Perhaps, quoting a 1980s song by the Imagination, it was “just an illusion” – the illusion that the Poland national football team could regain competitiveness exploiting the status of co-hosts of the recent European Championships. The three matches played by the Biało-czerwoni displayed decent individualities like striker Robert Lewandowski and winger Jakub Błaszczykowski, true. Yet, a few names have not sufficed to recreate the golden age of Polish football.
It was at the dawn of the 1970s when a man sat on the bench of the national team. This man was Kazimierz Górski (pictured left), born in 1921 in the Polish city of Lwów, later renamed Lviv and assigned to Ukraine according to the agreements of the Yalta Conference. He lived here until 1944, when he joined the army and relocated in Warsaw on the following year.
As he revealed in an interview, football formed part of his life since his childhood. He played in three different teams based in Lwów – RKS, Spartak and Dynamo -, employed as a striker. For he was rapid and slightly built, Górski was nicknamed “Sarenka” (“Roe-deer”). Despite his tormented knee, he went on playing football and joined Legia Warsaw, the army club. During his eight years in the capital city, he earned his first and only cap for the national side in a heavy 8-0 loss to Denmark in 1948. His relationship with the Biało-czerwoni would be much more fruitful and glorious in the years to come, though.
Górski began his coaching career in 1954, just one year after his retirement. He was appointed as Marymont Warsaw manager, a role he left on the following year to enter the Poland junior national team. He was in charge until 1959, when he returned to Legia. He later coached KS Lublinianka and Gwardia Warszawa, just before going back to another youth national team, the Under-23 one. Finally, he was given the Biało-czerwoni job in 1970 and his debut was quite encouraging, with the team defeating Switzerland 4-2 in Lausanne.
The first, real test bench was embodied by the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The five-ring gold medal may not match the World Cup in the life of a footballer, still it was a tempting opportunity for Górski to demonstrate his coaching skills.
His ideal Starting XI mainly relied upon elements from Górnik Zabrze, Cup Winners Cup runners-up in 1970 and domestic title winners in 1971 and 1972. The backbone of the Olympic squad was made by 32-year-old goalkeeper Hubert Kostka, solid defenders Jerzy Gorgoń (pictured left) and Zygmunt Anczok and prolific striker Włodzimierz Lubański, with tiny midfielder Zygfryd Szołtysik representing a decent replacement. The midfield depended on Legia players. Lesław Ćmikiewicz shone for his extreme versatility, but the undisputed stars were Kazimierz Deyna, a clinical attacking midfielder, and left-winger Robert Gadocha.
The Olympic squad had much potential and moulding it was a burden in the hand of the head coach. Jan Tomaszewski, Poland goalkeeper at the 1974 World Cup, told Jonathan Wilson in the book Behind the Curtain why mild Górski was so revolutionary in performing his job. He totally changed the approach with the players, behaving like a dad rather than a military commander, a particularly common attitude at the time, and creating a family-like atmosphere. In the same book assistant coach Jacek Gmoch emerges as a key figure, perhaps even more important than Górski for the triumphs of Poland.
Górski was renowned for catchphrases such as “The ball is round and there are two goals”, which epitomises his personality. From his perspective, football managers should teach their players to be aggressive on the pitch and to focus on attacking.
The starting point is creating a concept, an effective way to play. Then, the manager’s concern is to understand which players were the most suitable for his footballing philosophy. As Górski himself maintained, an ideal Starting Xi should comprise two stars and nine artisans and, in his case, the value added was that all his footballers exactly knew what to do. The Olympic tournament confirmed the reasonableness of his beliefs.
Poland made their debut on 28 August against Colombia in Ingolstadt. The South Americans were thrashed 5-1 with a hatrick by Gadocha and a brace by Deyna (pictured right), the two Legia prominent figures. Two days later, the Poles had another comfortable win as they overwhelmed Ghana 4-0 in Regensburg. Lubański set the opener five minutes ahead of half time, then Gadocha netted twice and Deyna once.
