Most countries about to host an international football championship have usually looked forward to the event. It focuses attention on that country and in many ways football takes a back-seat for a while as the world looks at other aspects, such as the nation’s culture, history and geography. However, the host country’s team is also expected to perform reasonably well – and this is where Poles are becoming ever more nervous of just what their representatives on the field of play might do. The words “disgracing themselves” are commonly heard, particularly as that is exactly what the national side have done at each of the last three tournaments they have appeared in.
The recent spate of international matches produced yet another disaster for the ‘Eagles’, as Poland’s national side are known. It was the first of their two friendlies, a humiliating 2-0 defeat by neighbours Lithuania, ranked 54th in the world, that stirred the side’s many critics into repeated calls for the coach’s head. In Franciszek Smuda’s case, it was for the third time.
Formerly a successful coach with Widzew Lodz and Wisla Krakow, leading both clubs to league title wins and a Champions League place, the 62-year-old had a terrible baptism of fire as national coach. Three defeats in his first three games put him on the edge of an ignominious early exit, saved only by a short run of respectable face-saving results.
But then, just as things were beginning to look up, two further successive home defeats by Cameroon and Australia stirred his critics into sharpening the knives once again.
For the second time, Smuda saved his neck with a fine win against recent World Cup finalists Ivory Coast followed by victories against Moldova and Norway, but then came that woeful performance in Kaunas.
This really did put the nation’s footballing community into a quandary because ‘the tournament’ is now only just over a year away, hardly a good time to be changing coaches. But these humiliating defeats just could not be allowed to continue and it is no exaggeration to say that Smuda’s career rested on the next match.
Once again the country braced itself for another humiliation – especially as Greece are in a different league to Lithuania, ranked 10th in the world. And Piraeus is not the best place for a demoralised team to save face, but that is exactly what the Poles managed to do – only just – holding the Greeks to a goalless draw.
It has been suggested that the result was garnered because the players pulled out all the stops to bid captain for the day Michal Zewlakow a decent farewell in his record-breaking 102nd international appearance. Also, the game took place on the very ground where the 34-year-old full back enjoyed four very good seasons with Olympiacos and so the crowd were a little less hostile towards the visitors.
Smuda blames the current plight of his team on the behaviour of certain players, and there is little doubt that recent events off the pitch have created a bad atmosphere. And it is those old footballers’ twin nemeses of sex and alcohol which have reared their ugly heads in the squad’s camp. Although the alcohol problem, Smuda stresses, is now under control.
“If I catch one of the players drinking, either he goes, or I do. The players know me and in Athens even after the match, nobody had one drink.”
But it was the allegations that were made by Poland’s popular mass daily newspaper Fakt, claiming that prostitutes had been plying their trade at a recent training camp, which according to coach Smuda had a deep impact on the squad as a whole. Although the journal withheld the names of those players who were supposedly involved, the married members were particularly distressed.
“You can imagine the effect it had on the players. Following these allegations the atmosphere changed and instead of the usual camaraderie there was subdued silence.”
The coach however is confident that the problem has been sorted out and the worst is now over.
“There was that one unfortunate training camp incident, but that’s behind us now and we have to move on,” he told the Polish media. “Because whether you like it or not, our national team is growing in strength.”
Smuda obviously sees the Lithuanian disaster as just a mere hiccup and indeed one has to go back seven matches to find their previous defeat. Not exactly a world-beating or even a European-beating record, but Poland will be quite happy if their national side get through Euro 2012 without disgracing themselves – on the pitch.