WBJ Observer unveils the story of the village of Nieciecza, the smallest municipality in Europe to have a team in the top football division. We also present the figure behind the success, Krzysztof Witkowski, a local entrepreneur
By Wojciech Rylukowski
Located in south-eastern Poland, 20 kilometers from Tarnów, is the small village of Nieciecza, inhabited by 750 citizens. On November 20 it celebrated a landmark event in its history. For the first time ever the local football club, Termalica Bruk-Bet, played a match in Poland’s elite division at its own stadium. After the club won promotion to Poland’s top-tier, the facility underwent a major overhaul to fulfill license requirements needed to play in the T-Mobile Ekstraklasa, including the installation of pitch heating and floodlights, as well as an increase in its capacity to 4,500. Seen from distance, the brightly illuminated stadium, located in the wind-swept countryside, resembled a UFO aircraft which had landed in a corn-field. That evening, Termalica took to the field against league leaders, Piast and although the game was lost three to five, the celebratory mood of Krzysztof Witkowski, the project’s mastermind, was not diminished. The only sponsor of the club has just reached another milestone in its long-term plan to develop football in the village.
An entrepreneur in the centrally planned economy
The history of Witkowski’s success dates back to 1984, when as a fresh graduate from Kraków’s AGH University of Science and Technology, he was trying to find a job in his field of building material technology. Unsuccessful, he took matters into his own hands and rented a depleted workshop, bought a cement mixing machine and set up a concrete manufacturing firm. Beginnings were not easy though, so called “private initiatives” as the ruling party described entrepreneurs, were not favorably regarded under communism. With only two employees, Witkowski was forced to work physically, producing flagstones, breezeblocks and curbstones – products which were later sold to large state-owned companies. The fall of communism marked the beginning of the business’ intensive growth, further eased by Poland’s accession to the EU. Since the bulk of the funds provided by the Union were channeled into infrastructure, companies like Bruk-bet had a bonanza. Thirty years after its establishment, the firm has become the third largest player (after Libet and Polbruk) in the sector of cobble stone manufacturing, with around 10 percent of the market share, as estimated by Witkowski himself. The company’s income in 2013 amounted to PLN 15 million and Bruk-bet now runs 15 plants, 32 technological lines and 17 sales offices Poland-wide. Despite national-level success, its heart still beats in the village of Nieciecza.
To uphold tradition
“He could afford to move anywhere he wants, name the place, but he’s a local patriot and his whole familyis from here,” said Tadeusz Wójcik, the village leader of Nieciecza. The businessman’s attachment to the place where he was born and bred is motivated by his roots. Historically, the village stood out from other municipalities in the region due to its unusual high share of well-educated inhabitants – a fact that earned it the nickname “gazeciarze”, which can be translated as “press readers”. In 1916, an amateur theater group was established, in which Witkowski’s grandfather was involved. The cultural inclination was passed to the son, Kazimierz, a soldier in the Armia Krajowa, Poland’s second World War underground army, then to the grandson, Krzysztof. The theater troupe is up and running to the present day and currently it is headed by Witkowski’s mom. Bowing down to tradition, Witkowski has built a cinematic auditorium fitted with a theater stage on the ground floor of Bruk-bet’s headquarters. With two rows of seats equipped with a moveable platform and devices for simulating wind, water, lightning or smell, the cinema is quite an
extraordinary facility for a place inhabited by 750 citizens. In fact, it might be the only village in the world that has a 4D cinema. But, maintaining cultural traditions is not the only commitment to the community shown by the businessman. After he saved the local school from bankruptcy, he turned it into one of the best in the region. “He gets outstanding teachers from the area to work there. Kids are provided with language lessons, it’s all covered by Witkowski,” Wójcik said. The school’s reputation is known outside Nieciecza and parents from neighboring communities make efforts to enroll their children there. The entrepreneur also made donations to renovate a fire squad depot and sponsored the purchase of new fire trucks. Not surprisingly, he is also the main employer in the village. “Whoever wants to work, can work at the Bruk-bet plant,” said Wójcik’s wife. Because of that, the village is not ridden with problems common for many small Polish towns, namely emigration and depopulation. “Of course, the youth wants to live in big cities and they leave, but we used to have many empty buildings and now they are all inhabited. Nieciecza is a kind of oasis in the region,” Wójcik admitted. Knowing all this, it becomes more understandable why he is treated like a local hero, and why everybody in the village looks up to him. Some even attribute him god-like features: “he has such nobility in his hands, everything he touches turns gold,” the village leader said, all the same ensuring he doesn’t become uppish, the opinion expressed by most villagers.
