Poland: Petrol, vodka & football

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Plumbers not players?

“If football was ruled by money, the United Arab Emirates would win the World Cup.”

Poland’s greatest football coach Kazimierz Gorski said that.

As Poland sits out the 2010 World Cup – but looks forward, with hope and trepidation to Euro 2012 – his words ring truer than ever.

Despite the credit crunch, Poland’s economy is still buoyant. Polish football isn’t.

A nation’s football isn’t always a mirror of its society.

Yet many major east European football nations celebrated their emergence from Communism with a dazzling display of football prowess in a serious tournament.

Bulgaria and Romania, inspired by Hristo Stoitchkov and Gheorghe Hagi, shone at USA 94.

The Czechs rejected Communism in 1989, endured a quickie divorce from Slovakia in 1992 and nearly won Euro 96.

Croatia declared independence in 1991 and reached the last four of France 98.

Russia’s renaissance took longer, they reached the last four at Euro 2008, nearly 17 years after their country had lumbered from the wreckage of the USSR.

Even Slovenia, independent in 1991, has now reached two World Cup finals: 2000 and 2010.

The euphoric dividend

The two countries that have conspicuously failed to channel the euphoria generated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc into football glory are Hungary and Poland.

Ironically, both started to shake off Soviet despotism before their neighbours and, under their Communist regimes, enjoyed golden eras when their footballers thrilled the world (Hungary in the 1950s, Poland in the 1970s).

Hungary’s cameo as a country that revolutionised football in the 1950s seems a glorious anomaly.

In an increasingly globalised football industry, a nation such as Hungary – with a population of around 10 million – may never savour such glory again.

In the 1950s, Hungary was tactically as revolutionary as Holland in the 1970s.

The seeds of Total Football were sown in Budapest where players were taught to move with such freedom opponents were baffled.

Hungary’s greatest stars – Ferenc Puskas, Ladislao Kubala and Sandor Kocsis – fled after the 1956 Hungarian uprising and inspired two of Europe’s greatest club sides, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Even 50 years later, Hungarian football is still overshadowed by the legend of the Mighty Magyars.

In Hungary’s golden years, great players blessed with exceptional technique had interpreted revolutionary tactics.

Poland’s golden decade – from 1972 to 1982 – rested primarily on great players (Zibi Boniek, Kazimierz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato and Wlodzimierz Lubanski were merely the most conspicuous) who were gifted enough to win Olympic gold in 1972 and come third in the 1974 and 1982 World Cups.

A coach, who as a striker in the 1930s, enjoyed the very unpredatory nickname ‘Roe deer’, inspired this great team.

On Wikipedia, in full ceremonial regalia, Gorski looks like a Polish count or retired general from a bygone era.

But he was full of homespun wisdom (“Football is a simple game, one team just needs to score more goals than the other”) and inspired his players to almost conquer the world.

To Poles of a certain age, the very line-up of  ‘Gorski’s eleven’ – as the team that drew 1-1 with England at Wembley in November 1973 are known – has the same golden, nostalgic glow as “They think it’s all over…” in England.

West Germany’s iconoclastic full-back Paul Breitner says: “Poland were the best team in 1974.”

The Poles lost to the hosts 1-0 in the semi-final on a soggy pitch in Frankfurt.

As Breitner says: “It was a very wet day and we wouldn't have beaten the Poles if it hadn't been for the conditions.

"The Polish team was as perfectly structured as our team in 1972, with a true symbiosis between artists, technical players, fighters, sloggers, youth, old hands and experience.


In 1974, the Polish team had a similar blend, but with two, three or four players who couldn’t cope with such appalling conditions. Fair-weather footballers.

"This was the decisive factor in our victory. They had a better team at that World Cup than Germany, Holland, Brazil, or anyone else for that matter.”

Gorski stepped down as national coach in 1976. But Poland came third in Spain in 1982 and Widzew Lodz reached the European Cup semi-final in 1983.

Such glory could not last. By then, football may have been flourishing but Polish society wasn’t.

Petrol, vodka and football

The national malaise that gripped Poland in the late 1970s is brilliantly captured in Tadeus Konwicki’s elegiac novel A Minor Apocalypse (1979).

Konwicki’s semi-autobiographical narrator wanders around Warsaw wondering whether to set himself alight as a symbolic, but probably futile, political protest.

As Konwicki’s hero vacillates between petrol and vodka, Poland seems so cynical, disillusioned and pessimistic the wonder is that Polish football didn’t disappear into an apathetic mire.

The national rebirth that began when Lech Walesa founded Solidarity in 1980 seems unthinkable.

Walesa became president of a new, free Poland in 1990.

Today, Poland has a population of 38 million (2.5 times as large as Holland’s) and its GDP is bigger than Belgium’s or Sweden’s.

But this new Poland’s dynamism hasn’t been reflected on the pitch.

Poland’s plumbers may have conquered Europe but its footballers have often flattered to deceive.

In one way, it is unfair to lambast Poland.

You could argue that the triumphs referred to earlier – at USA 94, Euro 96 and France 98 – were dead cat bounces, the last fruit of a dying system in which the state had invested millions.

Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Romania have struggled to sustain such success even if – to varying degrees – they punch above their weight in world football.

A message to you Smuda

Yet Poland punches below its weight, missing out on three World Cups in a row, playing like a pub team in 2002 and 2006 (while revealing a thoroughly Scottish knack for staging a heroic victory once they knew they’d be home before the postcards) and amassing one point at their first Euro, in 2008.

Last year, the Poles fluffed a tough qualifying group in such style that the fiercest competition for awards on a Polish football blog was for biggest disappointment.

(Ebi Smolarek won for the second year in a row).

National stereotypes are always dangerous but Leo Beenhakker, the Dutch coach who was scapegoated for Poland’s failure to qualify for South Africa, told Champions the Poles, as a nation, were too fond of the dark side.

A little less sombre classical music, Beenhakker said, and a little more reggae would help.

Certainly Polish football has an impressive record for manufacturing a crisis – and then making a melodrama out of that crisis.

(The long running corruption scandal is a case in point).

And it hasn’t helped that such Silesian stars as Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski opted to play for Germany.

The players Beenhakker’s successor Franciszek Smuda can select may not be anywhere near as gifted as ‘Gorski’s eleven’ but they have enough talent to do more than finish bottom of their group in a proper tournament.

What Smuda, who starred in defence for the NASL’s Oakland Stompers in the 1970s, lacks most is a core of players who regularly play club football at the highest level.

So in the run up to Euro 2012 Smuda will pray that:

1. Wisla Krakow, Poland’s most successful club, stop knocking on the door of the UEFA Champions League and regularly make the group stage – after all, the likes of Levski Sofia, Unirea Urziceni and Debreceni have all succeeded where Wisla have failed.

2. Stars like Lille’s attacking midfielder Ludovic Obraniak, AEK Athens’ midfielder Roger Guerreiro and Auxerre’s forward Ireneusz Jelen – and others like them – do the business at their clubs. Of late, Poland’s greatest football exports have mostly been goalkeepers.

3. For Smolarek, whose enigmatic genius seems cruelly symbolic of Polish football’s malaise, to score hat-tricks against defences sterner than San Marino’s.

If all three happen, 2012 could, like 1972, herald the start of a new golden era for Polish football – or lead a new national cultural institution to open its doors in Warsaw: a museum of false dawns.

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