Can Europe Make It?

In the bad guys’ lair - AKS Zły and their alternative football

Players, managers and supporters of AKS Zły in Poland take their sport seriously and know that winning is the best way to show that an alternative way of playing football is possible.

Lorenzo Berardi Salvatore Greco
13 April 2018

The 'Bad Girls' of AKS Zły are also doing well this season, 2018. All rights reserved.It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-August and fans crowd the Don Pedro Arena of Kawęczyńska street. Thirty minutes ahead of the preliminary round of the Polish Cup, the 200 tickets printed for the first match of the season of the home team have already sold out. On the proudly uncovered stands of the little stadium sit a heterogeneous mix of people. We're in Warsaw in the former working district of Praga by the eastern bank of the Vistula River. It's on this peripheral football pitch, nestled between social housing blocks and an abandoned factory, that AKS Zły play. 

The Don Pedro Arena sits one and a half miles from Warsaw's National Stadium as the bird flies. It's in the parking lot of this stadium that on November 11, 2017, up to 60,000 Poles gathered to celebrate Poland's National Independence Day. Thousands among them did so by marching behind banners and flags of far-right European movements (from Poland's ONR to Hungary's Jobbik and Italy's Forza Nuova) as well as chanting anti-Islam slogans. It was a show of force of local nationalists believing in an all-white, catholic, no-LGBT, migrant-free country.

First half

The 'Alternative Sport Club Zły’ (meaning 'Bad') is miles away from such discourses. “Our history began in August 2015 with twenty football enthusiasts who wanted to create their own independent club,” Dominik – known as 'Ariel' and among the founders of Zły – says: “In doing so we took inspiration from supporters-managed clubs such as AFC Wimbledon in England and HFC Falke in Germany. We met with the founders of the latter, saw how they ran it and came back to Warsaw to try the same.”

At the call-up for the two teams 60 men and 30 women showed up. First the founders of Zły checked the financial sustainability of the club, then they registered both teams to the Polish Football Association. “We started from nothing,” Ariel says, “and now our club works, displays good football and generates interesting social processes.”

The district of Praga was chosen as the two major football teams in Warsaw – Legia and Polonia – play on the other side of the Vistula, but also because some of Zły founders live here. “We wanted our club to be a local team and Praga was its perfect home due to its social structure,” Ariel says, stressing how: “About one hundred people joined the club and forty of them manage it all together by looking after the teams and handling marketing, communication, financial plans and so on.”

The economic part is paramount for a self-financed club with a budget of 8000 PLN (1700 £) per month. Zły has three financial pillars: a £1 monthly fee paid by the club members, match tickets selling – “but children and those who can't afford it enter for free,” Ariel explains – and sponsors. The club wishes to get eleven of the latter, just like the players on the pitch, and has got six or seven so far. Crowdfunding and events help paying the bills. The atmosphere on the Don Pedro Arena stands is unlike other stadiums and one of the rules of the club forbids swearing when you are older than four.

The atmosphere on the Don Pedro Arena stands is unlike other stadiums and one of the rules of the club forbids swearing when you are older than four. This helps in attracting kids, families, and grandparents. The noisiest fans are a group of supporters singing football anthems and waving the team's black and white flags. As one of them, Mariusz, puts it: “Zły has a local identity that makes it likeable for those living in this district, but it belongs to the whole city. I cheer for a big football club, but I've been supporting this eighth league team since its inception for I share its same values.”

Michał and his wife Agnieszka with their 18-month-old son sit nearby: “We live in Warsaw's outskirts and are here for the first time,” they say: “Some friends told us about this club and the values it represents. We were curious to come and see. We like football, but not the hatred that is often around it. We'd never take our son to another Polish stadium. Here is different and we like it. We'll definitely be back.”

AKS Zły appeals to people who live far from the Praga district due to the message it promotes, but also thanks to its effective way of communicating its values and initiatives. “I love this sport, but unfortunately football in Poland is far-right territory with most of the fans supporting our big teams who identify themselves with that ideology,” Janek, press officer and player of the male team explains. “Zły is open to everyone. We don't have an owner, but there's an assembly running the club. We believe in democracy, multiculturalism, gender equality. We want to play in a district of Warsaw that is often left behind and houses many have-nots, because this club can mean something important for them.”

