Polish football was once declared dead. Ruing a disengagement with youth, particularly at rural level, and the socio-economic factors that contributed to and affirmed this imbalance, in addition to the financial disparity that existed even on the highest domestic stage, a vulnerable system laboured on the international scene. Just the two major tournament appearances since 1982’s third-place World Cup finish validated this, at the very least, at the time of Jonathan Wilson’s ambitious tour de force account of the sport in each post-Communist state in Behind the Curtain, yet this summer they enter as sixth seeds, and perhaps Group H favourites; potentially possessing the ability to equal the feats of their ‘Golden Age’.
All, in opposition this docile face value, is not well with the sport the Poles know as piłka nożna. Concerns remain within the Ekstraklasa; equally of the competitive stranglehold of Legia Warsaw, Lech Poznań and, until recently, Wisła Kraków, and of struggles to adapt to the evolving European stage, especially through high-profile controversies stimulated in the stands. Certainly, they possess a wider system that reflects as ridden with imperfections, and perhaps justified in the perception of their internal socio-economic subservience to the gilded array of Western European nations.
Probes of their rise to global prominence, or return, as I’m sure many within the state’s sporting establishment would consider, have focused on the Biało-czerwoni’s mastery – generation-defining, perhaps, and certainly trendsetting – of FIFA’s ranking statistics while manipulating the friendly calendar to their advantage. With the UEFA Nations League set to come into force in 2018-19, this would certainly suggest that, with opponents of the mid-ranking ilk of Serbia, Iceland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic set to revert ominously to, in their initial Nations League opening, Mediterranean heavyweights Italy and Portugal, their supremacy is set to again halt. A prodigious regime, however, featuring many talents subject to widespread envy, is unlikely to renege on their accomplishment in many cases; rarely, also, in an increasingly static modern era, do such temporarily starring outfits bely early promise on a grand scale. Is this Polish generation just any worthy of World Cup seeding? Recent analysis would suggest not, and as we must pose, the discrepancy between domestic action and international relevance is now perhaps the greatest in post-war evidence.
Remaining a relatively rudimentary economy in contrast with the European elite – a hegemony commonly consisting of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and perhaps France – and lacking the innate sporting fervour of South Americans Brazil and Argentina, their cause does indeed share similarities with present Portuguese, Belgian and Icelandic counterparts. What remains in such a blasé distinction, however, and will to continue to perpetually afflict these contrasts, is the geographical status of Poland, as aforementioned, behind the former ‘Iron Curtain’, and how this mantle continues to cast an influential shadow over the accomplishments and hardships suffered in equal measure by those emerging from recent geopolitical history.
It could also be easy to flout the 2012 European Championships as a watershed moment; the 2006 World Cup in a long-since reunified Germany aside, the largest sporting event, in terms of commercial prowess and viewership figures, in a formerly Communist nation, or in consideration with their duty as co-hosts alongside Ukraine, nations. Though it was marginally eclipsed only two years later by the Sochi Winter Olympics in viewing figures (statistics quoted by USA Today citing 2012 as drawing around 1.9 billion, while Sochi is reported to have attracted roughly 2.1 billion), it retained its revenue title; boasting over eight-fold income in comparison to Vladimir Putin’s flagship event, owed both to the climactic features allowing vastly larger stadia attendances and the viability of widespread sponsorship at a non-Olympic movement event. The Eastern European duo, covering 916,307 km2 of cumulative land mass, was at first unlikely to host the tournament, yet given Italy’s embroilment in match fixing and fan violence scandals, was handed the volatile reins in an April 2007 UEFA Executive Committee vote, and dogged by various infrastructural and socio-political pressures particularly in Ukraine.
Neither nation, however, qualified for the knockout stages. Perhaps not overly surprising, given Poland – in 2008 – had only once before qualified for the Euros, and flattered to deceive while winning their qualifying group to finish last in a group consisting of Croatia, Germany and co-hosts Austria, and Ukraine had not sent a delegation to any edition of the tournament since accounting for an entire eleven players from the USSR’s Gorbachev-era 20-man 1988 squad, in addition to coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, of whom nine such players were also club subjects while he also managed Dynamo Kyiv, their exits did, regardless, typify the continuing disparity between their status, and that of their Western cousins.
