Regular contributor Maciej Słomiński takes us back to the last match of the Polish national football team before the second world war. And what a success it was.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact had been signed on 23 August 1939 but of course no one knew it at the time. But certainly something was in the air.
The mobilisation of the Polish Army would soon be announced but on that warm Sunday in late August 1939 people in Warsaw had different things on their minds. It was the last weekend of the summer vacation and Poland were to play Hungary.
Before the match on 27 August 1939 Poland had only won one out of seven previous encounters with the Magyars and many considered Hungary to be far ahead in football terms.
Despite strong ties between the two nations (something which is still present today as any Poles who met Magyars during the Euros in France can testify) it was not certain the game would go ahead. The international situation was deteriorating fast with Warta Poznań’s Hungarian manager Fogl leaving the country and the Magyar Athletic Federation calling off a match v Poland in Bydgoszcz that was supposed to be held on 3 September.
Despite this, Polish authorities were determined to prove there was business as usual and convinced their reluctant guests to come.
The Hungarians, who had finished as runners-up in the 1938 World Cup in France, had their problems on the pitch too.
Their team was not in the best shape plus György Sárosi (or should it read Sárosi György?) the team’s star and 26-year old forward and lawyer had his duties back home and was not certain to come. There were only 15 seats on the plane that took the side to Warsaw, so in the end Hungarian manager József Takács and Sárosi eventually made the journey by train.
Poland were a team on the up. In the 1938 World Cup they had famously lost 6-5 to Brazil. From July 1939 onwards the team prepared for the Hungary game with Alex James (of formerly Arsenal fame) helping manager Józef Kałuża and patiently introducing a three-man defensive system.
James left Warsaw for Britain on 11 August as he feared for his safety. The Scotsman did not believe that Poland would win the game. Just before the match, he sent three dispatches advising Poles to concentrate on defence and hope for a lucky draw as he didn’t think the Poles had any chance – just like Polish fans who tended to be pessimistic then just as they are now.
But the most important thing of all was that Ernest Wilimowski would play.
The Silesian ‘Ezi’ was short, ugly and ginger but he was a magician on the pitch. He wasn’t fast but with his technique he made a fool of opponents. He was a killer in the box, a Gerd Muller kind of player. Plus a cheeky smile never disappeared from his ugly face, it made defenders hate him so much!
The 23-year old was also a larger than life character. He loved women and parties. Three years earlier his Ruch Wielkie Hajduki (Chorzów today) side had lost 9-0 against Cracovia with ‘Ezi’ hardly being able to stand he was so tired. As a result he was suspended and didn’t go to the Berlin Olympics. He did however score FOUR (!) against Brazil at the World Cup in France but many still accused him of being an alcoholic.
The game started at 5pm but an hour earlier all seats were taken at Legia Warsaw’s stadium. Just before the match manager Kałuża met István Pluhár who he had played against in first ever Poland’s international game in 1921. Now Pluhár was to commentate the game for Hungarian radio. They hugged and talked for a while in German – that’s the only language they both knew.
When Pluhár reached his post it turned out that Germans who were occupying Prague wouldn’t let the signal reach Hungary. On hearing this Polish authorities reacted immediately and gave their guests their own frequency. Hungarians could listen to the game on Polish Radio in Hungarian.
30 thousand spectators rose for the national anthems. The Polish national anthem was belted out like never before.
The visitors took the initiative from the off. They didn’t play fast but were very good technically, beating the Polish lines with ease. In the 14th minute Dr Sárosi passed to Géza Toldi who found Gyula Zsengellér who in turn slammed the ball home. The Polish goalkeeper Krzyk (from a club called Brygada Częstochowa) was helpless.
After that not much changed. In the 30th minute the ball reached Sándor Adám who broke free on the right wing. He beat Edmund Giemsa (forced to join the Wehrmacht during the war, escaped while in France and later fought in Polish Army and remained in the UK after the war) and made it two.
The stands were silent. Kałuża made a change. Polonia Warsaw right-winger Henryk Jaźnicki was replaced by Stanisław Baran (Warszawianka). Polish captain Szczepaniak calmed everyone down. Piątek and Dytko encouraged team mates to come forward. Three minutes later Wilimowski got the ball. This time he didn’t enter the box as usual but drilled a shot from distance and it reached the net! The goal was quite out of the ordinary for him but his sneering smile was there as always!