Half time

Antonio Shehadee coaches the male team and is a thirty years old Israeli of Christian faith who recently got married and works for the corporates. Leukaemia stopped his football playing career, but he has overcome it. Antonio arrived in Poland in 2008 holding a UEFA B coaching licence that he had gained in his home country. In the capital he started coaching Makabi Warszawa, a team inheriting the tradition of a huge pre-war Jewish sports club. Then in October 2015 he heard about Zły and liked it so much that he joined them. “Here it doesn't matter where you come from, nor what your religious beliefs or political ideas are,” he says.

To him football is a family thing. His brother Elias was Zły's top scorer last season but left the team and now plays two leagues up. Antonio's parents run a football academy in their Israeli hometown of Ma'alot-Tarshiha. Zły plays 4-1-4-1 and his manager want them to get promoted after coming 3 points short of that goal in 2016-2017. “We may be kind, decent people but we aren't little lambs and we always get some yellow cards. However, what happens on the pitch must stay there.” Antonio makes clear. “We may be kind, decent people but we aren't little lambs and we always get some yellow cards. However, what happens on the pitch must stay there.”

Danuta 'Ruda' (Red) Wojciechowska agrees with this. She owns a small grocer's shop and is the player-manager of the złe dziewczyny (bad girls), the female football team. “My role on the pitch is flexible. Whenever one of my players is missing, I take her place,” she laughs, “but I enjoy playing as a defender.” Zły' is the second team in Danuta's career and before joining them she played two leagues up. However, she says: “when I was offered the manager position here, I accepted it.” She's aware of the gap between men's and women's football but “in this club the male and female teams count the same and this friendly yet professional atmosphere makes it great playing here.”

Second half

At AKS Zły they believe in fair play and disapprove of the hysterical attitude of most football clubs, but their sport is still made of the same socks and studs. “Our team is in the eighth tier, but I treat it seriously and I want my players to be committed. To me they have to be like a pack of hungry wolves on the pitch,” Antonio insists.

It's alternative football, but still football after all, and the final result is important for players who lead most of their lives outside the pitch. It's the football of men like Giorgi Komoshvili, who is Georgian, works as a translator and plays right winger, but also of employees, orchestra musicians, and typographers. Among the players hailing from abroad, there are also two Germans and full-back Henryk Nguyen who is second generation Vietnamese. The women coached by Danuta are university students, mothers, shop owners, even a young grandmother. They speak Polish, Belarusian, Italian, even sign language. It's alternative football, but still football after all, and the final result is important for players who lead most of their lives outside the pitch.

“It’s good if you speak Polish, but if not we speak English. If you want to join us, you're always welcome whether you're religious or not or a mother or not. Football comes first here as we want to play and win all together,” Magda who's 25 years old and plays goalkeeper says. “I love it when we have away matches. The team travels with a glitzy golden minibus, with a Mother Mary printed on its back; it's very funny to see and it shows how diverse we are,” she adds.

The goal set by AKS Zły this season is to have its teams promoted. It's a reasonable expectation given that both of them didn't make it to the seventh tier by just a few points in 2016-2017. Halfway through the current season, the women's team ranks second in the league with seven wins out of nine matches and is on track to get promoted. Things are a bit harder for the men's team. They are seventh in their league, with a 13 points gap between them and promotion.

“Football comes first here” is what people running Zły or wearing their jerseys often repeat. And it's more than a mere catchphrase. Those believing in this club that encourages diversity, gender equality, fair play, and a democratic management, want to be more than mascots of a better football. Players, managers and supporters of AKS Zły take their sport seriously and know that winning is the best way to show that an alternative way of making football is possible. Winning for themselves and for their team, but also to send a strong message out to the far-right world of Polish football: participating is not enough, the time is ripe to win on the pitch. To be bad for a good cause.

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