“Every Polish boy on the playground dreams of wearing the white eagle on his chest”
It’s just another day in Warsaw as the Unknown Soldier lies solemnly in the centre of the city. Children chasing each other nearby and five sparrows chirp around the monument. Suddenly, the sky turns a shade darker and a large crow crashes into the middle of the sparrows and steals whatever they were feeding on. The sparrows cease chirping and disperse. The children have scattered and left. The crow scanned the area with his beak held high, symbolically on top of the tomb, admiring his work. Within a few minutes, the sparrows drummed up their courage collectively, and gradually flew back to the site of their food. They landed surrounding the crow and started chirping vociferously, the sun came back out behind the clouds and the crow flew away. This little moment in Warsaw encapsulates a lot of what Poland and Polish football has been through in modern history. As the Euros are about to begin in Poland, never has their national team had more eyes upon them. So how will they fare?
The Unknown Soldier is a solemn area in Warsaw, when looking at Poland’s history in the last century, solemn thoughts are never too far away. The world may know Poland mostly for such things and indeed, areas of Poland still do leave an eerie kind of feel to them. Crumbling apartment blocks sporadically scatter around towns and cities, sometimes pavements are a bit disheveled. Cities are generally much quieter in terms of noise than equivalents found in the U.K for instance. However, much like the sparrows on the tomb, green shoots of life have since appeared for this wonderful country. The Euro 2012 Championships are a symbolic step forward for Poland to once again bea force on the international stage.
Since communism collapsed, the country continues to be in transition, attempting to move away from those times. Things all seem a little uncertain in Poland now. Amidst death, destruction and poverty, a new breath of life is breaking through, though not without difficulties. The nation of Poland appears to be in a new phase, having joined the EU, they opted to retain the Zloty. Communist hangovers are evident in society and development takes a long time to seep through. The football in Poland similarly has a strange identity that is difficult to really pin down for outsiders.
Unlike other ex-communist states such as Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, Poland wasn’t directly part of the Soviet Union and therefore has never had its football teams incorporated into the overall Soviet league. Also, Polish footballers represented Poland and not the Soviet Union. As a consequence football wasn’t quite as marked by Soviet influences as other countries such as Ukraine with the revolutions made by Valeriy Lobanovskyi, but similarities are present. Polish football is very much a collectivist world, where systems are very much emphasised rather than individuality. Discipline is key is all areas from youth upwards, players are generally less selfish than other European counterparts and science plays a role in the country’s football. All these characteristics are clearly present in the current national team.
Pictured at the top of the article, the Palace of Culture and Science hasa prominent position in Warsaw. A gift from the Soviet Union in 1952, the building was once home to a scurry of scientific activity and creative endeavours. Today while science is still present, it houses theatres, cinemas and other attractions for the population. Science in Poland, much like other communist states, was very much emphasised and invested in. Today, science like many other aspects suffers from the harsh realities of capitalism and funding is often difficult. Still, science and approaching football mathematically with the concepts of space, with the eleven players forming a collective web still hold true in Poland.
Goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal), Przemyslaw Tyton (PSV Eindhoven), Grzegorz Sandomierski (Jagiellonia Bialystok).
In Szczesny, Poland possess an excellent young keeper who will serve them well for many years to come. He is a cool, collected young man and he goes into the tournament as one of the stand-out goalkeepers. He’s joined by the capable Tyton and another young goalkeeper in Sandomierski, who also has a lot of potential. With Tyton the eldest goalkeeper of the Polish squad at 25, Poland looks set to be covered nicely in the goalkeeping department not just for the Euros but looking much further ahead too.
Defenders: Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund), Marcin Wasilewski (Anderlecht), Jakub Wawrzyniak (Legia Warsaw), Marcin Kaminski (Lech Poznan), Grzegorz Wojtkowiak (Lech Poznan), Sebastian Boenisch (Werder Bremen), Damien Perquis (Sochaux).
On paper, this defence looks creaky. However, Poland have a good defensive record, having kept a clean sheet in their last four games. Defence for Poland is very much a collective effort, their good record can be attributed not just to the defenders but the whole team. However, there is much to talk about with the defenders themselves.
