Last night brought the return of international football to Warsaw as Poland took on Ukraine at the national stadium. Football at the national stadium will always take me back to the heady days of last summer when hope drifted through the streets of Warsaw during Euro 2012. Hope we all know is a dangerous commodity in the world of football fandom and it once more showed its face last night as Poland looked to achieve a crucial victory over Ukraine.
Poland had made a relatively auspicious start to the World Cup qualifiers, drawing away in Montenegro and beating Moldova at home in September and drawing at home to England in October. This left them in a decent position in the group, but a win against Ukraine would be vitally important in underlining their credentials for making the trip to Brazil 2014. There was relatively positivity in the air as the match approached, after all a number of Polish players play regularly at top European clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, Bordeaux, Bayer Leverkusen and erm Southampton and Nottingham Forest.
But for Poles every silver lining has a cloud and the build-up to the game was sullied by untimely squabbles over issues which have done much to create an unpleasant atmosphere around the national team. The Polish media made a lot of the poor performance against Ireland in February, and in my opinion, drew from it too wide-ranging conclusions. These criticisms came back, as they almost always do, to Poland and Bordeaux’s much-derided attacking midfielder Ludovic Obraniak. Ludo was at the heart of controversy in the summer when ex-Polish national team goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, stated he would not support Poland in the finals due to the lack of ‘real Poles’ in the squad.
French born and non-Polish speaking Obraniak has often not been held in high regard for his supposed lack of effort on the pitch. Somehow this has translated into the generally held Polish belief that Ludo does not care for his adopted country. This has led to untold column inches stating that if Ludo spoke Polish he would perform better for the national team. There has even been a movement developing to deny naturalised Poles the right to represent Poland if they cannot speak the language. The apogeum of this tendency was reached this week when the President of the PZPN and ex-Juventus star, Zbigniew Boniek stated that he was in favour of such a law being put in place. The dislike of Obraniak led to calls for Nottingham Forest’s Radosław Majewski to take his place in the team.
Despite these arguments which have, in my opinion, very little to do with the peformances of the national team, many Poles were quietly confident about the match with Ukraine. Radio presenters waxed lyrical about the Dortmund trio of Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek and Warsaw got ready to host the big match. Close to Metro Centrum, peddlers sold Polish national team memorabilia and Poland-Ukraine half and half scarves which were presumably left over from the summer. Fans draped with flags crammed into the trams bearing them to the national stadium and taking me home from work.
I rushed home, dumped my work stuff onto the sofa and got the bus to the pub where I would watch the match. This reminded me of my frantic rush to get to the pub in October, when the rain poured down and the match against England was called off. I finally got to the pub where we had a table booked. The pub had a big screen set up and the room was packed with fans hoping for a Polish victory as well as some Ukrainians who seemed to be in good spirits. On the way to the pub I’d heard that Obraniak had been jettisoned from the first team to be replaced by Majewski, as most Polish fans and journalists had wanted. Would this have any effect and would Polish moderate positivity last longer than a couple of minutes?
Unfortunately Poland got off to the worst of possible starts as clumsy defending allowed Ukraine to take a shock 2-0 lead in the first six minutes. Any positivity which had existed amongst Polish fans disappeared almost immediately and, what was more interesting to me, people quickly lost interest in the game. At our table my friends mostly lapsed into discussions about other things and the match faded into the background. When Łukasz Piszczek got the Poles back into it in the 18th minute, Polish fans let out a hearty cheer but Ukraine’s third goal in the 44th minute completely extinguished any positivity which existed.
The second half brought poor efforts from the Polish side to get the goals back they needed, Ukraine seemed to effortlessly find space around the Polish goal and they could have extended their lead a number of times. By the final whistle the game was a sideshow in the pub, few fans even glanced at the screen as the match came to a close, apart from the gleeful Ukrainian fans celebrating close by.
So what have I learned about the way the national team is perceived in Poland over the last week? First of all the Polish press, much like that of England, put the national team under intense scrutiny in the build-up to a big match. Unlike England the attacks on certain players seemed to cross lines of decency, turning into character assassinations. Something which surely did not help the atmosphere surrounding the national team. In terms of Polish national team fandom, Poles find it very difficult to put too much hope in the Polish side. It’s almost as if they prefer losing so they don’t have to go through the pain of disappointment when the team doesn’t succeed. Finally Polish fans lost interest a lot quicker than fans in England when the team was losing. In England there would have been several people really shouting at the screen. In the Warsaw pub last night fans were resigned to defeat and preferred to turn their thoughts to other affairs. At the end of the day maybe Poles have the more appropriate attitude.
Oh and maybe Obraniak should start against San Marino 😉