Photo: Tylko Ekstraklasa
It’s approaching the last minute of injury time as Arka Gdynia face Danish side FC Midtjylland in the third round of the Europa League qualifiers. It’s 2-2 after a fiercely fought encounter and Arka have won a free-kick on the right hand side of the Midtjylland box and it’s going to be taken by Arka winger Michał Nalepa. Nalepa whips a pacey, venomous ball into the crowded box, and as defenders and attackers grapple, somehow one of the smallest players on the pitch, Rafał Siemaszko, finds a metre of space and throws himself at the cross, he connects and plants a header into the top corner. The crowd goes wild and Arka have got themselves an unlikely winner. But it’s all in a day’s work for the diminutive Siemaszko.
Siemaszko is however no ordinary player by Polish league standards. He scored his first ever Ekstraklasa goal when he was just two months shy of his 30th birthday after a career in the lower reaches of the Polish footballing pyramid. He’s balding, has the physique of that player you play alongside at your weekly five a side but has very good acceleration over five to 10 yards, most importantly he stands at a mere 1.70 metres tall (five foot six inches) but is one of the best headers of a ball in the Polish top flight. His is a story which takes us from the shipyards of the Polish Baltic coast to winning Cup Final goals at the National Stadium.
Rafał Siemaszko was born in 1986 in the small town of Wehejrowo, just 20 kilometres from the Polish Baltic coast and as a child his family moved to the nearby town of Rumia. His father, like many people in the area, worked at the shipyards just down the road in Gdynia. Growing up in Rumia, the young Siemaszko began to play for the part-time local side Orkan Rumia who, when Siemaszko made his breakthrough into the side as an 18 year old, played in the fourth tier of Polish football. Siemaszko immediately proved himself to be a capable goalscorer. Between his debut in 2004 and 2010 when he left the club he scored 90 goals for Orkan, an average of 15 goals a season. His best achievement was in 2009-10 when he scored 24 league goals, winning him the golden boot in the Polish Pomeranian 4th tier.
But there wasn’t much money to be made in this level of football. Although Siemaszko kept scoring, there were times when he questioned whether he should give up football or not. As his dad had always worked in the shipyards, Siemaszko decided to follow a similar path. He spent four years as a teenager at a Gdynian technical college and then went on to work at the shipyards, eventually moving up to being a ship renovation overseer with his own assistant. The money at the shipyards was a lot better than anything he ever earned playing lower league football, it was tough work with Siemaszko having to wake up at 5:30 each morning, work long days, at the end of which he had to go to football training. At one point it was too much for Siemaszko, he even stopped attending training for a month, but he was convinced to continue.
At the age of 24 Siemaszko finally got his big chance when local giants Arka Gdynia decided to give him a try. It was 2010, Arka were playing in the Ekstraklasa, they had a lot of foreign players on large contracts and there was pressure from the fans to give young Polish players a chance. Siemaszko was on holiday in Zakopane when he got the call from Arka to go there on loan, he took a little time to decide whether to accept but felt it was an offer that was impossible to turn down. The young Siemaszko had always been part of the Arka Gdynia family, he recalled how with friends:
‘We all (and there were lots of us) met up at the train station in Rumia, got on the train and travelled to Gdynia. Rumia has always been for Arka. The first match I ever watched was at Arka.’
But the season didn’t turn out as Siemaszko had hoped. He made 12 appearances in the Ekstraklasa, only starting four times, and didn’t score a single goal. Arka were relegated to the second tier and Siemaszko ended up back at Orkan Rumia when his loan spell expired. It was a huge disappointment for Siemaszko but he kept his head up and continued to score for Orkan, with 11 goals in 28 games back in the fourth tier. At the age of 26 another club from the region, Gryf Wehejrowo – newly promoted to the 3rd tier – decided to take a chance on Siemaszko. He repaid them in style, scoring 23 goals in 64 league games. Siemaszko’s journey through the leagues was picking up steam.
In 2014 another Baltic coast side, Chojniczanka Chojnice, signed Siemaszko. Chojniczanka were playing in the second tier at the time and this represented a new challenge for Siemaszko. Although the club didn’t trust him completely as a starter (of his 31 league games, only 16 were starts), Siemaszko managed to score 6 goals, some of them crucial equalisers and winners.
