Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told that Poland’s national sport is football, not a surprising thing for an European country. However, from my perspective, we might as well admit that our national sport is disappointment.
The early 90s were quite the time for Poland. The communist regime has been finally overthrown after over 40 years of horrors, everyone was getting used to their newly found freedom, the newly opened world ahead of them, and in August 1992, the Polish national football team finished with a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Granted, the Olympics aren’t the most prestigious international competition, and certainly haven’t been ever since they essentially became a glorified youth tournament (quite fittingly, the Barcelona Olympics were the first to adopt such a format), but it was certainly something. For a nation that was a dwindling football superpower, a team that had won Olympic Gold and a World Cup Bronze Medal in the 70s, and repeated the latter feat in the 80s once more, this was hope of a new generation to carry that legacy.
The Poland side of old, the Poland that played beautiful, free flowing football, was something my parents experienced and told me stories about. Me? I was born a bit over month after the Barcelona Olympics Final. Poland hasn’t even reached a knockout stage of a major tournament stage since.
Mind you, this drought up until 2002 wasn’t really down to incompetence or mismanagement. Poland simply lacked any kind of proper talent. Sure, there were some standouts during that time, mostly on the defensive end, with Jacek Bąk, Tomasz Hajto and Tomasz Wałdoch playing at solid clubs in Europe, and Maciej Żurawski slowly establishing himself at Celtic. All these players were, however, a far cry from Zbigniew Boniek, Grzegorz Lato and such.
In 2002, Poland even managed to secure their first World Cup qualification in 16 years with the help of the aforementioned gentlemen, and Polish-Nigerian sensation Emmanuel Olisadebe.
American readers might remember that Poland team as the team that almost cost them a knockout stage spot, beating the USMNT 3-1 after losing both of their opening games. This sort of party-pooping has become a signature of the 00s Poland team, to the point where it created a running joke about their group stage fate: “Match number 1 – The Opening Match, Match number 2 – Do or Die, Match number 3 – The Consolation Match” we’d say to each other in school corridors and later on internet message boards. Despite a boatload of support for the team, there was a certain conditioning that lead us to stop ourself from believing that the team can achieve anything. Belief was a disease. Belief only lead to disappointment.
And it didn’t take long to prove us right, either. The 2004 Euro qualifiers, is when the seams on the national team started tearing. Olisadebe disappeared back into obscurity, the team was incapable of performing properly and the Euro qualifiers were always the nation’s Achilles’ Heel. Even the giants from the 70s and 80s never qualified for a European Championship. It was at this time, however, when Poland decided to miss out on a certain very talented attacker.
You probably know him as Lukas, but out here we call him by the non-Germanized version of his name – Łukasz, even though it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it if you try to sing the Podolski song. Between 2002-04, he was playing in the German youth teams, as well as impressing in Koln in the Bundesliga. Poland manager (and noted joke punchline) Paweł Janas, however, decided that we had better strikers on our team, and we didn’t need a player who hadn’t even finished a full Bundesliga season, even though Podolski was very willing to represent Poland. Never called up, Podolski became another Pole to represent Germany. (Miroslav Klose, never quite as willing to play for Poland being the other very notable one) The strikers Janas was referring to? Maciej Żurawski, Mirosław Trzeciak, Ireneusz Jeleń and Grzegorz Rasiak, a man so legendary for his inability to play football that he not only had a song and video about his horribleness but also an entire Polish Uncyclopedia page dedicated to mocking him in the cruelest way possible. Essentially, the anti-Chuck Norris. All in all, skipping on Podolski may have been a great decision for comedic purposes.
However, despite being – and I don’t say this lightly given some of the men who followed him as national team managers – an absolute nincompoop idiot of a coach, Janas managed to qualify into the 2006 World Cup, where Poland would face old foes Germany, which, quite frankly, has become an annoying trend in various competitions in recent years. The build up to the tournament was embroiled in controversy when Janas decided to not take Champions League winner and all around talisman Jerzy Dudek, deciding that Artur Boruc and Tomasz Kuszczak should be the top goalkeeping dogs. While it was hard to really argue with Boruc, who was really at the top of his game, Tomasz Kuszczak did this during one of the pre-World Cup friendlies, leaving us all saying “Oh, no, not again.”
And wouldn’t you know it…
Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland Loses 2-0 to Ecuador looking way out of their depth in the process.
Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland loses 1-0 to Germany after Artur Boruc performs his best Donald Trump impression, building a wall for 90 minutes. Poland fell in the 91st, after a red card and some horrible substitutions from Janas.
Game 3 – The Consolation Game
Poland wins 2-0 over Costa Rica with centre-back Bartosz Bosacki scoring both goals.
Janas was fired shortly thereafter and then… A miracle. Poland decided to hire a foreign coach, as Leo Beenhakker, notorious international overachiever came into the squad. The results came quickly. Poland absolutely dominated the qualifying stages, including a glorious 2-1 victory over Portugal, with Euzebiusz Smolarek (quite ironically, named after PortugueseEusebio), the son of highly respected 80s player Włodzimierz Smolarek leading the charge alongside a young Kuba Błaszczykowski. Despite finishing first in the group, Poland’s coefficient lead it to end up in a group with hosts Austria, Germany and Croatia. You know the drill.
Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland loses 2-0 to Germany, Łukasz Podolski scores both goals. Doesn’t really celebrate. Reportedly, his grandma was very disappointed with him.
Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland draw 1-1 after a late penalty is called against them by Howard Webb. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be allowed in the country after this.
Game 3 – The Consolation Game
I had to check the result on Wikipedia because at this point, nobody really cared. It was 1-0 Croatia, by the way.
The 2010 World Cup qualifier was really disappointing as Leo totally lost the team. Smolarek’s form was dwindling, and the only hope was a young, very raw Robert Lewandowski. With a large chunk of the midfield also retiring, the team failed to qualify, with the highlight being a 10-0 trouncing of San Marino. Literally, the only highlight as well. As such, Leo was fired, and in his place came Franciszek Smuda, one of the most successful Polish club coaches with a German know-how and toughness.
Euro 2012 was actually hosted by Poland, so at least the team qualified for that one. Poland also got drawn a relatively easy group with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, and coincided with the rise of Borussia Dortmund and their three-headed Polish beast of Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek, we had a right to drop our guard and feel confident of the knockout stage this time. What could possibly go wrong?
Game 1 – We’re gonna do it!
Game 1 vs Greece, Poland had an absolutely dominating first half, coming out of it leading 1-0 after a Robert Lewandowski goal. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, until Smuda’s half-time team talk seemed to zap the energy out of the team. Greece got one goal, later Wojtek Szczęsny got sent off, conceding a penalty that was saved by new national hero Przemysław Tytoń. Poland just barely got a draw out of that game.
Game 2 – Not over yet
Game 2 vs Russia, after a dominating Russian performance in the first half, Kuba Błaszczykowski came up with an absolute GOLAZOOOO to make it 1-1. This 1-1 was sweet. It meant that the last game will be do or die this time.
Game 3 – We’re at home, come on!
Game 3 vs The Czech Republic, should’ve been easy, looked to be easy. Poland dominated the entire match, but Rafał Murawski decided to give away the ball for a Czech counter right as Poland were looking to finally score. 1-0. A loss. The only consolation being that us losing screwed the Russians out of the group stage as well. Franciszek Smuda was fired shortly after.
The 2014 World Cup qualifiers were just a continuation of that Euro form under domestic coaching revelation Waldemar Fornalik. Nothing interesting happened, Poland just failed to win with inferior opposition, Robert Lewandowski was being called out for choking on the big stage, a wholesale collapse that had Poland finishing 4th in their group. Our eyes once again turned to the Euros.
With Fornalik quickly gone, in steps Adam Nawałka. Disappointing friendly results were met with cries of international coaches again, as Poland faced a hard qualifying group including Germany, Scotland and Ireland. Mind you, I haven’t mentioned this earlier, but Poland has NEVER beaten Germany in a competitive game prior to these qualifiers. There was a friendly where Poland was winning 2-1 in the 90th minute, and everyone was prepared to celebrate as if we won the World Cup, when the Germans got a late equalizer. This wasn’t really a rivalry, more like a mandatory whipping. So, as we approached the Germany game, having seen them just win the World Cup, none of us expected what happened next. Poland won, despite the Germans bombarding the goal, with Wojciech Szczęsny taking up the mantle of saviour this time. Arkadiusz Milik and way-past-his-prime Sebastian Mila scored the two goals, and once again, we’re doing that stupid thing, we’re believing.
A few games later, Robert Lewandowski started scoring like a maniac, including a 4 minute hat-trick vs Georgia, a suitable prelude to his act against Wolfsburg a year later, despite some disappointing results against Ireland and Scotland, and an away loss to Germany Poland managed to qualify with an emotional win over the former in Warsaw. Poland’s playing well again. Poland’s playing as they should, again.
And now we’re here. Poland finally got the monkey off their back, they won a game at the Euros, after 90 minutes of constantly running into an aggravating wall of Northern Irish green, with Robert Lewandowski subject to triple coverage the entire game on Sunday. A lot of good things came out of that game, including a breakout performance for 19-year-old Bartosz Kapustka. A few question marks, as well, with an injury to Wojciech Szczęsny and a shaky performance from centre-back Michał Pazdan.
But now, comes the real challenge. Germany, again. Will this be a familiar story? Or did Sunday’s breakthrough, and last year’s historic victory change anything? I truly don’t know. I just know that this isn’t going to be any other game. A draw virtually guarantees Poland a knockout spot. A win will give them immeasurable confidence. A loss might see them go back to their old ways.
Thursday night’s game in Paris may very well define the tournament for two important teams – one, an underdog looking to validate their dark horse status, the other, the World Champions looking to show their true might. It will very likely be an open, entertaining game, and you should watch it for that reason. And when you do, I hope you will recognize that for 40 million people living in Central Europe, this is more than just another football game.