“Gadocha was the best. He fly down left side all game long. Nobody touch him.” This broken English was uttered by my late father about his favorite Polish player, Robert Gadocha, countless times during my childhood years.
Upon hearing these types of statements through my eardrums, I simply smiled and arbitrarily agreed with him while truly thinking that it was a typical Poland-biased embellishment. At the time, I was not much of a football fan, but that would soon change.
Low on the Pecking Order
Growing up in a suburb just west of Toronto, the sport of football (aka “soccer” in North America) was not high on my pecking order. Instead, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL and the Toronto Blues of MLB tickled my fancy to a much greater level. Despite playing organized football for a couple of years, the game appeared to move at too leisurely of a pace for my liking. Being the sports crazed kid, I would still occasionally tune in to the national sports network’s weekly broadcast of an English premiership match and even took a casual liking to Liverpool. However, there lacked the passion and allegiance to any particular club, neither club nor country. Then the 1994 World Cup happened.
Hosted by Canada’s neighbor to the south, the United States, the tournament caught on like wildfire in popularity. The likes of Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov, Italy’s Roberto Baggio and Brazil’s Romario captivated audiences around the world with their technical wizardry. It was Brazil’s tantalizing style of play, with Romario and Bebeto routinely befuddling opposing defenders while on the attack, that opened my eyes to how wonderful the game of football can be. “This is beautiful football. One day you gonna see Poland play like this again”, my dad said passionately. At the time, Poland’s existing national team was as much of a mystery as Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance or the JFK assassination. Consider a curiosity seed planted.
Knowing Your Roots
I began to do some more research on what kind of a team we were in the not so distant past. I won’t go into a history lesson, but the Polish national football teams of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s were some bad, bad men. Led by playmaking winger Gadocha, prolific attacker Grzegorz Lato, the cerebral maestro Kazimierz Deyna, clinical striker Andrzej Szarmach and outlandish goaltender Jan Tomaszewski, Poland quite possibly fielded the most talented squad on the planet leading into the 1974 World Cup.
The Poles steamrolled through their opponents, only to bow out to Gerd Muller and the Germans in a highly controversial 1:0 semi-final loss on German soil. Of course, my father, and likely most passionate fathers of Polish descent, believed that a fix of some sort was in for the Germans to prevail on a nearly unplayable field flooded with rain. I won’t touch that conspiracy theory with a 10-foot pole.
Poland went on to defeat Brazil in the third place match, with Lato winning the tournament’s Golden Boot after bulging the twine a grand total of seven times. It appeared that my dad was on to something. Poland was pretty damn good at football at one time.
The squad followed up their successful 1974 run with another third place finish at the 1982 World Cup. “Nobody can touch Boniek”, exclaimed my father about striker Zbigniew Boniek. The Juventus legend managed to tally four goals in the tournament that propelled him to a legendary career. The tournament was a much needed escape for Poles that were subjected to martial law imposed by an authoritarian communist government of the Polish People’s Republic. Talk about playing with a purpose.
Schooled by Scholes
It was following the 1998 World Cup that was hoisted by France in Paris that I truly began to take real interest in Poland’s national squad. With the 2000 European Championship Qualifiers in full swing, my dad suggested that we watch our first ever national team match together at a local Polish bar as the squad was set to take on England at Wembley Stadium. The idea was music to my ears.
On the drive over to the venue, he spoke glowingly of when goalkeeper Tomaszewski “stopped England” in a World Cup Qualifying match in 1973 at Wembley. Have a look for yourself:
Although my father was highly skeptical of a squad lacking any semblance of firepower, the looming kick-off had me giddy like a kid on Christmas Eve. Poles o’plenty were clad in red & white to cheer on their country against a far superior English squad. Poland’s inferiority was on full display when Paul Scholes secured an early brace with the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer by his side. Profanities bellowed through the establishment as bewildered Poles were growing tired of the lackluster product in front of them. My dad was much more reserved, but I knew he was disgusted with what he was seeing. I was beginning to question if Poland would ever return to form. Then there was a glimmer of hope.
In the 28th minute, Polish midfielder Jerzy Brzeczek sent the faithful Polish fans in that bar into sheer bliss as he massaged a left-footed shot past goalkeeper David Seaman. Despite allowing a third goal from Scholes later on in the match that culminated in a 3:1 defeat, the experience in that dingy bar with my father showed me what it meant to be a (Polish) football fan.
