Legia is proving to be the best football club in Poland, both in terms of sport and financial results. But its dominance on home turf is not enough for the club’s new owners: now they want to make their mark in Europe
by Jacek Ciesnowski
Bogusław Leśnodorski is quite a character, even for the unorthodox world of sports executives. He prefers wearing clothes that can be bought in Legia’s fan store to suits and ties. He has a pinball machine and a longboard in his office. If it weren’t for the stack of binders and documents lying on his desk, you would have thought that you’d stepped into a teenager’s bedroom, not an executive bureau.
In the past, Leśnodorski, a law and MBA graduate, was a management board member of various companies from real estate to the mining sector. He also has his own law firm. He became Legia’s president in December 2012. “I was always a fan and a regular at the games. Very often I complained about how things were being done at the club and when it was looking for new management someone said to me ‘you’re always saying how you would handle things differently. It’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is,’” he explained.
At first he was appointed the club’s president, but after a few months in the seat he started thinking about being Legia’s owner as well. “There have been many multimillionaires, not only in Poland, that have spent huge amounts of money on a sports club, and did not see anything in return, neither money nor championships. I thought the same way at first. But after getting to know the people working here, I decided that Legia has the potential to be different from other Polish clubs.” It was no secret that the the previous owners, media giant ITI, were looking for a buyer. The club was a pet project of Mariusz Walter, the founder and long-time CEO of the company. But he has taken a back seat both in the company – and after Legia failed to win the championship in 2012 – in the club as well. Walter was devastated and fed up that the club his company had spent millions on had only managed to win the championship once during ITI’s decade-long tenure as the club’s owners (the second title was won in 2013, after Leśnodorski became president). It was a really tough time for the franchise. Legia fans quickly turned on the new owners accusing them of destroying the club and its legacy, with chants like “Legia is us, not you,” being sung regularly from the stands, while other “songs” laced with obscenities were even more frequent.
Going to Legia games became a chore for many. When they weren’t booing the owners, hardcore fans stood quiet, not supporting their team as a sign of the protest. This was Leśnodorski’s moment to shine.
One of his first decisions was making peace with the protesting supporters. This was actually easy to accomplish. Both sides were fed up with the situation and the only thing the new president could do was treat them like normal people, not criminals and unwanted customers as they were sometimes being handled.
With an already strong team and a stadium full of rabid supporters, winning the championship six months after Leśnodorski started his job was a formality. This is when he decided that he wanted more than just a chance to run the club. “We knew that the owners were looking to sell, so I decided, along with [Dariusz] Mioduski, that it’s time to make the move. We both had to convince each other that it was a good decision, we were our biggest supporters.”
Mioduski, also a law graduate and former business partner of Jan Kulczyk, bought an 80-percent stake in the club, while Leśnodorski acquired the remaining 20. In reality, it’s the minor investor who calls most of the shots, having remained the club’s president. But the transition to co-owner was pretty much non-existent as the only difference was he was now spending his own money. “My approach stayed the same. The business model had to be detached from emotions. All your decisions need to be calculated just like in every other business,” he explained.
Balancing the books
Leśnodorski made sure he was not spending his funds on a money-losing venture. For the last two years, Legia had a balanced budget. It was not generating losses, but not making a profit either. “When running a club you can’t expect any profits. Smart managing, in our case, meant that anything you earn you spend. Sure, you can sell players for millions and put younger ones from our academy in their place, but it won’t lead to much sporting success. Besides, we have many planned investments,” he said. The biggest of them all is a football youth academy, where kids aged seven and over will be able to train, play matches, go to school and even live. Currently, 12 youth teams have to share one field. Such facilities have been in the cards for a few years now and Leśnodorski promises that announcements regarding the academy will be made soon.
The club is not only the best team in Poland currently, but it’s also the wealthiest, according to consultancy Deloitte’s annual report on Polish football clubs. Legia had PLN 66 million income last year (KGHM Zagłębie Lubin was in second place with PLN 40.1 million income), and while results for 2013 are not available yet, analysts estimate it to be in the range of PLN 80 million. In 2014, Legia has a big chance to be the first Polish club to reach PLN 100 million in income. More money means better players, as the first team’s wages take up some 60 percent of the annual budget. However, Leśnodorski is wary not to overspend on salaries. “We pay quite nicely here. I don’t think we should be paying players more than we already do.” Player’s contracts are confidential, but according to the sporting daily Przegląd Sportowy, the highest-earning footballer in Legia is Portuguese striker Orlando Sa, who earns some €300,000 a year. There are also a few other players in the club that earn within the €200-300,000 range per season.
Leśnodorski claims that he’s happy with the core squad and plans 2-3 transfers every six months. He mostly looks for young players, both from Poland and abroad, who will first gain experience and after a few seasons become first-squad regulars. After that, they may be sold for a hefty price. He also hopes that established Polish players, who have left the country but have failed to impress abroad or are nearing the end of their professional careers, would be more than happy to return to Poland and play for his team. He is willing to splash out some cash on a player that could replace a first-team player. The highest-ever transfer to the club was Croatian midfielder Ivica Vrdoljak, who joined Legia in 2010 for a €1 million fee. Leśnodorski claims that the club may be able to afford spending that much again on an established player.
Chasing the dream
Legia repeated last year’s success by securing its second championship in a row. But domestic dominance is not the club’s main objective – getting into the exclusive Champions League is. “This is where the real money is,” the Legia president claims.
Polish fans have waited far too long for a Polish team to get into the Champions League group stages. The last time it happened was in the 1996/97 campaign when Widzew Łódź managed to qualify. Since then, all attempts have failed. This season, Legia came close when they were one goal away from defeating Romanian Steaua Bucharest in the final qualifying round. “With the squad we currently have, we would have beaten the Romanians,” claims Leśnodorski.
Failure to qualify and a lackluster performance in the Europa League was the main reason for firing the previous coach, Jan Urban, in December. He was let go despite Legia sitting comfortably at the top of the league table. “Urban is a great coach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he works for us in the future, but he was too focused on the first squad. We wanted to improve many other aspects of the club. Our visions were different, so we had to look for a different solution,” said Leśnodorski.
Urban’s replacement was Norwegian Henning Berg, a former defender who played for clubs such as Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, winner of Premiership titles and the Champions League. But his managerial career has been much less impressive so far. His first trophy is this year’s championship with Legia.
“We’ve spent a long time discussing if he is a good fit for us, if he has the same vision as we do. In the end, we’ve decided that Berg’s philosophy is very similar to ours. Besides, we were a small fish in the pond looking to make a significant step forward. Berg is someone that will help us make it,” the Legia boss explained.
The sky is the limit
Legia has a coach, a team and a modern stadium. The only thing left to achieve international success is a bit of luck, at least according to Leśnodorski, who knows that his club will be unseeded in the final qualifying stages for the Champions League, thus facing tougher opponents like Celtic Glasgow, Sparta Praha or, once again, Steaua Bucharest.
But even if Legia fails to qualify there this or next season, there’s always the Europa League, a secondary club competition where the Polish champions can also play. Nevertheless, a strong European presence is a must for a club like the Warsaw side in many ways. By maintaining a regular, strong performance, the team puts itself on the football map as a solid, modern club with strong ambitions, as a result attracting better players to join the squad. It’s also a perfect opportunity to showcase its players and sell them abroad. After a good showing in the 2011/2012 campaign, when Legia reached the first knockout phase, the club sold several players for nearly €8 million. Leśnodorski assures that the money the club could win in European campaigns is not in the budget before each season, but if the Warsaw side manages to win significant amounts, the club has “multiple ideas on how to spend it.”