Bartosz Kapustka: Poland's Prem-tracked teen who "could go as far as Lewandowski"
For the first time since Zbigniew Boniek at the 1982 World Cup, Poland brought a huge international star to a major tournament this summer.
It was not Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich superstar and one of the best strikers on the planet, who made the difference in the defeat of Northern Ireland, however. Instead, a little-known 19-year-old by the name of Bartosz Kapustka – described as "deliciously talented" by Gary Lineker – stole the headlines as Poland got off to a winning start at Euro 2016.
"We had a staff meeting at Cracovia [for whom Kapustka plies his trade] a month ago, and when I said Bartek has a pretty good chance of being named in the starting XI people were scratching their heads," club coach Jacek Zielinski tells FFT. "It was an impressive performance, but I could see that coming.
"Bartek has no nervous system; he doesn't know what the word 'stress' means. He approaches every game in the same way, no matter if it's against Legia Warsaw, a smaller Polish team or Northern Ireland at the Euros. He just goes out there, competes and leaves it all on the pitch."
He was involved from the very first minute, taking players on, completing 82 per cent of his passes and almost scoring with a wonderful strike in the first-half
"It’s ridiculous, you shouldn't be allowed to play at that level when you're 19," joked Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny after the game. "I was 22 during my debut and lasted only 60 minutes on the pitch [after being sent off against Greece at Euro 2012]."
That opinion was shared by football observers the continent over, with Kapustka lighting up a rather one-sided and predictable game. He was involved from the very first minute, taking players on, completing 82% of his passes and almost scoring with a wonderful strike in the first half. His willingness to press and work back to halt counter-attacks on more than one occasion was also impressive; in other words, it was a complete display from a player who had no experience of performing on such a stage.
"I feel a great joy," Kapustka told Polish newspaper Super Express. "I love to perform in games with high stakes and an atmosphere like that. This is why you play on the street as a kid. This is what you live for."
"He didn't surprise me at all," Lewandowski admitted, adding another name to the list of people who lavished praise on the teenager."We know what he’s capable of. But now the whole world knows who Kapustka is, so it will be more difficult for him from now on."
Kapustka has also been linked with Borussia Dortmund, Inter, Juventus and Leicester, with more clubs set to join the race if he impresses against Germany on Thursday
He seems to be ready for the challenge, though. "I met Kapustka after I started my job at Cracovia [in April 2015] and I immediately noticed that I had an exeptional talent to work with," Zielinski tells FFT. "He stood out in training sessions. He had it all: technique, pace, stamina and a great tactical understanding of the game.
"We decided to bring him on slowly, so first he came off the bench in few games, but he soon earned his starting spot. [Poland manager] Adam Nawalka started monitoring his progress and I knew right away that he had a very serious interest in Bartek."
Cracovia received their first offer for Kapustka in March 2015, with Standard Liege's bid of €400,000 rejected with brief consideration. After the youngster became a regular starter in the Polish top flight, Southampton sent scouts to watch Cracovia's games, and they may now regret not tying up a deal before the start of the Euros. Now that the whole world has had a glimpse of Kapustka, there is likely to be a long queue for his services.
It will be interesting to see what sort of fee the teenager commands. Kapustka made much more of an impression than the £49 million Raheem Sterling, for instance, which perhaps give Pep Guardiola something to consider. The Cracovia winger recently signed up with agent Bartlomiej Bolek, who has been involved in negotiations between Piotr Zielinski and Liverpool, while Kapustka has also been linked with Borussia Dortmund, Inter, Juventus and Leicester, with more clubs set to join the race if he impresses against Germany on Thursday.
Under Nawalka's wing
The manager also knows that a footballer's career is unpredictable; his own was cut short by injuries and he never fulfilled his vast potential
Those close to the Polish national team claim Nawalka is like a second father to Kapustka, treating him with mindfulness and leniency. Even when he behaves like a normal teenager – he made headlines after being pictured in a nightclub a few months ago – Nawalka acts with care, remembering that he too was once in the same position as the youngest member of the Poland squad at the 1978 World Cup.
The manager also knows that a footballer's career is unpredictable; his own was cut short by injuries and he never fulfilled his vast potential. When international team-mate and friend Boniek won the European Cup with Juventus seven years after the tournament in Argentina, Nawalka was trimming trees around high-voltage power lines as a low-paid immigrant in the United States. His chance of a big contract was gone forever, but that experience made the 58-year-old a stronger person.
It's possible that Nawalka saw Kapustka as a 'Mini-Me' when he handed him his debut last year. He tutored the youngster from the start, micro-managing him off the pitch but allowing him a sense of freedom on it. The Cracovia man was superb in the 8-1 thrashing of Gibraltar in the autumn, before then impressing in friendlies with Denmark and the Netherlands.
Another world-class Pole?
The fear factor ahead of Poland's clash with arch-rivals Germany later this week has gone following their triumph over the world champions in qualifying, and Nawalka faces something of a selection dilemma: let the young Kapustka loose on the wing again, or opt for the safer option of Kamil Grosicki. It's a very tough decision, but the fact that Kapustka is even in contention shows how far he's come.
"I think the hype after Northern Ireland is little bit too much, but he shouldn't be affected by that," says Cracovia coach Zielinski. "He knows how to turn himself off from all that noise as he’s done it before. A footballer’s career is always unpredictable, but if he keeps progressing the way he did and avoids injuries, he could go as far as Lewandowski. They're two different players, but I’m talking about that type of a career. Yes, he's capable of following in Lewy’s footsteps."
Those are big shoes to fill, but Kapustka certainly has the talent to do just that.