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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » November 5, 2008
SPORT AND POLITICS
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New Chief, Old Problems
November 5, 2008 By W.Ż.    
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Former star striker Grzegorz Lato was Oct. 30 voted in as the new head of the Polish soccer association (PZPN), a decision that government officials, who have been at odds with the PZPN for months, said would delay reforms to the corruption-riddled Polish game.

At a special convention of the Polish soccer association, Lato, 58, won the required minimum of 57 votes from 113 delegates to replace Michał Listkiewicz, who quit amid pressure from the government after prosecutors brought match-fixing and corruption charges against soccer club officials, referees, coaches and players. Lato previously worked as deputy to Listkiewicz, who became PZPN chief in 1999.

Lato's contenders, PZPN secretary Zdzisław Kręcina and another former Polish soccer star Zbigniew Boniek, scored 36 and 19 votes respectively. The fourth contender, Tomasz Jagodziński, withdrew from the race at the last minute.

Lato was the best striker of the 1974 World Cup, a tournament during which long-shot Poland unexpectedly came third. From 2001 to 2005 he pursued a political career as a senator with the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party.

After the results of the vote were announced, Lato said he would do everything to "straighten out the image of the PZPN." He also promised that unless the situation improved within a year, he would "resign and call another election."

Lato said he planned to start out by meeting with Sports Minister Mirosław Drzewiecki. He also said that he had no intention of firing the national team's Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker, who has been criticized by many PZPN officials recently. He said, however, that Beenhakker would have to write a report on why the Polish team performed poorly in the Euro 2008 tournament in June.

The choice of Lato over Boniek, who was supported by the Sports Ministry and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), came under fire from critics who have claimed the PZPN is riddled with corrupt officials.

"The choice of Grzegorz Lato as PZPN head means that we will have to wait longer for Polish soccer to be cleaned up and reformed," said Sławomir Nowak, Prime Minister Donald Tusk's chief of staff. "Those who wanted to turn the PZPN around have lost substantially," Nowak said.

Adam Giersz, an adviser to the sports minister and who was recently involved in a failed government attempt to install an official "administrator" to run the PZPN, said, "Grzegorz Lato was a great soccer player, and we should hope that he, together with the new PZPN board, will be at least a little better than their predecessors." The administrator was withdrawn after UEFA and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) threatened sanctions against Poland and its soccer clubs.

"Lato's election is a defeat for Sports Minister Mirosław Drzewiecki," said Elżbieta Jakubiak, a deputy with the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party and head of the parliamentary committee for culture and sports. "Under Lato, the PZPN will not undergo the necessary changes," Jakubiak said.

Eugeniusz Kłopotek, a deputy with the junior government coalition partner, the Polish People's Party (PSL), said the fact that Boniek won the least votes is "a slap in the face for Boniek and Minister Drzewiecki."

Shortly before the PZPN convention, government officials, including Drzewiecki, supported Boniek on numerous occasions. The former Polish striker who once played for teams such as Juventus Turin, is now a successful businessman in Rome. Polish government officials believed Boniek would be the best man to reform the PZPN because he had a good reputation abroad and is not linked with the old PZPN board.

During the PZPN convention, Boniek was clearly backed by Hrihoriy Surkis, a member of the UEFA executive committee and head of the Ukrainian soccer federation. Ukraine and Poland are to host the next European soccer championships together in 2012.

In his speech, Surkis suggested the delegates should elect "a man of the West who will smoothly work with the government."

Surkis also suggested that Kręcina should withdraw from the race because he faced charges of mismanagement. The audience growled as Surkis spoke, and commentators later said his speech was a "kiss of death" for Boniek.

"Grzegorz Lato was an excellent athlete but lacks managerial experience," said Michał Kleiber, chairman of the Polish Academy of Sciences and head of an Independent Election Commission established as a result of a compromise ending the Polish government's argument with UEFA and FIFA after the government's attempt to install an administrator in the PZPN.

According to Kleiber, the PZPN chief needs leadership skills and determination, as well as the ability to work with key partners. "Mr. Lato's associates will be important, so I would wait with judging his chances for success until we learn who's on his team," said Kleiber.

Lato got off to a bad start as the new PZPN chief. Hours after the vote he said on a TV program that Poland might team up with Germany to hold Euro 2012 instead of Ukraine, if reports that the latter has put all Euro 2012-related projects on hold due to the international financial crisis proved true. He said in the next breath, however, that he hoped Ukraine would overcome its problems and would be able to host the event together with Poland.
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