It’s a cold November day in 2011, a reporter strides across Wrocław’s spacious main square towards an unassuming young man wearing a light jacket. As the reporter approaches the man fiddles with his coat, it’s obviously a bit chilly. The journalist asks in Polish: ‘What do you think about Polish patriotism?’. A smile breaks out across the man’s face as he asks the reporter to repeat the question. When he has heard it once more, he replies: ‘Sorry I don’t speak Polish’ and, at that, the camera pans away and the two part company. The person being interviewed is not just anyone however, he is Ludovic Obraniak, capped 32 times for the Polish national team.
French born and bred Obraniak has been a controversial figure in Poland ever since he announced his desire to represent the country back in 2008. Everyone has an opinion about ‘Ludo’ from the Polish FA president Zbigniew Boniek to the man on the street, and these perceptions often widely differ from each other. To some he is a supremely talented footballer who considerably improves the national team, to others he is lazy, unprofessional and should never have been given the opportunity to play for Poland in the first place. So who is Ludo and why does he provoke such extreme responses?
Early days at Metz
Ludovic Joseph Obraniak was born in a suburb of the North-Eastern French town of Metz on 10 November 1984. As a youngster he signed up to play for his local side FC Metz, a club famous for its youth academy, producing players of the ilk of Robert Pirès, Louis Saha and Rigobert Song. His under-12 coach at Metz, Jean-Pierre Goujard has kind words to say about Ludo:
‘When Ludovic wants something he does everything he can to achieve it. That’s what makes him who he is. He has character and he constantly searches for the right solution. He’s always been like that, even as a child.’
Just before he turned pro the 17 year old Obraniak, alongside his team-mate at the time Emanuel Adebayor, helped Metz win the Coupe Gambardella the premium French youth cup competition. Soon afterwards Metz offered Obraniak a professional contract and he went on to become an important part of the club’s midfield. While Metz were easily relegated from the Ligue une in 2006, Ludo was one of their bright sparks and in January 2007 Lille OSC were prepared to pay 1.2 million Euros for Obraniak’s services. It was time for a new challenge.
A brilliant Obraniak free-kick for Metz against PSG in the 2004-5 season
Lille and a debut for Poland
Ludo had a rather up and down time in the North of France. In his first season with the club he was an off and on starter but in 2008-9 he became a key player for OSC, scoring seven goals before Christmas alone and nine in total on the year.
It was during that season that Obraniak found out about the possibility of representing Poland at international level as a result of the notorious ‘grandfather rule.’ His grandfather Zygmunt Obraniak was born in the small town of Pobiedziska – very close to the city of Poznań in western Poland. Zygmunt had decided to emigrate to France in the mid-1930s but never gave up his Polish citizenship. Although Ludovic had represented France at Under-21 level his appearance was not in a competitive match which meant he was still eligible to play for Poland. In early 2009 Obraniak officially applied for citizenship in the Polish consulate in Lille and several months later became a Polish national. In mid-July Leo Beenhakker the Polish national team coach duly called up Ludo to his squad for the friendly international against Greece. Obraniak recalls his first experience in the Polish dressing room:
‘When I first joined up with the team I asked myself what was I doing there. The press and fans had put pressure on the national team to call me up. Of course Polish players saw it differently, and so did the coach who was not the kind to be forced into decisions. People were wary of me and I know why, if I played I’d be taking someone’s place.’
Ludo’s first appearance for Poland against Greece did much to convince people he deserved to be part of the national set up. Coming on as a substitute at half-time Obraniak scored the opening goal just two minutes later after a scramble following a corner from the left. Ten minutes from the end he rounded off a dream debut when he finished a Paweł Brożek knock down with aplomb. He recalls that the game ‘Won me legitimacy’ in the eyes of the Polish squad.
Obraniak’s double against Greece in August 2009
Leaner times and the move to Bordeaux
On the face of it things looked great for Ludo. A successful debut for Poland and his most successful season to date at Lille. But problems were around the corner. Although continuing to make important assists and score at a decent rate Obraniak did not maintain a starting place at OSC. He became known as a super-sub, someone who could come on to change the game when the chips were down. There were also question-marks over his commitment at the club. Despite this he scored some crucial goals, including an audacious last-minute free-kick which brought the French cup to Lille in 2011. That same season OSC won the French league, and on the very day they lifted the trophy Obraniak became a father for the first time.
