The Community Throughout the British Isles, Polish student societies provide students with a space they can call their own. Activities which can unite PolSoc members range from Pub quizzes to career fairs to games of ‘flanki’, and the diversity that we see is part of the beauty of our communities.
Having graduated from Warwick and as a former member of one of the largest and most active PolSoc’s in Britain (as can be regularly attested by our turnout at and organisation of The Federation, Congress, and Poland 2.0, for example) I would like to tell you about one such activity that was a huge success for us and will hopefully inspire other Polish societies to do so as well.
As a society, we have had a strong football background for a while. We regularly organised watchalongs of the national team’s games, booking a room on campus and creating a relaxed atmosphere where people can either pop in and chat for a bit, or passionately support the White and Red. But we have a tradition of playing the game as well - before the pandemic, our 5-a-side team would regularly find itself at the top of the Sunday league - and last year, we participated in two charity tournaments, first coming in third out of sixteen teams for the 7-a-side outdoor competition in November, and then securing gold in futsal a few weeks later in a dramatic final penalty shoot-out.
These successes were mainly possible due to three factors. Firstly, a large cohort of over one hundred Polish students arrived on campus the last year before Brexit. Secondly, despite the significant restrictions on socialising, the PolSoc was able to maintain its size and sense of community throughout the pandemic-ridden year of 2020/21. Students forged especially strong ties around weekly (socially distanced) gatherings outside the only building on campus that remained open when all others were closed - the launderette. This improved chemistry between players and encouraged fans to turn up to watch a team that they considered to be of their own. Lastly, we were blessed to have a strong core of players from Warwick’s Futsal team, whose successes include reaching the semi-final of the National Cup against future winners and sports powerhouse Loughborough, who they only lost to 5:6. These included Warwick Futsal Vice-President Mateusz Grzegorczyk, former member of the ŁKS Łódź academy. Other crucial elements of the squad included Christopher Świątek, former academy player of Spartak Moscow, and Michał Starostka, who had once turned down an offer to play at the Legia Warsaw youth academy.
Along with some additional players for squad depth and inspired by earlier achievements, we were ready to take the Term 3 University of Warwick 11-a-side Sunday League by storm. For the occasion, we ordered black kits with white and red sleeves, the PolSoc logo emblazoned on the chest, with which we would enter into battle against seven other teams for hour-long fixtures.
As could have been expected, the beginnings were difficult. For many of our players this was the first game on a full-size pitch in a very long time - for some, the first ever. In contrast, most of the teams we faced had played in the leagues in the Autumn and Winter Terms. The results reflect this disparity, as we suffered a 0:7 defeat against Maths and Stats, one of the strongest teams in the league (albeit only 0:1 down by half time, with four goals being conceded in the final 20 minutes) and a 3:7 loss against eventual runners-up History. The third game against PPE featured gruesome scenes as two Eagles had to be taken off within the first 15 minutes due to identical hamstring injuries, while early in the second half goalkeepers Cameron Carter and Daniel Jensen both ended up in hospital with a twisted ankle and a broken nose and orbit respectively, leading the game to be abandoned at 1:3 (to be finished a month later and end 1:4). With half a dozen injuries and numerous absences due to exams depleting our squad depth, doubts were beginning to germinate about the entire endeavour.
Thankfully, things began to click at exactly the right time. With the arrival of reinforcements such as previously unavailable striker Maciej Lulka and a few international students, the Polish Eagles managed to come back from behind and secure their first win 3:1 against Politics - a highly symbolic victory, as both sides claimed the title of ‘Warwick PolSoc’. With that dispute forever settled in our favour, we marched on. Following a devastating 2:3 loss to eventual league winners Languages, we thrashed the Portuguese-Speaking Society 5:0 on a warm Wednesday afternoon and defeated Physics three days later 3:2 in dramatic fashion, with Lulka scoring twice to turn the tide in the last fifteen minutes.
It was not just the fact that the scores were getting better. Communication on the pitch was improving, as each player gained experience from the previous matches. This culminated in a beautiful team goal against Physics, where six passes separated a Starostka throw-in at the half-way line from a successful finish in the penalty area by futsalowiec Filip Pokorny, assisted by Świątek.
In the end, we finished in sixth place, one point behind PPE in fourth and behind Physics on goal difference. Lulka finished as our top scorer, with 5 goals in only four games. The push up the table came too late for us to be able to catch up with the other teams, but our later performances indicated that on our day we would be able to strongly contend on an even basis with any of the teams in our league.
