Co – Host Nation
Coach- Franciszek Smuda
One to Watch Robert Lewandowski
As we approach the summer of 2012 all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists who will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
One of the co-hosts provides the focus for the next in the series of Euro 2012 profiles, namely Poland. The Poles have a proud history in International competition, winning gold at the Munich Olympics of 1972, taking silver at the subsequent games, and qualifying for the World Cup finals on no fewer than 6 occasions.
The 1970s and early 1980s saw the “golden era” of Polish football. Under coach Kazimierz Gorski, they qualified for four successive World Cup Finals. Finishing third in 1974 they defeated, amongst others Argentina and Italy, only narrowly losing 1-0 to host nation and eventual winners West Germany in awful conditions in the semi-final . The irrepressible Gerd Mueller scoring the all important winner for the Germans with a trademark header. Polish striker Grzegorz Lato scored his seventh goal of the tournament to give his side a 1-0 victory over Brazil and secure third spot. Lato would score ten World Cup Finals goals in an international career which spanned ten years, from 1972 to 1982.
Poland repeated this magnificent feat eight years later in Spain. After coming through the first group stage ahead of Cameroon and Peru, the Poles defeated Belgium 3-0 and, after a 0-0 draw with the Soviet Union in a politically charged encounter, emerged from the second group stage to secure a semi-final spot.
Once there, Poland would face Italy, a side they’d already held 0-0 in the first group stage. Italy had beaten Brazil in their last second round match in what has gone down as one of the tournament’s most epic encounters of all time. A hat-trick from, returning striker, Paolo Rossi had seen the Italians through against the heavily fancied South Americans and, it was Rossi again who put the Poles to the sword with two goals in the semi. The defeat didn’t stop this wonderful Polish team from going on to defeat the France of Tigana and Platini 3-2 to clinch 3rd spot, whilst Italy would go on to win the World Cup.
Since then, Poland have failed to recapture the magic of that “golden era”. The Poles qualified for Mexico 86 but, after scraping through the group stage, were sent packing by Brazil, thumped 4-0 by the South Americans in the second round. Poland would not qualify for another major international football tournament for the next sixteen years. Successful qualification for World Cup 02 was met with hope of at least reaching the knock-out stages, however,it was not to be as the Poles lost to South Korea and Portugal ensuring early elimination.
2006 also saw Poland enter the competition with high hopes, especially being drawn in a group which included Ecuador and Costa Rica, as well as Germany. A 2-0 defeat by Ecuador in their opening match, followed by a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Germans, however, were enough to dump Poland out at the group stage for a second time in a row.
In view of all this previous success in reaching World Cup Finals and competing well at Olympic Games, it is surprising to note that Poland have managed to qualify for the European Championship Finals only once. This success came in the most recent tournament to be staged, four years ago in 2008.
At the tournament however, an impressive qualification campaign counted for nothing as Polish hopes were let down badly by poor performances in the competition itself. Though in a relatively strong group, which contained Germany, Croatia and Austria, the Polish campaign was a great disappointment as they failed to win a match and were eliminated at the end of the group stage having scored only once in three games.
The jury is out on the current Polish team. Undoubtedly they have some talented players, for example, Robert Lewandowski, an exciting attacking midfielder come striker with a knack for scoring goals. Currently plying his trade with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, Lewandowski has been gradually cultivating a name for himself as a quick-witted, fleet-footed, clinical striker. The process has been accelerated vastly over the last season with Lewandowski notching up 22 league goals for his club side and a hat-trick in the final of the Pokal (German cup), as Dortmund secured the first league and domestic cup double in their history.
Another that may catch the eye in the summer is his Dortmund teammate Jakub Blaszczykowski or “Kuba” as he’s known in Germany, a pacey winger who can test defenders. Kuba also played a key role in Dortmund’s league and cup triumph and, though lesser known than his compatriot, possesses real talent and could shine on his home stage.
Blaszczykowski is backed up on the right hand side by yet another Dortmund team-mate, in the form of Lukasz Piszczek. Piszczek was rated by whoscored.com as the best right-back in the top five European leagues. He has a fantastic understanding with the man in front of him at club level and the two transfer that form to the international set-up. As well as being solid defensively, Piszczek loves to get forwards and is a can threaten with either foot, a fact backed up by his four goals and seven assists for Dortmund last season.
These three players, along with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny are undoubtedly Poland’s star players and they will look to them to provide the inspiration come tournament time. Coach Smuda is known for his cautious, defensive style and this has caused problems, with several members of his squad including Lewandowski vocal in their criticism of his tactics. However, this is unlikely to have an effect and Poland will more than likely play a similarly rigid game, relying on a counter-attacking style which depends on pace down the flanks and assured finishing when chances are created.
Poland are in group a, along with Greece, sworn enemies, Russia and, neighbours, the Czech Republic. I think that Russia will take the group as the strongest team in it but Poland, despite being ranked lowest, are, I believe, next in line. Their ranking is disproportionately low due to the fact that they are co-hosts and, as such, haven’t played a competitive match in two years.
Greece and the Czech Republic are solid teams but neither is overflowing with creativity and for me, Poland with their Dortmund trio and Szczesny, have the tools to take second place and book themselves passage to the quarter finals at least. After that, it will be tough for them to get any further but, with home advantage and passionate support a given, you just never know.
This is an enormous chance for the current crop of Polish players to update the annals of the Polish football story and make their mark in front of Europe on home soil. For so long the forgotten man of European international football, this summer is the perfect stage to show the rest of Europe that Poland can be a force to be reckoned with once more.
Both images by DrabikPany.