Obraniak’s winner in the French cup final in 2011
In late 2011 – after a first half of the season in which he continued to find it difficult to break through to OSC’s first team – Obraniak began to look elsewhere. Indeed he had been told in no uncertain terms by Poland’s then national coach Franciszek Smuda that without first team football he had no chance of making Poland’s Euro 2012 squad. As luck would have it Girondins Bordeaux were in the market for someone who could make things happen and Ludo fitted the bill.
Success at Bordeaux and Euro 2012
The chance to play first team football was an exciting one for Obraniak. For him the decision to join Girondins ‘was a pretty obvious one.’ On signing in January 2012 he stated ‘I am very happy to find a new project and new experiences alongside different players.’ Thus Obraniak helped Bordeaux and Bordeaux helped Obraniak. Instead of life on the sub’s bench Girondins made Ludo an integral part of the team. Here he also found a coach in Francis Gillot who had faith in his ability. On signing Obraniak Gillot said his new player was ‘someone who can score and set up goals.’ Ludo went on to have a great second half of the 2011-2 season, playing 17 times and scoring four goals as Girondins qualified for the Europa League. Here’s what Gillot had to say about Obraniak:
‘He’s able to adapt to any position in which I put him. He can play in the middle of the park or especially behind the striker and when he gets a sight of goal he’s able to be clear and decisive. He really enjoys that position! It’s good to know we have someone we can rely on when the pressure’s on.’
Obraniak’s good form at Girondins meant he was certain to make it to Poland’s squad for Euro 2012. In the pressure cooker atmosphere that surrounded the Polish national team in the build-up to the tournament Ludo was however not spared criticism. There had always been nationalist voices in Poland bemoaning the fact that Obraniak was ‘not really Polish.’ This often boiled down to the fact that the player could hardly speak any Polish and at times gives off the impression that he is not putting in enough effort on the pitch. This has been interpreted by many as proof that Ludo does not really care, when often this nonchalance is simply his style of play.
The strongest critical voice came from Jan ‘the clown’ Tomaszewski who, shortly before the tournament, made it known that the inclusion of four naturalised players – Obraniak, Damien Perquis, Sebastian Boenisch and Eugene Polański – meant that he would not be supporting the national team in the finals. Tomaszewski is an erratic and extreme voice on the Polish football scene but he was expressing the views of many a Polish fan. Obraniak however took much of the criticism in his stride, stating that he was ‘very proud to represent Poland’ on such an important stage.
While Obraniak was not superb in the finals his performance was not any worse than that of his team-mates and he had a hand in Jakub Błaszczykowski’s superb equalising goal against Russia. Unfortunately Poland severely underperformed when it mattered most against the Czech Republic and tumbled out of the tournament at the earliest possible stage. The Polish media and supporters were quite rightly critical of the side for their failure to advance and Obraniak – as one of its central attacking figures – also received his fair share of abuse.
Post-Euro 2012 and unseemly squabbles
Obraniak was never loved by the Polish squad. It was commonly known that he did not get on that well with certain members of the side and kept himself to himself. In interviews in his native France Obraniak comes across as a contemplative, sensitive soul who enjoys listening to jazz and visiting modern art galleries. Ludo’s distance from the group and ‘otherness’ was perceived by some members of the national team as vanity and a lack of respect. These problems with integration came back to haunt him in the late summer of 2012.
In September Poland played Montenegro in Podgorica in their first World Cup qualifying game. The atmosphere in the stadium was intense and the battle on the pitch was end to end. With 20 minutes to go the score sat at 2-2 with Poland having a one man advantage after a Montenegro defender was shown a red card. Several minutes later a Montenegro free-kick was sent into the area and cleared by the Polish defence and, as the ball fell, Obraniak was bundled into by an opposing defender. Instead of playing on Ludo ran angrily over to his assailant and faced up to him. Without a second thought the Montenegrin player threw himself to the ground feigning agony and Ludo was shown a red card.
After this incident much recrimination was directed towards Ludo. One of the primary critical voices was the Polish captain Jakub Błaszczykowski who responded with irritation when asked whether the team was annoyed with Obraniak’s behaviour:
‘We’re definitely angry with him. You can’t respond to provocation like that. The worst thing is it’s not the first time that Ludo’s done something like this (*He was sent off in similar circumstances in September 2011 against Mexico – RBW). The first time can be accepted but you have to react when it happens again.’