The rich poignance of this being displayed on their home turf, and even further accentuated with Poland lumped in Group A alongside Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic in the lowest-quality display other than that of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland against Group C’s titans, perhaps provoked reaction from both UEFA and the Polski Związek Piłki Nożnej (PZPN, or Polish Football Association). Most directly, the formerly prolific national team striker Grzegorz Lato was ousted from his position as PZPN President after defaulting on his pre-2012 promise to resign if the nation didn’t reach the quarter-finals and replaced with an even superior Polish footballing icon; Zbigniew Boniek. The endlessly popular Boniek, perhaps viewed as a threat by the former PZPN and common UEFA establishment by his liberal stance on pyrotechnics and ultras culture, has managed to revitalise the Polish institution by operating an opinionated public stance, while a little under a year after his own appointment, promoting long-time Ekstraklasa club manager Adam Nawałka to the Biało-czerwoni’s top job.
Since, Nawałka has presided over, and contributed influentially to, the resurrection of a nation’s representative team, even in the midst of the Ekstraklasa’s stagnating continental prestige. The hierarchy encapsulated within Boniek and Nawalka’s roles, and Lato and managerial predecessors Franciszek Smuda and Waldemar Fornalik before them, however, demonstrates the cynicism of the Polish footballing ethos; the idols of an early 1970s to mid-1980s ‘Golden Age’ profiting from their feats in administrative roles, while those who have achieved a degree of domestic success, though devoid of decoration on the international stage in their playing or managerial career, soon elevated to a wildly unrealistic environment. For Nawałka, as aforementioned, to have fulfilled the expectation perhaps not of his reputation but instead of his role and responsibility, surely reveals the issue as far more complex than a mere bureaucratic dictatorship and cult of ‘Golden Age’ talent. As in many circumstances, everything is not quite as it seems.
Having distanced themselves from the PZPN in 2005, the Ekstraklasa’s constituent clubs – led by the so-called ‘G4’, consisting of Legia, Wisła Kraków, Amica Wronki and Groclin – had defied the establishment on the concern of broadcasting income. It was to be distributed, they now proclaimed, equally between each of the 16 clubs involved in each season. Finally, they argued, the sport could be rid of its communist dispositions, under which PZPN bureaucracy was suspect in reinforcing the financial bias of ruling Polish United Workers’ Party figures, and even during the post-1991 era the disconnect between the common footballing population and the governing body grew vaster.
The results of this pledge, however, appear to undermine any of the reformist spite of the mid-2000s. As this independence was decreed, government authorities announced investigations into the PZPN of universal domestic corruption, and throughout 2007, subsequently, high-ranking former referee Wit Żelazko was detained by police and all other board members were suspended by the government’s sport ministry. After an entire five clubs – including 2006-07 champions Zagłębie Lubin – were also relegated from the first division, and a further two from the second, in the 2007-08 season, and Jagiellonia Białystok imposed with a ten-point deduction at the start of the 2009-10 Ekstraklasa term, FIFA threatened stern sanctions on any Polish national team were the existing board not to be reinstalled; while they were, however, temporarily, the Polish Olympic Committee in July 2008 reopened criminal proceedings through the national tribunal courts and convicted over 200 individuals, eventually, from all positions of the sport to cleanse the face of top-level competition.
These legal sanctions were far from unprecedented for the national authorities. Suggestions of corruption had long since pervaded the entirety of the Ekstraklasa and beyond, and in the 1986-87 edition three matches, featuring six different clubs, were investigated and removed from the final table – leading to the relegation of half of those involved, in Stal Mielec, Ruch Chorzów and Polonia Bytom. Allegations of repetition in the final round of the 1992-93 term, with Legia and ŁKS Łódź – tied on 50 points, with the former nine superior on goal difference – further induced chagrin from the viewing public, and deprived the powerhouses of positions disputed between the two as first and second and Lech Poznań instead handed the title while their 6-0 and 7-1 victories, respectively, were concluded illegitimate. Such a chartered history with the political procedures of corruption, some may have considered, would have deterred future misconduct. In the Polish system, however, fundamental structures can perceivably act as incentives for, shall we say, an innovative application of the game’s laws.
While, naturally, the nation has witnessed the dominance of certain club outfits on a consistent and temporarily unescapable tenure, none of the hierarchies of those within the actual USSR existed in the semi-autonomous, but ideologically conformist, state. Ukraine had Dynamo Kyiv, and later Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (then known as Dnepr, conforming to Russian semantics), Georgia Dinamo Tbilisi, Byelorussia Dinamo Minsk, Armenia Ararat Yerevan and Azerbaijan Neftchi Baku, while lesser republics in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Lithuania and Latvia did at least have spearhead outfits in Pakhtakor Tashkent, Kairat Almata, Nistru Chișinău, Žalgriris Vilnius and Daugava Riga, respectively. Each based in the capital of what, in the post-Stalinist era, may have been considered reasonably devolved republics, and resultantly the seat of all administrative power – proxy or not – and the representative sides of social institutions such as the regional Red Army or state police divisions, their rhetoric was undisputed, and with good reason.