The level of difficulty suddenly increased in the last match of the group stage, when Poland encountered East Germany on 1 September in Nuremberg. The opponents boasted an experienced side with the likes of Bernd Bransch, Peter Ducke, Eberhard Vogel and Jürgen Sparwasser, the future scorer of the famous winning goal in the clash with West Germany in 1974. One of Górski’s cornerstones was the absolute refusal of fear to lose. “If a manager is afraid of losing, he’d better find another job”, he said. His players were taught to score the first goal, so that it would have been sensible to defend a situation of leading, not of drawing. So, not surprisingly, Gorgoń headed in a corner kick from the right side after six minutes and struck again in the 63th minute after the temporary equaliser by Joachim Streich.
The second phase began on 3 September with an engaging 1-1 draw with the Denmark of 20-year-old Allan Simonsen. The Scandinavians put the ball into the net courtesy of Heino Hansen, but Deyna levelled almost immediately. It would turn to be the only match Poland did not win en route to the Olympic gold.
Two days later, the Poles faced the Soviet Union in Augsburg, a match with significant non-sporting implications due to the political scenario of those years. The Soviets, who featured Murtaz Khurtsilava and Volodymyr Onyščenko, took the lead with Oleh Blochin after 28 minutes and resisted for almost the entire game. Then, 11 minutes before the final whistle, Deyna tied by converting a penalty kick and later on Szołtysik sealed the Polish comeback.
The road to the gold medal match passed through a supposed-to-be piece of cake against Morocco in Nuremberg on 8 September. Once again, Poland charmed with their aggressive, modern football and triumphed 5-0, with a brace by Deyna and goals by Gadocha, Lubański and Wisla Krakow forward Kazimierz Kmiecik.
10 September was the day Poland might make history. The Olympiastadion in Munich was packed for the match against gold medal holders Hungary, still considered a remarkable side although the Aranycsapat era was over. For the third time in four matches, breaking one of Górski’s basic rules, Poland conceded the opener to their opponents, as winger Béla Váradi drilled in just before half time. Once again, Deyna played the part of the national hero. Back from the changing room, he immediately equalised with a long-range shot and 20 minutes later gave Poland the gold medal by scoring his brace.
That was just the beginning, though. Górski realised that he had debunked some football myths like East Germany, Hungary and the Soviet Union. But Poland were about to make other victims. Thanks to the heroics of Jan Tomaszewski, the flamboyant goalie who replaced Kostka after the Olympics and was labelled as “clown” by Brian Clough, the Poles drawn 1-1 in Wembley and qualified for the 1974 World Cup to the detriment of England.
Then, in West Germany, they beat Argentina, knocked-out football power Italy and finally overcame World reigning champions Brazil in the third place match thanks to Grzegorz Lato. Perhaps, they would have won against the hosting nation in a crucial match of the second phase, played on a muddy ground, and qualified for the final. Nine players of the Olympic squad were confirmed and supported by the likes of Henryk Kasperczak, Andrzej Szarmach and Władysław Żmuda.
The Górski era ended in 1976, in light of the silver medal at the Montréal Games, which was considered a sort of failure. The Lviv-originated manager migrated to Greece, where he cemented his fame of successful manager by coaching giants Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. He embraced again homeland football as he became an activist of Polish Football Union in 1986. Subsequently, he was vice-president, president and honorary president of the Union itself.
Meanwhile, the national team have had lights and shadows. Giving credence to a sort of magic concerning the years ending in number 2, Poland finished third at the 1982 World Cup and won the silver medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Sadly, 2012 has turned to be very disappointing in terms of football.
However, the situation may change again. As Górski pointed out before his death in 2006, Polish players have always blossomed as youngsters and lost their own way while turning into adult, professional footballers. From his own view, this is due to the lack of trust in young players, prevented from the possibility to show their skills, and to the absence of organisation inside the Poland football movement.
As he once stated, “in football you can win, lose or draw”. It is up to the Poland football federation board to decide which option to take.