With England about to play Poland this week, a fixture that has become almost a staple of World Cup and European Championship qualifiers (13 meetings since 1986), Polish football comes into view once more. The media claim that there will be 20,000 Poles at Wembley, many of whom live in Britain, and this is for a team that has crashed out of contention for a place in next year’s finals.
The only time we get to hear of Polish domestic football is when someone like Danny Dyer goes visiting some of the world’s most dangerous men. It’s reasonable to assume that, like all things Eastern European football, there’s been something of a decline in the standard of the domestic game in Poland. And in some ways, the Polish football is going through some of the problems that beset England in the 1970s and 1980s. Only a couple of weeks ago, Rome had to contend with Polish hooligans sporting Legia Warsaw’s colours.
Back in the 1970s, names like Gornik Zabre and Legia rolled off the tongue, and represented a tough tie in European competition for any English team. Furthermore, Poland’s national eleven, after beating England to a place in the 1974 World Cup, went on to produce a string of excellent players: Deyna, Lato, Boniek and others. On October 17, it’s exactly 40 years since that fateful night when England failed to break down the Poles and earn the win they needed to qualify for Germany. In 2013, England need to get a win to guarantee their place for Brazil 2014, but the Poles offer less of a threat this time, despite having Robert Lewandowski, one of Europe’s top strikers, in their ranks.
Football played its part in the social and political changes in Poland before the Iron Curtain came down. It was 30 years ago that Lechia Gdansk played Juventus in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the crowd, in unison, started chanting “Solidarnosc”. What followed, as they say, is history – only 11 fans returned out of the 80 that went to Turin for the second leg – but while this was going on, Poland’s national team was still among the best in Europe, having finished third in the 1982 World Cup. In 1983, the Polish champions, Widzew Lodz reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Widzew Lodz. What the devil happened to them? Indeed, what happened to Polish football post-glasnost? It’s been a story of defection, corruption and disappointment. Not even a Polish-hosted European Championship could entirely lift the gloom that has descended on the game since 1986. It wasn’t until 2002 that Poland qualified for a major tournament after the Mexico World Cup, and today, their FIFA ranking is 65 – even Scotland are above them!
When communism collapsed, Polish football – like many Soviet bloc states – suffered. Players and coaches left the country, stadiums were left to rot and money dried up. Attendances at major games collapsed – anyone who witnessed past international games in Chorzow stadium, with huge crowds of rabid Silesian’s baying for blood, will know that Polish fans can be passionate about their football. But with the fabric of society falling around their ears, there were more important things than sport to fix.
So how did this affect Widzew Lodz, you might ask? For a while, they were the team to watch in Poland. And in the new world order, they managed to win two more league titles, in 1996 and 1997. Like many clubs, they were caught up in the scandals that have tarnished the Polish game in recent years. They dropped out of the top division, the Ekstraklasa, and were denied promotion in 2009 because of their part in the mass match-fixing scandal. They were allowed up in 2010.
One Polish fan, Marcin, told Game of the People that the match-fixings and multiple arrests did mortal damage to the game’s image. “You never knew if you were watching a genuine game. Everyone seemed to be involved, every club, every top official. Every time you picked up the newspaper, there seemed to be bad news about football. I gave up on the game, and so did a lot of others.”
The Euro 2012 tournament was supposed to be the chance for Poland to move on and rebuild its image. To some extent it did, but the national team was too weak to carry the nation on its back and produce a swashbuckling campaign. But at least Poland got some good football stadiums out of the deal.
According to the stattos, Polish league football is on the up with best-ever crowds attending games. I am not sure that some poetic license is being used here, for surely Polish football has been watched by more than the current average of 8,000-plus?
England will have to be on their guard against the Poles, but it will be hard to rekindle the spirit of 1973. In relative terms, Poland are a faded force. A bit like England, perhaps?