Poland have only ever beaten England once in 17 meetings. That June 1973 World Cup qualifier, played at the old Slaski Stadium in Chorzow in front of 90,000 people, was a memorable game for the Poles who won 2-0. Although it was a forgettable match for England, it was not as forgettable as the return clash which took place at Wembley later that year in October. Needing a win, England, who had held the World Cup until just three years previously, went at the Poles with hammer and tongs. The rest is history and has gone down in English football folklore as "Tomaszewski the Clown’s" game.
The Polish goalkeeper’s performance, which combined brilliance with luck, earned his team an undeserved 1-1 draw and sent them through to the finals in West Germany the following summer. The clown title was bestowed on Jan Tomaszewski by a dismissive Brian Clough before the game, but the gangly long-haired shot-stopper ended up having the last laugh, as did the whole team, which had been branded as incredibly lucky. Poland went on to finish third, narrowly losing just the one game which would have taken them to the World Cup final itself.
That Wembley match was the beginning of Poland’s golden era which lasted for some 13 years, during which time they repeated their West German performance in Spain, eight years later.
Ironically, the demise of Polish football came with the fall of the detested communist system in 1989, which was replaced by what is generally regarded as a ‘normal democratic capitalist system’. And yet as life in general improved thanks to a free market, so the fortunes of football plummeted. The reason for this is because under communism, football, like everything else, was financed by the state. But in a free market economy the game had to stand on its own feet and finance itself, and this is turning out to be a very slow, long process.
However, there is a quiet feeling among Polish football fans that a return to those halcyon days may now not be that far away.
The key to any successful team are good players and for the first time since the 1980s genuinely promising young Polish footballers seem to be coming through in numbers. Foremost among them are the Borussia Dortmund-based trio of striker Robert Lewandowski, right-back Lukasz Piszczek and Poland’s captain and winger Jakub Blaszczykowski, though the latter will miss the England game through injury.
The continuing low earnings in the Polish league mean that good young players are still going abroad to wherever the money may take them.
At just 22, midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak is plying his trade successfully with rejuvenated former French giants Reims. Likewise 24-year-old central defender Kamil Glik is enjoying the return to Serie A with past champions Torino, while striker Kamil Grosicki’s career is peaking at Turkish Super Lig surprise team Sivasspor.
There is a clamour to give some Ekstraklasa-based youngsters a chance, those not burdened by the history of past failures, and 18-year-old Gornik Zabrze striker Arkadiusz Milik may again be thrown into the fray.
Despite the forebodings, Poland’s young inexperienced coach Waldemar Fornalik has made a better start than was feared. He appears to be a bit more adventurous than his predecessor Franciszek Smuda.
England meanwhile have more or less come to a crossroads where manager Roy Hodgson has to start looking beyond what has been every England manager’s team-building foundation for the last eight years. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole are all over 30, although they still help form a backbone with what has become a mean defence that gives little away.
However, Lampard will not play because of injury and many Poles think that this will even things out a bit in midfield, with Blaszczykowski absent. Poland will also take some heart from having seen their neighbours Ukraine take a point off England at Wembley in September, showing that the Three Lions’ defence can be vulnerable. It even took a late penalty by Lampard to earn that point.
At this stage Hodgson is still not sure what his attacking options will be as it seems to have been decided that Wayne Rooney’s future now lies as an attacking midfielder. With Theo Walcott ruled out through injury, 21-year-old Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck may get to lead the attack.
Leslaw Cmikiewicz who played in the Polish midfield at Wembley in 1973 is not impressed with this England side, believing three points are possible for his countrymen.
"They are not the great side they were then," said Cmikiewicz. "We should not play for just one point at the National Stadium. They are beatable."
But football is notorious for its superstitions and when one side has only one win against 10 defeats, losing can become a habit. That is why not many Polish fans share Cmikiewicz’s optimism.
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