It has been a very successful tournament for Poland. Polish football in the last thirty years has in general been in varying states of crisis. Between 1986 and 2002 Poland was not even able to qualify for a major tournament, since then when they have qualified or played in final tournaments – in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2012 – they were not able to make it out of the group stage.
In France in 2016 Poland have been excellent at the back, and good or very good in the middle of the park and on the wings, the only slight weak point has been the performance of their strikers – Lewandowski has not scored a single goal and Milik has missed a number of easy chances. Despite this paralysis up front Poland have made it through to the quarter-finals where they will face Portugal on Thursday. But how good is this Poland side when we compare it to past vintages which have represented the country at major tournaments (The World Cup and the Euros) in the post-second world war period? Rightbankwarsaw attempts to find out.
Caveat – Polish sides that didn’t qualify for major tournaments but were pretty darn good
Before getting to the nitty gritty it’s important to mention a number of Polish sides that never made major tournaments but had the potential to do very well had they qualified. The best examples of this are the sides that failed to qualify for the European Championships in 1976 and 1980. Poland at the time were in the midst of their golden age (more on this later) and possessed a host of stars that did very well at the 1974, 1978 and 1982 World Cups. Despite this they never qualified for a European championships – mainly because at the time you had to finish top of qualifying groups in order to advance.
In 1976 for example, Poland narrowly finished behind a Dutch side who were at the height of their total footballing magnificence. Poland were still able to dish out a 4-1 thumping to the Dutch (many people say this is the finest Polish team performance in history). Unfortunately Poland lost 3-0 in the return leg and just missed out on progressing. In 1980 a Polish side led by Zbigniew Boniek and containing Grzegorz Lato also finished just behind the Dutch who progressed in their stead. We will never know how the 1976 and 1980 Polish vintages would have done if they had appeared in the final tournaments – but it’s likely they would have done quite well – and these sides were almost certainly better than those that played in the 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2012 finals.
Polish sides who’ve made major tournament knockout stages in reverse (in terms of success and quality) order
4) Mexico 1986 – last 16
Poland in Mexico were at the end of 12 years of success on the world stage. It was Poland’s fourth consecutive world cup, and there were hopes that they could do well before the tournament but it was clear that Poland’s star was beginning to fade. Zbigniew Boniek was still around, as was Włodzimierz Smolarek and Władysław Żmuda but they were approaching the end of their international careers. Poland had a number of talented younger players – like Dariusz Dziekanowski but they weren’t really pulling their weight for the national team. Poland had also struggled to make it out of their qualifying group, and journalists frequently criticised the team for a lack of style.
In Mexico itself Poland started nervously with a 0-0 draw vs Morocco in their opening match, achieved a notable victory against Portugal in their second game but were then thrashed by England 3-0 meaning they only qualified for the next round as one of the best third placed teams. In the second round vs Brazil – although Poland started brightly – they eventually were on the receiving end of a 4-0 walloping.
I think we can safely say that Nawałka’s 2016 vintage have passed the achievements of 1986 – even if the World Cup is a higher level of competition than the European championships. Poland in 1986 only scored 1 goal and only just made it through to the last 16.
3) Argentina 1978 – official position 5th
Poland went to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina in buoyant spirits. Despite poor performances in the 1976 Olympics that meant the departure of their most successful coach Kazimierz Górski, Poland qualified for Argentina at a canter under their young, ambitious, new coach Jacek Gmoch.
In 1978 Gmoch had at his disposal potentially the strongest side that Poland have ever produced, the players who had excelled in 1974 were still around (more later) and outstanding youngsters – especially the precocious Zbigniew Boniek – were coming through. Gmoch stated that Poland were going to Argentina to win the tournament – and the press in general believed the hype.
At the tournament itself Poland were able to top a group containing West Germany, Tunisia and Mexico but they did it in considerably less style than Poland had exhibited at World Cup 1974. In the second group stage Poland lost to Brazil and Argentina and managed to beat Peru meaning a tournament exit which left the Polish press with a sour taste in its mouth. In future years many articles have explained how Gmoch didn’t connect with the players he had at his disposal and generational conflicts prevented Poland from achieving more.
Poland’s attainment in Argentina – despite it being considered a failure – is still better than Poland in 2016 in my opinion as the World Cup is simply a higher level tournament. But if Lewandowski et al reach the semis I think they’d overpass (or at least equal) the vintage of 1978.
2) Spain 1982 – 3rd place finish
We now approach the two best Polish sides in history. As Poland travelled to Spain in 1982 many things seemed to indicate difficulties ahead. The main issues this time were outside of the game – primarily the instigation of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski against the Polish Solidarity Trade Union in December 1981. How did this affect the Polish national team? Well, international sides in the run-up to the World Cup refused to play friendlies with Poland – which meant they had to make do with friendlies vs French and Spanish club sides.
In addition to these difficult preparations Poland started the tournament very slowly with goalless draws against Italy and outsiders Cameroon. All this meant that Poland needed to beat Peru in the last group game to go through. At half-time Poland had still not made the breakthrough but the second half saw an explosion of goals as Peru were blown away 5-1.
In the second group stage Poland produced their best performance of the whole tournament as an excellent Boniek hat-trick defeated Belgium 3-0 and a 0-0 draw vs the USSR took them through to the semi-finals. In the semis a Boniek-less (he was suspended) Poland were easily defeated by Italy but the side picked themselves up to beat France in the third-placed playoff.
To match the achievement of 1982 Nawałka’s side will need to make it through to the final. Although the style in 1982 was not brilliant – huge credit must go to Poland for going so far at a time of political and economic crisis at home.
1) West Germany 1974 – 3rd place finish
It’s difficult to speak about Poland’s performance at the 1974 World Cup without reaching for the superlatives. Poland famously made the finals after a backs to the wall rearguard action at Wembley in autumn 1973 – with Jan ‘the clown’ Tomaszewski in sometimes a rather unorthodox way saving the day.
Once making the finals though Poland were a breath of fresh air. They became the darlings of the international press, and – apart from the total football playing Dutch – were considered the revelation of the tournament. The Polish side was led by the creative midfielder Kazimierz Deyna, but possessed excellent wingers in Grzegorz Lato and Robert Gadocha (the former speedy, the latter more tricky), solid defenders in Jerzy Gorgoń and Władysław Żmuda and a very effective striker in Andrzej Szarmach. Many international commentators believed the Poles played modern football – the key factor in this being the pace of the Polish side.
Poland won their first five matches in West Germany, including a victory over the 1970 World Cup finalists Italy, scoring 15 and only conceding 4 in the process. The side that eventually stopped them were the hosts West Germany in the famous ‘Water-match’ which was the tournament’s effective semi-final. Even against Germany Poland played well but were not able to come out on top. In the 3rd placed match a fleet-footed Lato ensured Poland beat Brazil 1-0.
What Poland have achieved so far at Euro 2016 is impressive, taking them past the attainments of the Mexico 1986 side but there is a way to go before they go past the sides of 1974 and 1982. In my opinion it would take at least a final appearance to overtake the 1982 vintage and a victory in the final itself to become the best Polish side in their history. The fact that this can even be discussed testifies to the success of Nawałka, Lewandowski, Glik, Pazdan, Błaszczykowski et al. Another three victories and this side will quite rightly go down as Poland’s best ever – whatever happens the Poland of Euro 2016 allows Polish football fans to live a lot more comfortably with the ghosts of the past.