As with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania, the Polish basis of power often reverted between, curiously, four fundamental institutions. While lesser sides certainly fought admirably, and collected a handful of accolades for their toil, for the Steaua or Dinamo or Bucharest, Ferencváros, Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre (MTK), Honvéd or Újpest of Budapest and Sparta, Slavia or Dukla of Prague, Legia fought the Warsaw cause with honour. Their ability, however, did not notably extend to the relative inner-city stranglehold of the aforementioned fellow Warsaw Pact signees. In reality, the status of Polish football, while not level in prestige with the Stalinist semi-dissenters of Yugoslavia, formed a balance more akin to that of the Adriatic coastline; Red Star and Partizan certainly eminent from the nation’s Belgrade heart, but Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, alongside even Vojvodina and Sarajevo’s financially polarised duo FK and Željezničar, prone to acute competition and silverware realisation.
While Silesia, as an industrial and part-mountainous region on the Czechoslovak border, swept up in the Communist era, for example, in the form of Górnik Zabrze (14 titles), the aforementioned corrupt late 1980s duo of Ruch Chorzów (13) and Polonia Bytom (two), as well as the latter’s neighbours Szombierki Bytom (one), they have not held aloft a national title since 1989, in Ruch’s emphatic return to the elite tier. It is, then, a comfortable proclamation to diagnose the modern dominance of a Legia-Lech bloc as a direct implication of the economic liberty and rivalry of an established, yet socio-economically unbalanced, capitalist society.
An influence of centuries of ethnic suppression and fragmentation, the liberated Poland understandably feels a poignant degree of provincial patriotism. The Second Polish Republic, when finally granted a degree of statutory autonomy after suffering the imposition of Prussian, Austrian and Russian monarchical, and maniacal, expansion, with the fallout of the First World War, certainly exemplified the adapting values of the Polish inhabitants, if there was such a common denominator and cultural unifier. Politically socialist, by and large, from 1918 to 1939, it may not have been such a concession to make to become a leading member of what their politicians may not, at the time of the Red Army’s pressure of the Nazis in retreat across Eastern Europe, have preferred to consider an Eastern Bloc, had it not been for the authoritarian despot that was Stalin, and the ungainly, conflict-prone foreign policy of successors Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Though not in possession of any of what are widely regarded as Poland’s key cities, Silesia remained, and persists to date, a seminal internal authority given its pre-Prussian heritage in linguistics, art and demographic diversity. Nor a centre of political influence, their cultural stance was unparalleled, and granted significant dominion by post-Communist society; particularly in consideration of their population density, additionally, while boasting 12 of modern Poland’s 40 largest cities. That said, the settlement of Zabrze – home, as aforementioned, to what remains the nation’s most prolific club side – could never have been argued as a major, nor historically Polish, conurbation, when first recorded as Biskupice in the 13th century and experiencing the administration of native Silesians, German settlers, the Habsburg Austrian monarchy and Prussian rulers before being renamed, ominously, Hindenburg in 1915, and seeing a 59% majority vote for the continuation of German occupancy in 1921. Górnik (meaning ‘miner’, in reference to the dominant local industry) were formed as the merger of four previous sports clubs only three years after the renamed Zabrze was annexed during Nazi retreats, and through a rapid rise reached the top tier of Polish football by 1955, where only another two seasons later Ernest Pohl’s goals fired them to championship glory – and, along with the majority of the total of 186 he bagged in 15 years of Ekstraklasa action, the honour in 2004 of an eponymous renaming of Górnik’s stadium.
Consolidating their prodigious triumph, further titles followed in 1959 and ’61, when Pohl finished top scorer on both occasions. The Trójkolorowi (Tricolour), emboldened by the development of personifying teenage striker Włodzimierz Lubański – capped by the national side when just 16 years of age, and scoring on debut in a 9-0 romp against Norway in 1963 – in tandem with Pohl’s continuing vintage, swiftly executed an accomplishment that remains unrivalled to this day; five consecutive Ekstraklasa titles.
