2004-05 season would be punished by the PZPN for match fixing. One was a 20-year-old who was a frustrated figure on the right wing in the corrupted first leg – Łukasz Piszczek, later of Borussia Dortmund. Piszczek was given a suspended year’s prison sentence by a court in 2011 for playing a key role in collecting 100,000 złoty in a whip-round with which to bribe Cracovia players in the final match of the 2005-06 season to ensure Zagłębie qualified for the Uefa Cup.
The corruption affair concerning the 2005 cup final has generated relatively little wider interest. The matter has scarcely been mentioned in the national press. A Twitter spat between Panek and the account of Nasza Dyskobolia about the fan-owned club continuing to list the 2005 cup win in the honours section of their website attracted near zero attention.
One reason for the disinterest could be that Dyskobolia’s time in the limelight is already largely forgotten, according to Iwański. When they are recalled into Polish football’s consciousness, it is usually with fondness of their European record, as symbols of a long-lost era when the country’s teams over-performed in Europe. I spoke to Iwański the day after the Polish champions Piast Gliwice had been knocked out of Europa League qualifying by Riga FC – just one failure in a summer when Polish clubs’ performances in European competitions reached crisis levels.
After hearing the focus of my article, one Lechia Gdańsk supporter asked if anyone had been convicted at the club yet, before adding “that Drzymała though – what a team he put together for Europe, they don’t make them like that any more!” There is no suggestion Groclin Dyskobolia fixed the European matches they are remembered for.
Unfortunately, trying to separate the club’s European highs from the shadow hanging over their domestic record is problematic. They only qualified to play Manchester City by finishing the 2002-03 season two points ahead of fourth place, thanks to an incredibly strong finish to the season – at a time match fixing was not criminalised, therefore before the point the president claimed to have stopped doing it and also in a period of the season a convicted sporting director said was favoured for fixing.
Another possible reason for a lack of widespread interest in the affair surrounding the 2005 cup final is that corruption is an issue that Polish football, and also society, has to some extent left behind and sealed in a grubbier past era of the country’s fast-moving history. The mammoth effort by prosecutors and much stricter controls on clubs have vastly reduced corruption in Polish football. Poland on the whole was ranked 70th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2005, level with Burkina Faso and Syria, but by 2018 had risen to 36th in the list, higher than Spain and Italy.
Filip Groszczyk, the president of Nasza Dyskobolia, said he would support the removal of the 2005 cup from the club’s list of honours if that is decided. He acknowledged the issue around the cup win is painful and that the corruption question tarnishes the story of the club. “That was within a period of around five years though and the club has been operating for much longer than that, for the past 100 years,” he said. In glossing over the “not so commendable” heady period that brought the club national and international fame, Groszczyk – who has plans to open the new club’s own museum – promotes a very different history to the legacy left by Drzymała.
The sizeable collection of photos at the stadium’s hotel feature one from the construction of the stadium in the 1920s, several from the two years Drzymała’s uncle was club president in the 1950s and many of their successes between 2000 and 2005. The most striking is the giant picture of the squad that travelled to the first leg of their Uefa Cup tie at the City of Manchester Stadium, complete with a suited Drzymała crouching and grinning in the centre of the first row, which looks down on bowlers at the hotel’s in-house alley. Interestingly there is nothing on the walls from after the 2005 cup win.
Perhaps simply nobody had got around to it by their collapse in 2008.
The history section on Nasza Dyskobolia’s website, on the other hand, features some very detailed recollections from former players in the 1950s and 1960s. Groszczyk, incidentally, is a 20-something who grew up entirely in post-communist Poland. The tradition he and others now seek to build on is a rather more wholesome one of a community club in a small town with a decent interest in football whatever the level. Around 1000 fans came to their first match of the 2019-20 season and many of the shops and cafés in the small town centre advertise the latest fixture in their front windows.
Whether the PZPN will actually strip the club of the 2005 cup remains to be seen. They would be unlikely to act until appeals are heard against the convictions for fixing the final. A cynical take is that there may still be a hornets’ nest lurking in that seemingly well quarantined dark past of Polish football and the national association stepping in to create a precedent could illuminate other scandals.
Drzymała was remorseful in his 2008 interview when talking about the match fixing he confessed to before its criminalisation in 2003. He talked about remembering the prevalence of corruption in the Ekstraklasa “with great distaste... no president had any joy in getting their wallet out.” He blamed “silent dark structures that club presidents were powerless against.”
It can be presumed Drzymała would have been well aware of goings-on at nearby Amica Wronki, whose trajectory to the top of Polish football and down again (the club itself technically leaving town after merging with Lech Poznań) was remarkably similar to Dyskobolia’s. A barbershop owner from Wronki, Ryszard Forbrich, had gained a staggering degree of influence at the club and later across the whole of Polish football by rampantly fixing matches (in Amica Wronki’s case only before it was made illegal in 2003, as far as prosecutors could ascertain).
Forbrich would host wild alcohol and prostitute-filled parties for guests of the club (naturally including referees). According to one linesman who knew Forbrich well, he would offer officials Amica fridge-freezers in return for favours, slip cash to officials in toilets, somehow was able personally to select officials for home matches and paid journalists to write favourable things about the club or the corrupt officials. Amica won the Polish Cup three times between 1998 and 2000, with the 1998 final widely believed to have been fixed, including by at least one Amica player of the time. They are still listed as winners of that trophy. While the successor club in Wronki currently play in the same district league as Nasza Dyskobolia, the former chairman of Amica Wronki, Jacek Rutkowski – who was talked into investing in football by Forbrich at his barbershop but was not personally involved in the club until a few years after Forbrich was kicked out following the 1998 cup scandal – remains the owner of Lech Poznań, whose academy these days is located in Wronki.
As for Grodzisk, while the emotional legacy of Dyskobolia’s years at the top continues to cause controversy and headaches, the physical legacy provides a purer benefit to the town. The main stand and pitch remain in excellent shape despite many other sections of the stadium being out of use. Few non-league clubs in small, fairly isolated towns need a four-star hotel, but as Dyskobolia continued to compete in the lower tiers the facility was put to good use as an attractive base for training camps. The Groclin company sold the stadium and hotel to a local hotelier in 2014. The Poland national team have made camp there several times, Poland Under-21s made it their base ahead of the 2019 European Championship and numerous Polish clubs have visited for pre-season training. Fulham played a friendly there in the summer of 2017.
In June 2019, just five days after a court had sentenced two people for fixing the 2005 Polish Cup final, Ecuador’s national association sent out a photo on social media ahead of their Under-20 team’s appearance in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Poland. They proudly announced it was the first time a team from the country had made the last four of any World Cup – a truly historic moment for them. On the picture, just behind the eager young team at their pre-tournament camp, a sign could be seen. “Dyskobolia Groclin: Champions of Poland 2002-03 2004-05,” it said. There was also another short word in tiny small print between the two lines of the sign, though from the resolution of the photos there was no way you could read it.