The Polish national team is on the cusp of qualifying for the European Championships for only the third time in its history. A low-scoring draw on Sunday at home to Ireland is all Poland need to make it to Euro 2016 in France. This Polish side has received a lot of positive press – both in Poland and abroad – and it seems to be the strongest Polish team since Mexico 1986 and arguably even the 1982 World Cup when Poland finished in 3rd place in Spain. From 1974 until 1986 Poland appeared at every World Cup, and got out of their group each time, but since then (despite appearances at two further World Cups and two European Championships) they’ve not been able to do the same and indeed didn’t qualify for any tournament at all between 1986 and 2002.
How then did Poland go from serial challengers at the highest stage to a second and even third rate national side? Guardian Sport and When Saturday Comes contributor Maciej Słomiński takes us back 28 years to tell the story of the match which symbolised the decline of the Polish national side. Prepare for tales of robberies, car dealerships, mafiosos and a pitch with no grass on it.
Wojciech Łazarek took over as Poland’s national coach after Poland’s disappointing showing at the 1986 Mexico World Cup. ‘Baryła’ (“Tubby’ – as he was a bit round) started the Euro’88 qualifiers on a promising note, with a 2-1 win at home against Greece and a goalless draw away to a Holland with Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman, Rijkaard in the line-up at the beginning of their rise to stardom. The latter game was in many ways a classic backs-to-the-wall defensive performance moment in the manner of Wembley `73.
Łazarek made his name as a manager in the Polish league with Lech Poznań where he won both the Polish title and Cup twice in the first half of the 1980s. Private trading was not fully legal in the Polish People’s Republic (PRL – Polska Republika Ludowa) but it was especially strong in Greater Poland (Wielkopolska) and its capital Poznań. In those days ‘Prywaciarze’ (black-market traders) could get you much more than a Polish league title but that didn’t represent a problem for them either. That’s not to say Łazarek was a weak coach just times were different. After leaving Lech he went to Gdańsk to manage Lechia where he had played football and then started his coaching career a decade earlier. The plan was for Lechia to challenge for a league title but financially the club soon collapsed and were plying their trade near the foot of the table. Not without relation to this was the fact that Nikodem Skotarczak (the so-called ‘Nikoś’ Godfather of the Polish mafia, Lechia fan and honorary citizen of Gdańsk) was arrested in a car-smuggling affair at the time.
Midway through the 1985/86 season Łazarek fled Gdańsk under cover of the night despite claiming he’d be there for the long-haul just the day before. What was more surprising was his appearance at Swedish 2nd division side Trelleborgs. He lasted only half a season there, until the national team came a-knocking.
So Łazarek thought it’d be good idea to pay for his sins and play the first qualification game of 1987 in Gdańsk – in what would be the first ever national team game held in the city. Łazarek’s felt he was being especially generous as the game was supposed to be a goal-fest with minnows Cyprus providing the opposition.
The game was to be held on Sunday at noon, we parked our Fiat 125p 3 hours before kickoff just over 1 kilometer from the ground. But the way to the stadium took ages for a couple of reasons: I was 9 years old and everyone in the Tri-city area wanted to see the game, as it was almost 4 years since the last serious football match (the legendary Lechia v Juve European Cup Winners’ Cup encounter) was played in the city.
Poland 0 Cyprus 0
As we entered the stadium a guy who was selling national team posters was making a racket. He was yelling at the top of his lungs “Marek Ługowski is here! He’s better than Dziekanowski”. Ługowski was a player of the local Lechia Gdańsk side who was called up for the national team but only ever made two appearances – the talk was Łazarek only called him up cause he was from Gdańsk. And Dariusz Dziekanowski was a Legia Warsaw player – the army team which was hated all over the country as a symbol of Communist oppression. There was still a long time to go before kick-off but the stadium was full so we took our places behind the goal in the lowest row. We couldn’t see much as the view was obstructed by a shed in which pole-vaulters kept their stuff.
Wojciech Łazarek and Mirosław Okoński
Some Okoński goals
More interesting things happened before the game. In the build-up to the match a burglar managed to break into Mirosław Okoński’s hotel room and got away with his documents, cash, car keys and his car too. Okoński (pictured above with Łazarek while at Lech) was a maverick left-winger who at the time was a Hamburger SV star, but his appearance in this game made little sense as it meant Włodzimierz Smolarek was forced to play on the right side of attack. And everyone knew that, although ‘Smoli’ could tie a tie with his left foot, his right foot was pretty much useless. Smolarek’s mate from the great Widzew Łódź sides of the early eighties, Zbigniew Boniek, also wanted to play but when he called Łazarek offering his services, the coach was in Polmozbyt – a Communist state car-dealing entity – possibly negotiating the purchase of a Polonez. Łazarek’s priorities were certainly slightly askew.
The talk of the town was that Lechia Gdańsk’s first team players would act as ballboys but this turned out to be untrue. Or half-true if you count Marek Ługowski (who the stands screamed was ‘Better than Dziekanowski’ – trust me, it sounds better in Polish) who was warming the bench. At the end of the day it was Lechia rugby youth players who were ball-boys. In addition to returning balls, they were instructed to rip up anti-state banners – after all the game was played in the heartland of the then-illegal Solidarity movement. An older mate of mine was on the lookout for autographs and was in deep shock when he saw Okoński smoking one cigarette after another straight after the game. To have your car stolen is one thing, to last 2 hours without a cigarette is quite another.
I didn’t see much of the game unfortunately and the two mates I went with (and my father) didn’t either. Poland created some chances, but from what I remember, it wasn’t that much different than Lechia league games which were pretty dire and almost always ended 0-0. Lechia were sponsored by building companies hence their nickname “The Concrete-men”, so their defense was pretty solid. This solidity however meant there was little room for attacking endeavours.
What I do remember from the game are constant jeers and whistles. In the first half they were directed at Dariusz Dziekanowski – the hated epitome of the even more hated Legia Warsaw. He was arrogant, he was handsome, he was from an army team that was from Warsaw, were there anymore boxes to be ticked? Dziekanowski ended up being replaced mid-way through the second half. At the start of the second half Jacek Bayer came on as a sub to replace Jan Furtok. Bayer played for 2nd division Jagiellonia Białystok (who under another colourful character and future national coach, Janusz Wójcik, were on their way to a first ever promotion to the Polish top tier).
Dariusz Dziekanowski playing for Celtic
The Polish FA (PZPN) paid the considerable sum of 250,000 złoty to state football pools company Totolotek to postpone Jagiellonia’s league game to allow Bayer to play. It didn’t help much as the game ended 0-0 – a result that was Cyprus’ first ever qualifying point achieved away from home. After the game ended 3 (or maybe 4?) away fans jumped on the running track to do a lap of honour screaming ‘Cipros, Cipros, Cipros!’ Surprisingly no-one murdered them – they even got some applause. In 2015 Cyprus pick up some points here and there but in 1987 they were akin to today’s San Marino or Andorra. After 28 years it’s still tough to explain what happened in Gdańsk. Even if the whole squad were at a wedding the night before, Łazarek started in attack and Okoński in goal, Poland should still have won easily. The after game excuses were really pathetic. The pitch was apparently too narrow, the grass too long and so on. As far as I was aware there wasn’t much grass on the pitch.
Some highlights from the game if you can bare to watch them
It was my first proper qualification campaign that I witnessed from the draw until the (bitter) end. After the Cyprus debacle it all went rapidly downhill for Poland. The group table ended up looking like this:
Ps. Did I mention none of my mates (or my father) ever went to a football match again? Well, I did. And do I regret it? What a silly question…
Thanks so much to Maciej, you can follow him here