Now you could hear the public at last! Poland had chances but the referee blew for halftime.
After the break the run of play remained the same. Every ball went through the short Polish midfielder from Dąb Katowice Ewald Dytko (who later signed the German Volksliste and joined the Wehrmacht but didn’t take part in military actions in the war). In the 64th minute Wilimowski beat several defenders and fired home from a close range! You can guess what was his expression!
But Poland didn’t stop – nine minutes later ‘Ezi’ had the ball again. He escaped Szalay and Turay, dummied Kiss and was one on one with keeper Ferenc Sziklai! He pretended he would shoot but just went past the keeper and then got tripped by him! Penalty! Another report (early newspaper reports are notoriously imprecise) says Hungarian defender Sándor Bíró touched the ball with his hand in the penalty area.
Anyway a penalty!
Fans, many in military uniforms, went wild when Leonard Piątek put the ball on the penalty spot. Piątek (also known as Piontek, played for AKS Chorzów who were renamed Germania Königshütte a couple of months later) looked at the keeper and shot near the left hand post. 3:2! Grown men behaved like kids throwing their jackets in the air.
A couple of minutes later Wilimowski lay down on the pitch. His team mates carried him off the playing field and the team doctor came to see what was up. Eventually Wilimowski returned to the pitch to thunderous applause. Two minutes after this incident he beat defenders again and the keeper and placed the ball in an empty net! And of course he smiled.
Poland had played like never before. It was their best game up to date. And last before the war. Now the final whistle came and a famous win had been achieved.
Young fans joyfully carried Wilimowski and captain Szczepaniak on their shoulders as they left the pitch.
The footballers didn’t leave the dressing room for a long time, finally they emerged but ‘Ezi’ was late for a taxi he’d ordered. As he waited for another he said to a journalist: ‘Please send my regards to everyone in Silesia especially those who think I’m an alcoholic and who say I’m finished. Tell them Wilimowski will show everyone, especially in national team games!’
Maybe one day we will write a piece on Ernest Wilimowski here but his story was so complex that it deserves a book (from what we know football historian Andrzej Gowarzewski is working on one) as he’s a perfect example of the tragically interwined Polish-German-Silesian (and more generally central European) fate of the time.
Fans leaving the stadium were in great spirits after seeing the biggest Polish football success in their history. It is not clear whether they thought about the war or the upcoming friendly against Bulgaria scheduled for 3 September. Kałuża had already picked a team for this one – with no Wilimowski in it.
At the after-match banquet the Magyars almost didn’t eat and they didn’t even want to be paid for the game. They quickly made their way to the airport and left for Hungary.
The Polish FA director, Colonel Kazimierz Glabisz said publicly: ‘Who knows – maybe this was the last game before another war?’
‘Poland 4 Hungary 2. A great success for Polish football.’
And he was right – on Friday 1 September Germany invaded Poland. The Polish footballing world would emerge in a very different state after the brutal and catastrophic Second World War. It would take Polish football a long time to replicate the success of that late summer evening in Warsaw.
27 August 1939, Polish Army stadium in Warsaw
Poland – Hungary 4:2 (1:2)
0:1 – Zsellenger (14 min.), 0:2 – Adam (30. min), 1:2 – Wilimowski (33. min), 2:2 – Wilimowski (64. min), 3:2 – Piątek (75. min., penalty), 4:2 – Wilimowski (76. min)
Poland: Adolf Krzyk – Wilhelm Góra, Edmund Giemsa, Władysław Szczepaniak, Ewald Jabłoński, Ewald Dytko, Leonard Piątek, Henryk Jaźnicki (31 min. Stanisław Baran), Ewald Cebula, Ernest Wilimowski, Paweł Cyganek.
Hungary: Ferenc Sziklai – Karoly Kiss, Sandor Biro, Antal Szalai, Jozsef Turai, Janos Dudas, Sandor Adam, Gyorgy Sarosi, Gyula Zsellenger, Geza Toldi, Janos Gyetvai.
Referee: Esko Pekkonen (Finland)