On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week, we’re heading back to the Brexiteers’ beloved 1970s and remembering a team that had parochial Englishmen all in a flap, and a playmaker that posed questions over foreign imports into the First Division. Crack open a can of Tyskie, rustle up a few pierogi and relax as we pen a missive to our neighbours from Poland.
The Player: Kazimierz Deyna
Picture post-war Gdansk and you might not imagine it being a fertile breeding ground for a man that would become the first playboy of Polish football. One of nine children born to dairy worker Franciszek and housewife Jadwiga, Kazimierz Deyna was hardly brought up to be a material boy. Aged just eleven, he followed in the footsteps of brother Henryk and joined local football team Włókniarz Starogard Gdański, where he would stay for eight years learning his craft. Eventually snapped up by ŁKS Łódź, Deyna would alert the attention of Poland’s big boys in double quick time and, after being drafted into the army for national service, military club Legia Warsaw took the opportunity to secure his signature, all after just one appearance for the Knights of Spring.
By the age of 20, Deyna had already been drafted into the Polish national team to make his debut against Turkey, before playing a key role in back-to-back Ekstraklasa title wins with Legia. He quickly achieved hero status at the Polish Army Stadium, and across twelve years would become a club legend, earning the nickname ‘Kaka’ thanks to his unusual free-kick technique that would usually result in a goal. Often ungainly and perceived ponderous, Deyna played like a chess grandmaster, always ten steps ahead of the opposition before he’d even received the ball. His range of passing, ability to twist defenders into knots, and fondness of a long-range effort made him almost unplayable at times, and his 93 goals across 304 appearances were supplemented with countless assists.
It was his performances for his country, though, that brought him international recognition. In 1972, Deyna drove Poland on to Olympic Gold in Munich, finishing the tournament as top scorer and netting both goals in the final against Hungary. Two years later, he was key part of Poland’s greatest ever team, finding the net three times in the group stage as the nation finished third at the World Cup. In 1976, he would have to settle for silver as Poland were edged out by East Germany at the Montreal Olympics, but would go on to score again at the following World Cup as Poland reached the second group phase.
Long sought after by the likes of Real Madrid, the communist regime in Poland forbade its footballers from moving to Western clubs, however a breakthrough after the World Cup in Argentina saw Manchester City pay Legia £100,000 to bring the Polish superstar to Maine Road. With foreign imports a rarity at the time, much hand-wringing followed Deyna’s arrival. The idea of a Polish footballer taking the place of a homegrown player was anathema to the commentariat, and City manager Tony Book’s total misuse of Deyna’s talents hardly helped the new signing’s cause. Having made his name as a deep-lying playmaker, Book crowbarred Deyna into a centre-forward role, perhaps due to his goalscoring exploits, and sat back and watched as brutish defenders up and down the country gave him a traditional English welcome.
Struggling to adapt to the pace and physicality of the First Division, Deyna fell back on his second biggest passion: partying. With injuries mounting, game time at a premium, and Deyna a thousand miles from home, he began to find solace in heavy drinking – a habit curbed by the revocation of his driving licence after been stopped under the influence. Despite issues off the field, City fans eventually warmed to Deyna, and still hold him in high regard thanks largely to the seven goals in eight games that helped the club avoid relegation at the end of the 1978/79 season.
But while English pundits mightn’t have been charmed by the skills of the Polish playmaker, American filmmakers certainly were, as Deyna was cast in the 1981 war-and-football flick Escape To Victory alongside Pele, Bobby Moore and Michael Caine. That taste of glamour spurred the midfielder to move to the burgeoning NASL, signing for Californian side San Diego Sockers. Clearly a class above most of his colleagues, Deyna scored 49 times across four seasons in the outdoor league, adding a further 118 goals when the competition moved to the indoor format in 1985. Retiring in 1987, Deyna continued to live in San Diego. In 1991, at the age of 41, he was killed in a car crash.
Often overlooked for the likes of Cruyff, Neeskens and Jairzinho, Deyna was undoubtedly one of the most talented midfielders in world football during the 1970s. Prepared to take risks and make the most of his talent, it’s a tragedy that he failed to reach the heights of his contemporaries, and had his life so cruelly cut short. In 1994 he was voted the Polish Football Player of All Time by the Polish football federation. Not bad for a skinny lad from Gdansk.
The Game: Poland 3-2 Argentina, 1974
“Brian, you keep calling him a clown but in fact that fella has made some fantastic saves”. Wembley, 17th October 1973. England need to beat Poland to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Sir Alf Ramsey’s team are overwhelming favourites, but for forty-five minutes they’ve been thwarted by the heroics of goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, whose efforts are rewarded by Nottingham Forest manager and live TV pundit Brian Clough labelling him ‘a circus clown in gloves’. Ten minutes after the break, Jan Domarski gives the visitors the lead, and though Allan Clarke equalises from the spot six minutes later, England aren’t able to trouble Tomaszewski’s net further. Poland top the group, and are heading to their first World Cup since 1938.
