If FIFA decided to create a football league for nations made up of 18-team divisions, Poland would find itself in Division 4. The world football governing body’s latest rankings place Poland at 58, just below Hungary, Northern Ireland and Tunisia.
But should Polish fans really expect to see their national team placed higher than being down among the fourth-rate small-fry? The answer must surely be yes, given its size and a tradition where it had finished third in two World Cups as well as winning the Olympics, during a golden decade back in the 70’s and early 80’s. Most teams when they make the break-through into the big time, manage to stay there – or thereabouts. But ever since Poland beat France for third place in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, its national team has gone steadily down, although it did manage to pick itself up again during a brief six year period which ended last year.
When you look at the 57 teams above Poland, most of them have achieved far less on the world stage and many have smaller populations which to choose players from. Why on earth should Lithuania, Latvia, Burkina Faso, Australia, Ghana, Slovakia, Costa Rica, Israel, Bulgaria, Gabon, Canada, FYR Macedonia, etc be able to put together better football sides than Poland? In the case of Canada and Australia, football isn’t even their national game. Taking these factors into account, as well as the fact that most of Poland’s 38 million population claim to take an interest in the game of football, this is nothing short of pathetic.
Traditionally the excuse is trundled out that the best Polish footballers play abroad. But so do the best Croats (ranked 10) Serbs (ranked 15) and what about Argentinians (7th) and Dutch (4th), whose best players appeared in last week’s European Champions Final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich?
It is perhaps ironic that the person who took overall charge of Polish football just when the reprezentacja seemed to be crawling out of its hole and has therefore lorded over yet another catastrophic collapse, is Grzegorz Lato. One of Poland’s finest players he was top scorer in the 1974 World Cup and prominent member of Poland’s greatest team ever.
It had taken 16 long years of wandering in the international football wilderness, when Poland failed to qualify for either one of the two major football tournaments, before the drought was finally broken in 2002. They finally managed to reach their sixth World Cup finals, in Japan & South Korea, under trainer Jerzy Engel who was then booted out immediately afterwards when the reprezentacja flopped badly.
His successor was arguably Poland’s greatest footballer Zbigniew Boniek, who failed, as had all previous trainers to take Poland into the Euro Championships, of 2004.
However Pawel Janas managed to make a second successive World Cup finals, even if 2006 turned out to be an almost exact repetition of the previous one for the Poles.
Enter the Dutch master Leo Beenhakker who listed being coach of the world’s biggest football club Real Madrid on his CV, and he managed to do what no Polski szkoleniowiec had ever done – take Poland into its first ever Euro Championships.
But Austria and Switzerland 2008 proved to be yet another disaster – as did the following World Cup qualifiers when the reprezentacja somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of seeming victory. And it may be just a coincidence – but the rot seems to have set in soon after Lato’s appointment – it is a known fact that he didn’t see eye to eye with Beenhakker, who accused him of interfering. Lato got rid of the Dutchman and Poland’s future now rests in the hands of a well-respected coach, Franciszek Smuda, who has enjoyed success at club level with Widzew Lodz and Lech Poznan.
On reflection the six years between 2002 and 2008 did bring some success, in three tournament qualifying stages, following those 16 years when Poland almost disappeared off the world football radar altogether. Fortunately though, and thanks only to behind the scenes work by the PZPN and possibly the Polish government, Poland will not have to wait another sixteen years before appearing in another major international tournament. They will be co-hosting the 2012 Euro Championships with Ukraine.
But which Polish team will the fans see in front of their own eyes? The sides who did so well in 1974, 1982 and even 1986? Or, the ones who fizzled out so pathetically after having qualified with so well in 2002, 2006 and 2008?
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