Ludo did not take kindly to Kuba’s very public criticism:
‘I’m 28 years old and I know when I’ve done something wrong. I think that Kuba doesn’t need to preach to me or teach me a lesson. I’m not convinced whether publicly criticising another member of the team is a good idea…I don’t want to argue with Kuba, both of us want success for the national team but it seems like we have different ways of viewing certain issues.’
From here on in things went from bad to worse for Obraniak in the national team. Indeed journalist Piotr Koźmiński had this to say at the time: ‘It seems like Poland players don’t want Obraniak to play for the national team but they don’t know how to go about telling him.’ One month later the criticism of Obraniak was ratcheted up a gear as, despite an assist in the match against England in Warsaw, many commentators turned against the player. Polish club coach Czesław Michniewicz explained how Obraniak really was not offering anything special to the side:
‘I’m once more disappointed by Ludo’s attitude. He doesn’t create enough chances and he doesn’t do enough for an attacking midfielder. I’d try to find someone else to replace him.’
To add fuel to the fire in early 2013 Polish FA president Zbigniew Boniek made several disparaging comments regarding Obraniak. Firstly he stated that in future only players who could speak fluent Polish would be called up the national team, although he was careful to say this did not affect players who had already played for Poland. In March Boniek was however much more pointed in his criticism of Ludo, stating:
‘Obraniak’s been playing for us for five years but he’s not improving. He plays as a number 10 and number 10s always get a lot of attention. It’s like he doesn’t understand that more is demanded of him. If he played excellently it wouldn’t be a problem. But if that was the case he’d probably play for another national team. If we had Andrea Pirlo or Francesco Totti we could try to help him but he’s just another element of the team. He’s not quick and he’s not able to beat a man. He’s got good technique and takes a good corner and free-kick but he’s not won anything with us for five years.’
In what was quickly becoming a war of words the Polish national team coach at the time Waldemar Fornalik refused to get involved. And, although Fornalik called Obraniak up for the crucial World Cup qualifier with Ukraine in March he refused to play him, instead opting for the dubious talents of Nottingham Forest’s Radosław Majewski. Quite rightly Ludo felt slighted by the whole affair – seeing himself as a scapegoat for problems behind the scenes in the national team. Finally in May 2013 Obraniak decided to quit the national team, explaining he would not play for Poland while Fornalik remained as coach. In an opinion piece for Super Express Piotr Koźmiński was very critical of Fornalik’s management of the situation:
‘Fornalik’s behaviour is totally incomprehensible to me. If we had several great creative players of course we could forget about Obraniak. But that’s not the case. At the moment there is no replacement for Ludo. On the one hand Fornalik took part in the witch-hunt against Obraniak and on the other he was passive, offering no help while one of his players was mercilessly attacked from all sides.’
Nawałka, Ludo and the future
Waldemar Fornalik’s reign as national team coach ended in relative ignominy in October 2013 after a Poland without Obraniak failed to make the World Cup playoffs. As a result Boniek and the Polish FA decided to appoint Górnik Zabrze’s Adam Nawałka as the new national team coach. Nawałka’s appoinment has brought with it the possibility of Ludo returning to represent his country. Indeed the new coach has been careful to state that he will consider all players for his new look national side. Despite this, and Obraniak’s excellent start to the 2013-4 season for Bordeaux, there was no place for the attacking midfielder in Nawałka’s first squad against Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland.
There is no doubt that Ludo is a talented player that could offer something more to the national side. He’s still one of the few Polish players who starts regularly for a club in the top five European leagues. On this basis he should find himself in the national team. There are however several question marks over his future with the Białe orly. Firstly, will Obraniak want to rejoin the national side after the way he has been treated to date by the Polish footballing hierarchy? Secondly can he be re-integrated into the dressing room after all the problems with Błaszczykowski? To my mind the ball is firmly in Nawałka’s court. If he seeks to use Ludo he needs to make sure that any petty dressing room squabbles are absent. Basically he has to succeed where Fornalik failed by creating a positive, supportive team environment. If Nawałka can do this then Obraniak can certainly play a part in Poland’s future. I for one hope this will be the case.
I also consulted articles in Sofoot, Super Express, Rzeczpospolita, Przegląd Sportowy and Liberation