Poland had yet to emerge as a footballing nation before the 1970s. Communist rule had prevented players from demonstrating their talent across Europe and, aside from a solitary game in 1938, they had not appeared at a major tournament. At the start of the decade, however, it was clear a change was coming. In 1970, national champions Legia Warsaw reached the semi-final of the European Cup, the furthest a Polish side had ever been in continental club competition. A team comprising Lucjan Brychczy, Kazimierz Deyna, and Robert Gadocha had seen off the challenge of Saint Etienne and Galatasary before succumbing to eventual winners Feyenoord. When former Legia coach Kazimierz Górski was appointed manager of the national team in 1971, it would spark the beginning of a golden period.
Olympic gold in 1972 was followed by a nervy but successful qualification campaign for the World Cup. Drawn in a smaller group of three, defeat in Wales looked to have put the skids on Poland’s progress from the off, but victories over the Welsh and England in Chorzów put Górski’s team in the driving seat. Tomaszewski did the rest.
By the time the World Cup rolled around, Poland’s squad had seen a major overhaul. Among the 22 players that Górski named for the tournament in West Germany, only Deyna, Gadocha, Lesław Ćmikiewicz and Jerzy Gorgoń had earned thirty or more caps. Many of those that made the final squad had only appeared a handful of times for the national team, while young forwards Zdzisław Kapka and Marek Kusto were surprising additions. It was 24-year-old striker Grzegorz Lato though, who had already fired unfancied Stal Mielec to the Ekstraklasa the previous year, that was identified as Poland’s danger man.
Drawn against 1970 finalists Italy and South American contenders Argentina, Poland were given little hope of advancing from the group. Minnows Haiti offered the perfect chance of two points, but before facing the Caribbean debutantes, Górski’s team would meet Argentina in their opening game. Though yet to win a World Cup, La Albiceleste were a team packed with talent, including teenage forward Mario Kempes, who would enjoy a prolific tournament four years later. Revelling in their status as unknown quantities, Poland went for the jugular from the off.
Seven minutes in, Gadocha floated a corner into the penalty area, which Argentina’s custodian Daniel Carnevali looked to gather comfortably. Somehow, he collided with a defender on his way back to terra firma, dropping the ball at the feet of Lato, and presenting an invitation that Poland’s young sharpshooter was all too happy to accept. Shellshocked, Argentina handed a second opportunity to their opponents from the kick-off. A loose ball in midfield was picked up by Lato, and with blue and white shirts backing off, he charged towards goal before weighting a pass into the path of Andrzej Szarmach. Carnevali rushed off his line to meet him, but Szarmach had stolen a march, and curled his effort beyond the keeper to put Poland 2-0 up after just eight minutes.
Buoyed by their stunning start to the game, Poland continued to pile forward, firing high and wide on two occasions before rattling the post from a free-kick. At the beginning of the second half, Szarmach should have made the game safe but, played one-on-one with Carnevali, he fired against the upright. It was all Argentina’s goalkeeper could do to prevent the result from becoming a national emergency, as those immaculate white shirts buzzed towards goal over and over again. On the hour mark, hope arrived for the floundering South Americans. A rare foray forward was worked well into the path of Ramon Heredia, and the Atletico Madrid defender deftly arced a shot over the despairing reach of Tomaszewski. Game on.
Or, it would have been, had Lato not restored Poland’s two goal lead within two minutes. Suicidal goalkeeping from Carnevali, who launched a throw from one side of his penalty area to the other, saw Lato gifted his second goal of the game, and Poland’s third. Argentina would find a second of their own four minutes later as, after a goalmouth scramble, Carlos Babington was able to fire past Tomaszewski. There would be no fightback however, as Poland continued to pile forwards and threaten a fourth, with only profligate finishing letting their opposition off the hook. The Eagles had landed.
Confidence flowed through Górski’s players, and in the next game Haiti were the unfortunate recipients of a Polish masterclass. Three for Szarmach and two for Lato helped Poland on their way to a 7-0 victory. Now on a roll, not even Dino Zoff and Italy could stop the runaway Polish express – Stuttgart witnessing another victory for Lato and co.
By the second group stage, Poland were being talked up as potential winners. Narrow victories over Sweden and Yugoslavia did little to assuage their growing reputation, but a showdown with hosts West Germany would provide their biggest test yet. Needing to win thanks to the Germans’ superior goal difference, Poland were caught on the break late on, eventually falling to a solitary Gerd Müller goal. Deemed to have finally run out of steam, there was still enough in the tank for Lato to score the winner against Brazil in the Third Place Playoff, earning Poland a bronze medal in only their second World Cup appearance, and earning himself the Golden Shoe award with eight goals.
The Eagles would go on to put in a decent showing in Argentina in 1978, and win bronze again in 1982 thanks to the emergence of playmaker Zbigniew Boniek. That would be the high watermark however as, after reaching the second round in 1986, they failed to qualify again until 2002. Though the nation has produced the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik in recent years, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to match the impact of Lato and Szarmach in 1974, when Poland came from nowhere.