WARSAW, Poland. Oct 17 — Only 4,000 spectators bothered to turn up for the Slovakia game in Chorzow, and half of them were Slovaks. For Poland it was an academic match, one which was totally meaningless, but they had to get it over with.
And yet, exactly one year ago it wasn’t looking that bad. Despite having opened their qualification programme with a stuttering 1-1 draw at home to Slovenia, everyone remembered that the successful UEFA EURO 2008™ qualification had started with a 1-3 home defeat to Finland. Then after disposing of San Marino, Poland beat the Czechs 2-1 in front of 50,000 at the Slaski on 11 October – to go top of Group with 7 points from 3 games.
Poland’s fourth game was away to Slovakia and when Ebi Smolarek scored in the 70th minute, at that stage of the game Poland were heading the group, four points clear of Slovakia and towards another FIFA World Cup™. But then it all went pear-shaped. Within one minute, that lead had been wiped out and turned into a 1-2 defeat as Sestak scored twice in the 85 and 86 minute. It was not because of any brilliant play by the Slovaks, but just sheer lack of concentration and sloppy Polish defending.
By the winter-break of 2008/2009 Slovakia were top of Group 3 with 9 points and Poland second on 7, and still looking good for qualification. Then things went pear-shaped again in Northern Ireland on 28 March 2009. But whereas in Bratislava the defence had fallen asleep for just one minute – in Belfast goalkeeper Artur Boruc decided to have a nightmare for the whole 90 minutes. And perhaps Leo Beenhakker was partly to blame for even allowing the Celtic goalie to play at all?
Ever since Boruc entered the religious hotbed that exists in Glasgow between Celtic and Rangers, he thought it was fun to wind up the Protestant bigots among the blues fans. He regularly crossed himself in front of them and in August 2006 he was cautioned by the Glasgow police after he had added a two-fingered sign and other obscene gestures, to his usual crossings and blessings. This incensed the whole crowd and it took the police and security some time to restore order.
Now everyone in the world has heard about the sectarian rivalry between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, which has resulted in thousands of deaths. In Belfast, Protestant fans follow Glasgow Rangers, so the game against Poland was a god-sent opportunity for them to vent their anger at Boruc. And this wasn’t helped by the behaviour of some Polish fans who had come to cause trouble.
The hostility in the stadium before the game was very evident and Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington felt the Polish players were affected by it: “All their team were intimidated by the atmosphere,” he told the press afterwards.
But the main target for the Protestant anger – was Boruc. He had even received death threats and there’s no doubt it must have affected his performance. How else can his mis-judgement of a cross to the far-post for the first Irish goal, and then mis-kicking a straightforward back-pass from Zewlakow which resulted in Northern Ireland’s winner, be explained? The game was surely too important to take a chance with him in this situation – and those two mistakes ended up costing Poland three points.
Ironically, Poland were given yet another respite when they registered a massive 10-0 win against San Marino after rivals for the runner-up spot Slovenia faltered again, managing only a 0-0 draw at home to Czech Republic. And there seemed to be no apparent signs of the imminent collapse when Poland beat Greece 2-0 in a warm-up August friendly, either.
However the main rivals for that second ticket to South Africa were Northern Ireland, Poland’s next opponents in the more favourable setting of the Slaski Stadium. This was the do-or-die game and taking the un-naturally volatile situation of Belfast aside, form suggested that the Ulstermen were no world-beaters. They had been held at home by the Czechs, lost away to Slovenia and their subsequent results and failure to qualify, confirmed this.
But it was during this encounter that the Polish national team, and manager, seem to have lost the plot – and their chances of qualifying They had been capable of beating teams like the Czech Republic and Greece, and had only lost their two qualifying matches through a couple of defensive errors, and a disastrous performance by a goalkeeper who should not have been there on the day.
These things happen in football and can all be explained, but the inept and heartless performance against Northern Ireland in Chorzow, when there was still a very good chance of qualifying for South Africa, is hard to explain. It harks back to the terrible years of the 90’s, when the Polish national side seemed to find qualification for a major football tournament, an insurmountable obstacle.
Poland did not so much fail to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Finals in South Africa, as threw the opportunity away. Now questions have to be asked – how and why?
For breaking stories and all the great banter like us on Facebook: facebook.com/psnfutbol