Siemaszko’s exploits at Chojniczanka were enough for Arka Gdynia to come a-calling once more. Especially crucial in this was Arka’s coach at the time Grzegorz Niciński who knew Siemaszko from his time playing for Orkan Rumia in 2010. Siemaszko started the season very well for Arka, scoring in his first three games. Although his form slightly fell off, he continued his knack for scoring important goals, the one most remembered by the fans being his winner vs Dolcan Ząbki in November 2015 which sealed an important comeback victory. Arka eventually won the second tier title in 2015-6, Siemaszko at the age of 30 would finally have another crack at the Ekstraklasa.
Most of Siemaszko’s time in Arka’s promotion winning season had been spent as the proverbial super sub. This continued at the beginning of the 2016-7 season, with his first two top flight goals scored from the bench. Arka made a great start on their return to the Ekstraklasa but as the season went on their form dropped and Siemaszko began to be seen as a potential solution to their striking issues, scoring in their final two league games of 2016. It was during 2017 though, that everything went right for Siemaszko. He scored four goals in Arka’s first five games in 2017, including one of the goals which took the club to the Polish Cup final against Lech Poznań. Why did Siemaszko find it so much easier in the Polish top flight the second time of asking?:
‘Maybe I was more experienced? Now I approach everything with a far more relaxed attitude. Maybe in the past I was more uptight? I just take it as it comes, I don’t think about the consequences of misplaced passes, I don’t remember chances that I missed. You have to just keep going. Also the club is very different to what it was back then. Now there’s a lot of Polish players, there’s a far better atmosphere, it’s like one big family.’
But the best was yet to come for the tiny striker. Arka went into the Cup final as overwhelming underdogs against a star-studded Lech Poznań side that was aiming to win the league and cup double. Arka had slipped way down the table and were in serious trouble of getting relegated, no-one gave them a chance. Siemaszko didn’t start the game in which Lech missed chance after good chance. He was thrown on in the 55th minute to try to make a difference, but it was only in extra-time that that difference was made. In the 106th minute, full-back Adam Marciniak found a bit of space on the left and curled in a high cross, Siemaszko was up against two defenders in the box, he watched the ball as it arced into the box, took up a good position and headed the ball past Lech keeper Jasmin Burić’s flailing grasp. Arka had taken a sensational lead, something that was doubled by Luka Zarandia’s wondergoal. Arka and Siemaszko had somehow won the Polish Cup.
It was a tremendous achievement for a player who had spent so much time at the lower levels of the game. Siemaszko’s father rang him after the match and told him that he had been in tears after watching the goal. Siemaszko’s season however didn’t end there, Arka still had to stay up in the Ekstraklasa. They did this in rather murky circumstances, of which Siemaszko played a full part. In a crucial game vs fellow relegation candidates Ruch Chorzów, Siemaszko scored a goal with his hand which condemned Ruch to the drop. Siemaszko’s honour was questioned by a lot of people within the game. The man himself wasn’t happy with the event:
‘I don’t know what to say, it happens sometimes. I don’t want to hide what happened, the ball hit my hand and went into the goal. I’m a little ashamed. I just stuck out my hand. Thierry Henry also scored a goal with his hand in the World Cup qualifiers and that’s why they went through. I don’t want to compare myself to Maradona or Henry because I’m not that level of player but these things happen in football sometimes, even in Poland.’
After Arka stayed up Siemaszko’s rich vein of form hasn’t stopped. If anything his feats have become more prodigious in the 2017-8 season. Every goal he scores is one that stands out, whether it’s his wonderful headed winner vs Midtjylland, a lovely double vs Śląsk Wrocław to secure an unexpected comeback in the Cup, or a beautifully placed headed equaliser vs Wisła Kraków. Currently everything Siemaszko touches turns to gold.
The secret of Siemaszko’s headed goals is rather simple:
‘Timing in all of this plays the most important role. My jumps are often not really very high. I try to predict as much as I can where the football might drop in various situations as that might help me.’
It certainly has helped him. Simplicity, humbleness, all things that are often in short supply in the world of modern football. All reasons why Rafał Siemaszko is to be cherished.