Lubański was not only the catalyst for domestic honours that eventually exceeded master Pohl; fulfilling the promise of that debut scalp, a further 47 goals from 74 international caps followed in a 17-year service. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, the supposedly imperious West German hosts had designs on a gold medal validated by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s five goals in six matches, but were ultimately belied by their defensive record against socialist rivals East Germany and defending champions Hungary, while the USSR – led by the generation, and possibly even ideology, defining Oleg Blokhin – suffered their first, and ultimately only, defeat of the tournament when downed three minutes from full time at the hands not of Lubański, but Górnik teammate and diminutive midfielder Zygfryd Szołtysik, who it would be undue to not reference as a scorer of two, again on debut, against Norway in 1963, although at the age of almost 21. Granted, the 2-1 victory of the day was another influenced by the endlessly prolific Kazimierz Deyna’s finishing, with the ex-army serviceman and resultant Legia striker adding a penalty to the five goals he had already bagged, and the eventual Polish gold medal, while defeating the Hungarians at a reportedly sold-out Munich Olympiastadion, would not have been founded without a further three goals, including two in the final, from Deyna, but Górnik’s contribution to the dawn of the ‘Golden Age’ was nonetheless profound, alongside the philosophical management of Kazimierz Górski.
The playing individual emphasised by Jonathan Wilson in his account of Polish football, chiefly due to a poetic poignance in ensuring PZPF accountability at the time of his writing, was outspoken former goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski. Most famous for his performance in concluding Alf Ramsey’s English regime, particularly on a seismic Wembley evening while defying the standout forces of Don Revie’s Leeds, in 1973 en route to the 1974 World Cup finals, Tomaszewski – based at ŁKS Łódź while prohibited from plying his trade abroad until the age of 30 – nonetheless retreated from the limelight at the tournament, keeping just three clean sheets against group stage minnows Haiti, the low-scoring Swedes and third-place play-off disappointments Brazil, who were competing in their first World Cup without Pelé since 1954. In reality, it was the heavily balding Grzegorz Lato, all seven goals to his name, that set the tournament alight for the Poles in a starring offence; Lubański’s absence through injury and poor form also paving the way for Górnik deputy Andrzej Szarmach to work in tandem with Legia’s Robert Gadocha and captain Deyna, while collecting five strikes himself. Denied, however, by the West Germans, who resolved their failures when hosting two years earlier with the instalment of their full senior cast, in their final Group B Second Round match, there would be temporary disappointment, although largely replaced by elation after unexpectedly defeating Brazil.
While the victorious West Germans saw Paul Breitner move to Real Madrid, the tactically standout Dutch exported Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep to Anderlecht, Barcelona and Valencia respectively, and even the Yugoslavs enabled a cultural change with Dragan Džajić and Ognjen Petrović leaving for SC Bastia and Branko Oblak and Enver Marić for Schalke, none of that tournament’s Polish talents were elevated to the global club elite. Only Gadocha, in truth, made a significant transfer in the wake of his 1974 performances, and to Nantes, where he would win the 1976-77 Ligue 1 title – the rest, notably, would largely move at the turn of the 1980s, and in one of three directions; either to the second tiers of either France or Germany, in their 30s to clubs nearing continental qualification in Western Europe or to the ambitious franchises of the USA. Deyna’s tale, amidst this, was the most tragic; after leaving Manchester City a cult hero, despite an injury-plagued three seasons, and notably appearing as a professional player-cum-actor in Escape to Victory, the modest and charming attacking midfielder – a contrast to the fashion trends, or at least those that reached Eastern Europe, at the time while sporting Paul McCartney-esque brown locks as opposed to the populist mullets – joined the San Diego Sockers, where he was resigned to indoor ‘soccer’ and little recognition for his continued prolific goalscoring. At the age of just 41, just two years after his retirement, in 1989 he died in his adopted San Diego home after a major car crash; reported to have been under the influence at the time, while leaving behind wife Mariola and 15-year-old son Norbert.
What Johan Cruyff was to Dutch football, some argued, Deyna may have been to the Polish establishment. Such an icon was he, Legia retired their number ten shirt permanently in his honour, and may he have survived to today, though I doubt the willingness of an evidently reclusive political dissenter – given his move to the heart of capitalism in America – to nullify ideological differences, he may well have proven pivotal in reforming the internal domestic platform. Instead, part-narcissists Tomaszewski, Lato and Boniek have the responsibility of a nation within their hands, and that of a failed domestic system within it.
