Here we go! As Poland heads to Qatar, fans will be hoping they recapture the spirit of 1974
Escorted to the border by two F-16 fighter jets, Poland’s national football team embarked yesterday for Qatar, an adventure they hope will become a historic odyssey rather than a short-lived break in the searing sun.
Leaving Poland in buoyant mood following a solid 1-0 win over Chile in Warsaw on Wednesday night, Czesław Michniewicz’s charges will be looking to exorcise the ghosts that have haunted the side in recent decades as they finally take the field on Tuesday. Certainly, success is a little overdue.
Although Poland’s first football federation was established in Lwów in 1911, it wasn’t until a decade later that a national side stepped onto a pitch to represent the country; ending in a 1-0 loss against Hungary, Polish football fans would have to wait until 1922 to see their first win.
Making their World Cup debut in 1938, the tournament followed a straight knockout formula with Poland falling at the first hurdle – but what a premier it was. Losing in extra time to Brazil, the match ended 6-5 with Ruch Chorzów’s Ernst Wilimowski netting four times for the Poles.
However, rather than being in enshrined in folklore, Wilimowski would become a deeply divisive figure. Taking Volksdeutscher citizenship during the occupation, he later fought for the Wehrmacht despite his mother being imprisoned in Auschwitz (she was later freed, in no small part thanks to Wilimowski’s friendship with fighter ace Hermann Graf).
Settling in Germany thereafter, he was regarded as a traitor by the majority of Poles and was refused permission to visit his Silesian homeland during the PRL period. In fact, such was the bitterness, Wilimowski was blocked from visiting the Polish team when they found themselves in West Germany for the 1974 World Cup.
In truth, Wilimowski had little cause to complain and can consider himself fortunate; WWII left Polish football decimated with nine former national team players known to have been killed – four of them in the Ghettos.
Left reeling physically and psychologically from the war, the immediate aftermath of WWII left Polish football with a mountain to climb – perhaps unsurprisingly, it was in this era that the national side suffered its most humbling defeat to date: an 8-0 massacre at the hands of the Danes in 1948.
It wasn’t just the country that needed to rebuilt, but its entire football infrastructure as well – patience, though, was eventually rewarded in 1974.
A precursor of what was to come arrived in 1973 when the Poles sealed qualification with a landmark David versus Goliath result over England at Wembley. Infamously dubbed “a circus clown in gloves” by Brian Clough, goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski pulled off a string of saves as England besieged Poland’s goal.
Twice England hit the post, and four times their efforts were scrambled off the line, but despite recording 36 shots against Poland’s paltry two, the match ended 1-1. A football miracle had occurred that left world football stunned – after all, just seven years previously, England had been anointed world champions on this very pitch.
For the Poles, it was the beginning of a golden era. True, Poland had won gold in the 1972 Olympics, but even so no-one could have quite predicted what would happen over the next ten-years. “Wembley changed everything,” admitted Tomaszewski.
Tipped as dark horses, Poland lit the 1974 World Cup alight with their opening game seeing them tear into a 2-0 lead over much-fancied Argentina within just eight minutes. Despite a spirited comeback from their opponents, Poland had enough in the tank to hold on for a 3-2 win that underscored their potential.
This was highlighted yet further when, in their next match, they treated Haiti like cannon fodder and dismantled them 7-0. The world was taking notice, and as if things could not get any better, Poland secured top spot in their group by beating Italy in their last game 2-1 – featuring the talismanic Kazimierz Deyna up front, his thunderbolt goal was hit with such ferocity that he later had to change his boot.
With World Cup fever sweeping the country, Poland next edged Sweden and Yugoslavia to set up a clash against the hosts, West Germany, to decide who would play in the final.
Remembered to this day as one of the World Cup’s most iconic games, the match was dubbed ‘the water battle of Frankfurt’ after a torrential downpour had left the pitch in a quagmire.
Never should the game have been played, but with a match a sell-out and rescheduling options practically non-existent, it went ahead in almost comic conditions – when the rain stopped, even firemen who had been assigned matchday duty were pressganged into attempting to clear the waterlogged pitch.
Prevented from playing their free-flowing, cavalier brand of football, Poland lost 1-0 with both Paul Breitner and Franz Beckenbauer later admitting that the Germans had beaten a superior side. “Under normal circumstances we probably wouldn’t have stood a chance,” said Beckenbauer.
Even so, the Poles left the tournament with their heads held high, after defeating the defending champions, Brazil, 1-0. At last, the future wasn’t just bright, it was Polish.
Through this heyday, talent coursed through the team with players including Grzegorz Lato raiding down the wing and the splendidly moustached Zbigniew Boniek (who would win his first cap in 1976), a creative whirlwind with an eye for goal.
And then, of course, there was Kazimierz Deyna, a playboy that many regarded as the jewel in the crown. Having first considered a sporting career as a ping pong player, he came to epitomise Poland’s flair.
A fixture in fashionable Warsaw hangouts like Adria and Roxana, the fur-wearing playmaker was known to spend hours preening his hair to ensure he looked perfect. Later transferred to Manchester City (a crate of Adidas equipment helping to sweeten the deal), he remains immortalised in Polish sporting legend, his premature death in a car crash outside San Diego only cementing his status as a tragic hero.
But we’re jumping ahead a little here. Although the Class of ‘74 is commonly considered Poland’s greatest side, its nucleus remained intact and in the 1978 World Cup they topped Group II a point ahead of West Germany.
Despite this promising start, they found themselves pitted against three South American sides in the next stage of the competition, Brazil, Peru and the hosts (and eventual winners), Argentina and were eliminated.
A final hurrah though was to be had in 1982, and despite a slow start to the tournament that began with two goalless draws, the Eagles hit their stride to reach the semis before being defeated 2-0 by Italy, who would go on to win the World Cup. Playing for honour, they again clinched third spot after beating the French 3-2.
Subsequently, Poland have never come close to hitting these heights again. In fact, it is embarrassment rather than glory that has often been the overriding emotion.
Whilst a place in the Second Round of the 1986 World Cup was attained, their Mexican foray is best remembered for a 3-0 humbling by England and a 4-0 spanking by Brazil. But worse was to come.
Failing to qualify for any international tournaments in the 90s, thumpings on the pitch were accompanied by thumpings off the pitch – if the team were useless, the fans compensated by using the decade to attain infamy for their hooligan antics, not least thanks to a string of high profile clashes with England’s own lunatic element. A nadir had been reached.
And so, to this millennium. Returning to the international fray in 2002, the world’s first co-hosted World Cup tournament saw Poland suffer the ignominy of a 2-0 loss against the rank outsiders South Korea and even worse was to follow when they were taught a lesson by the Portuguese.
Appearing in three World Cups this century, the White & Reds have now made it an established tradition to lose their first two matches – usually involving some unfancied team – before winning the final dead rubber. Will Qatar prove different?
For sure, fans will be hoping that Lewandowski & Co. will be invoking the spirit of Deyna and that unforgettable Class of 1974.