Obsession Meets Disappointment
Now that I had a newfound appreciation for Polish football, I promised my dad that I would fully support Poland in their next endeavor of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea and beyond. The club had recently nationalized a Nigerian-born striker named Emmanuel Olisadebe and were robust in the middle with commanding midfielder Radoslaw Kaluszny and central defenders Tomasz Hajto and Tomasz Waldoch – both of which honed their craft for Schalke in the German Bundesliga.
My father and I watched every qualifying game with growing confidence as the squad was playing free flowing football, that led to a first place finish in their group above the likes of Ukraine, Belarus and Norway. Olisadebe was the new poster boy of Polish football with his eight goals in qualifying, only to be outdone by legendary Ukrainian striker Andriy Schevchenko (who had nine). I was finally going to see Poland on the world stage with my father by my side.
Alas, Poland’s showing was an utter disappointment. Losses to co-host South Korea (2:0) and European power Portugal (4:0) abruptly dashed the team’s hopes of World Cup glory. Despite this feeble showing, my obsession with the team began to grow at an alarming rate.
Unfortunately, disappointment has been the name of the game for Poland’s squad for most of the current century. The glimmers of hope brought upon by the likes Maciej Zurawski and Ebi Smolarek only manifested into fool’s gold, with putrid showings against teams like Ecuador and Austria and a pair of soul crushing defeats to the mighty Germans. In spite of these vile performances on the international stage, my dad and I kept watching religiously together. With Poland co-hosting the European Championships in 2012, a return to glory was surely imminent.
It was, and still is, with immense sadness and sorrow that I lost the main reason for my newfound love of football far too soon. My father unexpectedly passed in 2010 and my world was turned upside down. The one thing I did promise him that I would continue to follow our team religiously and be in Poland to watch our boys in action for the Euros.
I managed to conjure up the funds required to make this dream possible and made a return to my birthplace for the first time since leaving at the age of two. The experience of witnessing the opening ceremony in Warsaw as the Poles took on Greece was a moment I knew I was sharing alongside with my father. He was also assuredly jumping through the roof after Robert Lewandowski smashed a header off the turf to ignite bedlam in the newly erected National Stadium.
Unfortunately, the Poles failed to progress out of their group, losing to a mediocre Czech squad in their final round robin match. Despite yet another disappointing result, it was evident that the squad was laying a foundation of talented players, with the likes of Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek leading the way.
Beacon of Hope
After suffering a setback by not qualifying for the World Cup in 2014, the Poles had their sights firmly set on leaving their mark at the 2016 European Championships in France. With the rise in form of Kamil Glik, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Arkadiusz Milik to help supplement a fairly solid core, there was cause for hope for the Poles to finally do something at a major tournament.
Two solid wins against inferior opponents and a highly commendable 0:0 draw against the reigning champions from Germany later, and it was apparent that this was type of football my late father spoke so highly of back in Poland’s glory days. The defense was resolute and no nonsense, the midfield was generous in distribution and responsible within their own end of the field and the attack was calculated and creative at the same time. A date with Switzerland in the Quarterfinals was set.
The Poles started off like a house on fire and culminated in the following clinical finish from “Kuba” after a darting run from winger, Kamil Grosicki:
And then it happened.
After letting out the loudest scream of my life, I began to cry uncontrollably. Partly because we were on top, partly because the two decades of heartache and frustration was no longer, but mainly because I finally got to witness the kind of football my dad always spoke so highly of. He was assuredly watching with a smile on his face.
Sure, the Poles went on to suffer a painful defeat in penalty kicks at the hands of eventual champion, Portugal, but the tournament was unequivocally success and served as a beacon of hope for the future.
Same Routine, Glorious Result?
And so here we are. Father’s Day is now upon us and the glorious World Cup is in full swing. Poland is in preparation to execute the daunting task of defeating a Senegal squad laden with proven talent on Tuesday. I’ve continued my usual routine of scouring Polish football sites on a daily basis, purchased my jersey and flag for my car and have utilized vacation days to align with Poland’s schedule. I dream of Polish glory and have nightmares of missing pivotal matches. The passion is at an all-time high.
Poland could shock the world this summer and go deep in the tournament or could fall flat on their face. Youngsters like Piotr Zielinski and Dawid Kownacki could turn into Gadocha and Lato or be non-factors altogether. Either way, my fandom and obsession will not waver. On this Father’s Day, I thank my father for introducing me to this wonderful world of Polish football.
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