As the trio gained influence from the fallout of corruption, the basis of power, for better or worse, poignantly landed at the desk of a generation that led an anti-establishment drive for an entire decade. Eliminated, conspicuously, by hosts Argentina and Brazil’s revenge at the most politically volatile World Cup in ’78 after finishing ahead of defending champions West Germany in the group stage, and ousted by the eventually victorious Italians in ’82 at the semi-final stage after beating the Paolo Rossi-inspired outfit to Group A top spot, the contingent that became gradually reliant on Boniek while Lato and Szarmach aged and Tomaszewski, Deyna, Gadocha and boss Górski were since retired as 1976 Olympic silver medallists, had culminated the age with a third-place finish at the latter tournament by defeating a classy French squad. Overwhelmed by Gary Lineker’s famous hat-trick and an ultimately unfortunate Brazilian outfit in Mexico four years later, while registering only one goal at the entire tournament, the Polish niche had finally worn off; first on the international stage, and only a month later domestically, as striker Włodzimierz Smolarek – the final genuine star of the Ekstraklasa while at Boniek’s former club Widzew Łódź – left for Eintracht Frankfurt. Recognising the lingering concerns that remained even since Smolarek’s exit with a lack of competition and more pivotally public engagement, Lato, Boniek and perhaps also Tomaszewski have prioritised the protection of Ekstraklasa heritage through the redistribution of power, and an overt trust in domestic talent through the PZPN’s appointment of home-based coaches.
In a state adapting to the benefits and pitfalls of capitalism, franchises that primarily profited from the system, such as Amica, Groclin (Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski officially, but renamed after the investment of the local car company) and RKS Radomsko dissolved through financial debt, while Warsaw’s most historic outfit Polonia led the likes of Odra Wodzisław, Polonia Bytom and Ruch Radzionkó on a freefall through the semi-professional ranks. To this day, however, the issue has not been eradicated by any means, even despite the stability of the modern economic structure across the nation; now, unfortunately, Ruch Chorzów the evidence for this while set to fall to the third division this season.
In the current I Liga, or second division, six of 18 constituent clubs remain the unproportionate representatives of the Silesian voivodeship. None of the stadiums employed in this season’s action are sponsored, and each are owned by the local council. Only two significant stadiums in the entirety of Poland are, indeed, labelled with formal sponsors’ titles; the Stadion Energa Gdańsk and INEA Stadion, of Lechia Gdansk and Lech Poznań, respectively, while the patronage of Pepsi and Telefonia Dialog in the reconstructed stadiums of Warsaw and Lubin in the late 2000s was not sustained. Amongst functional industrial skylines, these brutalist stadiums stand in rigid conformity, largely untouched by the intended influence of Euro 2012. If there is to be expansion in the sport for the national team, the argument remains, there must be a stable cultural change within Ekstraklasa, and beyond.
In the meantime, the present generation of Biało-czerwoni are only too content to ply their trade abroad. Jakub Błaszczykowski, Łukasz Piszczek, Robert Lewandowski, Kamil Glik, Kamil Grosicki, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Wojciech Szczęsny and Łukasz Fabiański represent the established guard in this respect, yet with the emergence of Piotr Zieliński and Arkadiusz Milik of Napoli, Bartosz Bereszyński and Karol Linetty of Sampdoria, Anderlecht striker Łukasz Teodorczyk, Stuttgart defender Marcin Kamiński and perhaps in coming years Jan Bednarek and Jarosław Jach in the Premier League, this is an export culture that maintains its eminence over the Ekstraklasa; yet as with the diaspora of former Steaua, Red Star or Partizan players in the 1990s, those at the lower tiers of the continental business hierarchy do not prosper financially. Various, largely unglamorous, Ekstraklasa players continue to supplement the squad, and will do in Russia this summer, but their role is greatly diminished from that of the halcyon days.
That is not to say that Nawałka’s heritage in the division has not aided his regime, and results such as their narrow quarter-final exit – on penalties to eventual champions Portugal – at Euro 2016. Harnessing the internal tutelage of each of those that are now prospering, most notably, in Italy with a range of systems that chiefly revolve around a durable 4-4-2, or in the absence of Milik an energetic five-man midfield, the robust-faced yet contemporary-minded boss is certain to inspire a flourishing outfit again this summer; particularly in climes so comparable to those experienced at home. Having played just two away friendlies during his reign, their preparation has been impeccable, and central in instilling patriotic values, if flawed in other respects. They will restore pride in a nation, if not a league, certainly, this summer, and perhaps offer an era-defining statement of intent to the youth of a beleaguered, but gradually adapting, state. Whatever their achievement in Russia, regardless, another definitive chapter will be written into the long and varied history of a highly individual nation; perfection seldom possible, but ambition never ceased.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!