“We are from a village, but we are the best”
The gem in Bruk-bet’s crown is Termalica, the football club. Just like the beginnings of the theater, football’s history in the village reaches back to the 1920s. For years the local team had been playing in thelower divisions of Poland’s football system. Its situation saw a sudden change after the cobblestone producer became its sponsor and set the ambitious goal of climbing up the league system ladder. Its rise to Poland’s second division was spectacular and achieved rather easily, however, the final touch that would secure promotion to the Ekstraklasa encountered hurdles. Since 2010, Termalica struggled to make the move to Poland’s football elite, despite the fact that it had always finished in the top parts of the second league table. In 2013, the club missed out on promotion by just one point, losing three out of the five final games. This kind of a bad luck combined with fresh memories of corruption scandals that shook Poland in the 1990s and 2000s, provoked comments that Termalica was either selling the games off or was throwing matches to avoid the expensive renovation of its stadium required to meet Ekstraklasa’s license demands. Witkowski said that these allegations were unjustified and the season 2014/2015 proved his point. After winning 2:0 against Pogoń Siedlce in May, Termalica Bruk-bet Nieciecza secured an historic promotion to Ekstraklasa, an event celebrated by local fans chanting “We are from a village, but we are the best.” The remarkable success also caused a headache. Termalica’s stadium was way too small to host top-tier games and Witkowski was forced to move his team to play in Kraków. Nonetheless, he immediately made the decision to start building a new stadium with a capacity of 4,500, seven times more than the population of Nieciecza. The CEO boldly stated that he was not afraid that the stands would be empty, saying that “it is a problem of big agglomerations. There are some clubs which are able to fill their stadiums, but most of them are half-empty.” Despite receiving invitations to permanently move his team to Tarnów or Kraków, Witkowski declined, once again making a reference to his roots. “It’s my relation with the village” he explained, assuring that the club’s place is in Nieciecza. The businessman sees the
development of the football team as a kind of gift to the villagers. And the villagers appreciate it, attending every game and creating a picnic-like atmosphere. The team is also supported at away games, with almost a third of Nieczeca’s population traveling with Termalica. “We go in four buses, every bus fits around 40-50 people,” Wójcik said. Women, children, the elderly and families – they do differ from typical away fans and this causes awkward and funny situations. Wójcik remembers when they were going to a game against Legia in Warsaw, the police stopped the bus and checked whether they had any weapons on them, looking for axes, machetes or brass knuckles.
There’s more to win
Although for Witkowski the football club is part of the company’s CSR, he’s not ruling out that one day it may turn into a profitable business. As of now, he is the one that injects money. “No one has ever counted how much I have spent on the club, but it’s way more than one percent of the company’s profit as some suggest,” he laughed. Being the sole sponsor of the club doesn’t stop him from making plans. The short-term expectations are modest: to keep the club in Ekstraklasa and to create a training program for children. But he also sets more long-term targets: to buy outstanding players and to make Nieciecza (even) more visible on the footballing map. When pressed to admit whether he thinks of European cups, he swerved the question, explaining that it is too early to say, but he didn’t dismiss the idea that, one day, it might happen. Who knows if one day Nieciecza will surprise Europe as it has already surprised Poland and become the smallest village to ever play in the Europa League or even the Champions League?