The Atmosphere Fan support from the Polish society was able to pierce the somewhat-challenging graduation barrier as well. Tadashi Matsumoto, a PhD candidate, who came to watch his friends play, and “to meet with people from the society in a different setting” noted that that in contrast to previous years where matches of the Polish team were not advertised to the society at large, “This year the organisers made an effort to advertise and encourage people to come which I believe made the people in the society closer together. It created a new experience for everyone which hasn’t been done before and people who are not keen on football even participated.”
This atmosphere around the team, and its meaning to the community, was noted by its international members. Dom Healey, one of the futsal players initially brought by Grzegorczyk to fill in for an injury for the second game, found the experience different from other teams he played for, stating “the team talks at the beginning seemed very thorough (although I understood very little, understandably), there was always a big crowd attending the games - and everything was very positive - and it was different having the games recorded.”
Having scored two goals on his debut in game 2, including the first of the team, Dom was one of several international players who decided to come to games and play even after we technically had enough Polish players to field a line-up. He found himself to be treated as an integral part of the squad, “and always felt very supported and appreciated. The team were always very friendly, too. I don't think there's much that needs to be done with regard to including non-Polish players in the squad”. It’s clear to see (and this is an important note for smaller PolSocs in particular, but not only) that players must not necessarily speak Polish natively - or be Polish at all - to be keen representatives of a Polish community’s team, as long as it's an interesting place to be around, spend time at, and be appreciated for what they do.
The executive of the Polish society was also very satisfied with how joining the Sunday league turned out. Social Secretary Mary Garnczarek believes that joining the league gave the Society a joint goal and deepened the ties between its members. “Every weekend we had the opportunity to meet up and spend good time together playing and supporting the team. As supporters we cheered on our players by singing Polish chants - during the game you could feel like we were at the National Stadium.”
Indeed, the level of support and chanting that even only a dozen or so fans could bring to a football game was something that stood apart from the other sides in the league, which resembled more squads of players than teams representing certain communities at the University. From what I have personally noticed, it was only the national teams, such as us and the French and Spanish, who played in the Wednesday league, who were able to draw crowds, but does it have to be like that? University sports in Britain must not be as huge as college basketball or American football is across the Atlantic, where games are regularly attended by tens of thousands of spectators, in order to be of communal value. And teams representing smaller communities (the size of hundreds rather than thousands of students such as ours) just like lower-league football sides, playing at smaller grounds have their own appeal.
Nevertheless, some additional infrastructure for fans at Warwick would be in order. At the Tarkett astroturf pitch ten minutes north of central campus, where all games were played, there was no stand, or elevated point of view for the fans to observe from, nor any shelter to hide under in case of rain. Although it was not a significant issue for us this time, the idea of getting drench on a cold October Sunday afternoon, barely being able to see the game, could prove a counterbalance to viewers who might have come to watch our games had it not been exam season, something noted by Tadashi.
The most important conclusion is that sport can be an important means for a community to meet, spend time, and bond together. Its beauty lay in its simplicity. In fact, football was not the only sport at Warwick which had a Polish team participate in this term, as our volleyball squad finished runners-up in its league, only behind a combined male-female Warwick Volleyball team (which to me sounds a bit like cheating, but whatever). There is much potential for Polish societies to field sports teams at their own universities, if not for the sake of winning, then at least for the sake of providing an avenue for communal engagement, and even perhaps with engagement with each other.
It remains unclear what comes next for the Warwick Polish Eagles. Much of the squad is either graduating or leaving for a year abroad, and fewer students are going to come from Poland to fill their place - one of the many sad human impacts of Brexit on student life in Britain. Perhaps a more inclusive community will allow for students with Polish or international backgrounds to participate and support the team, identifying with it as its own? Maybe downsizing back to the 5-a-side pitches, or merging with another society, will prove to be part of the solution?
But even if this is all there is to be from the Polish Eagles, I am already happy with what has been accomplished here. In total, twenty-four students played for us in these seven games, about a third of them internationals. Having only missed out of two of the games due to injury, I must say that it has been a real pleasure. Thank you so much to every single one who was involved in this, including the fans who found it worthwhile to come and watch us play, win or lose.
There’s only one Warwick PolSoc.