Lukasz Piszczek has established himself at Borussia Dortmund as an exceptional full-back, capable of defending well but also bombarding up the flank in support of attacks. He’s a good crosser of the ball and knows when to drop back or move forward. A good tournament could perhaps see an even bigger move on the cards for the young man.
Elsewhere, Wasilewski is a dependable defender. Whilst not the quickest, he has a good positional sense and is a tough opponent. Left-back Boenisch is a relative newcomer to the squad having tried to hold out for a Germany squad place, and is a more than capable defender. However, he comes into the tournament having suffered some horrendous injuries. After a promising start to his career at Lech Poznan, 20 year old Kaminski is an interesting new player for Poland, while his club colleague Wojtkowiak offers more experience at 28. Meanwhile Perquis has been a regular starter for French club Sochaux for many years.
Midfielders: Eugen Polanski (Mainz), Dariusz Dudka (Auxerre), Adam Matuszczyk (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Adrian Mierzejewski (Trabzonspor), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Borussia Dortmund), Ludovic Obraniak (Bordeaux), Maciej Rybus (Terek Grozny), Kamil Grosicki (Sivasspor), Rafal Murawski (Lech Poznan), Rafal Wolski (Legia Warsaw).
The midfield holds some intrigue going into the Euros. Manager Franciszek Smuda has elected to take young prodigy Rafal Wolski, who could provide the wildcard Poland might need to grab a goal. The 19 year-old has tremendous skill on the ball, can use both feet well and has genuine flair that Poland may otherwise lack. Still a raw talent, his gangly frame and quick feet could cause a real stir at the Euros if he is utilised.
Blaszczykowski comes to the Euros on the back of a brilliant season with Dortmund, forming a marvellous right-side partnership with Piszczek. Their teamwork is a sight to behold, they work so well together in tandem. Blaszczykowski is pacey and delivers a good cross, there’s nothing he loves more than pulling on a Poland shirt as captain of the team. He epitomizes everything that’s good about Polish football: hard-work, brilliant appreciation of space and selflessness.
Elsewhere Polanski will provide the solid base for which the rest of the midfield can work off. He comes on the back of a solid season for Mainz 05, is a good tackler of the ball and will generally sit back and do the dirty work. In front of him is Obraniak, perhaps Bordeaux’s top player this season. He is creative, isn’t afraid to shoot from distance but assists his team-mates too. Much will depend on him getting the relevant support to Lewandowski but as we’ll look at a little later, this might not be a difficult task in the group stages.
We now turn our attention to two intriguing players for people outside of Poland. Firstly, Maciej Rybus. He plays in Russia for Terek Grozny, at only 22 years old, he still holds lots of potential. Rybus might not be the most spectacular winger but his left-foot provides balance to the midfield, he often takes up dangerous positions and will work hard all game long. The other player of interest is Rafal Murawski, who will likely sit next to Polanski in central midfield. He’s a player of real guile and composure. He’s capable of knocking the ball around gracefully, picking out clever passes but also moving with the ball intelligently. Apart from a foray in Russia for a couple of years, Murawski has spent his whole career in Poland and could offer up a surprise or two at the Euro’s, despite being 30.
Forwards: Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund), Artur Sobiech (Hannover), Pawel Brozek (Celtic).
There’s only one man Poland need up front and that is Robert Lewandowski. This season has seen him flourish into a world-class forward, leading Dortmund to a domestic double. His intelligence in knowing what is best for the team in situations on the pitch is a real asset. He knows when to drop off, he knows when to make a run and where to make a run. He’s restless in the box, offers an aerial threat and will continually be happy making dummy runs for his team-mates to exploit the space. A lot rests on his young shoulders but should be step up like he can, he could become a household name across Europe.
His teamwork with the other previously mentioned Dortmund players, Piszscek and Kuba, is quite extraordinary. Their understanding of each others’ game is excellent. Formation wise, Poland play a similar one to Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 and all three will look to flourish at the Euros.