This is it. The moment has finally come. Tonight Poland play Ireland at the National Stadium in a crucial European Championships qualifier, the prize? A place at Euro 2016 in France next summer. All Poland need to do to qualify is to get a low-scoring draw (0-0 or 1-1) to take them through, a 2-2 draw or higher, or a loss to Ireland will mean that Poland will have to play a two-legged playoff to get through to the finals. Poland’s qualifying campaign has been very good so far, but do they have what it takes to step up to the plate when the pressure’s on? The answer to this is, unfortunately, open to debate.
Over the last thirty years Poland has gained a reputation as a team of chokers. After qualifying for the World Cup four times consecutively between 1974 and 1986, they didn’t qualify for another tournament until 2002. In those golden years in the 1970s and 1980s Poland made it out of World Cup group stages every time and, despite the fact they have played in four major tournaments since 2002, they have always failed in crucial opening group stage matches. In the 2002 and 2006 World Cups they lost their first two group games, sending them out at the first hurdle and in Euro 2012 with the nation’s eyes expectantly on them in the pay-off match with the Czech Republic, they went out with a whimper.
This tendency to choke in important matches continued in the qualifying games for the 2014 World Cup. One match especially stands out: the home match against Ukraine in March 2013. Poland had started the group relatively impressively with three unbeaten games, including a good performance at home to England. By beating Ukraine, Poland would stand a good chance of qualifying for Brazil – this was the match which would make or break the campaign. However these hopes were smashed as Ukraine burst out of the blocks, and Poland’s Eastern neighbours eventually recorded a 3-1 away win.
It was all so different once. In Poland’s golden era in the 1970s and 1980s, players, despite often adverse or difficult circumstances, managed to dig out performances and results when it really mattered. Indeed, now-deceased Polish star Włodzimierz Smolarek put it thus in his autobiography: ‘Smolar’:
‘Antoni Piechniczek (Poland’s coach in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups – RBW) said that back then it was different, because the team, even if it was playing badly at the time, was able to get itself in the right frame of mind for crucial matches. After 1986 we lacked luck, and ability.’
Poland in tournaments, and in qualifying games, were always able to see results through, despite being under immense pressure. A classic example of this was the September 1985 World Cup qualifier at home to Belgium, the Polish national side was on the decline at the time but a draw vs the Belgians would still take them through to their fourth consecutive World Cup. It was nervy and many nails were bitten but Poland was able to get the 0-0 they required to get them to Mexico.
Poland scrape through versus Belgium in 1985
So does Adam Nawałka’s Polish side have the mental strength to get them through in tonight’s game? Nawałka’s greatest attribute in this qualifying campaign is his ability to get the Polish side believing in itself again, and creating a good atmosphere behind the scenes. Achieving a squad that actually enjoys being in its other’s company means that half the battle is won before even heading out onto the pitch. Poland also seems to have a knack of fighting back when things go against them – the clearest example of this was Robert Lewandowski’s 94th minute equaliser in Glasgow on Thursday night.
The signs for tonight are therefore on the whole good. The pressure is well and truly on the Polish players but if they pull through, it will be good news, not just in that they will have qualified but it will show that the Polish national side can finally shake off their reputation as chokers. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.