With slightly less than a month to go until the start of the 2012 European Championships, it’s time for us to kick off our previews of the sixteen nations that will be competing at this summer’s tournament in Poland and Ukraine. We’re doing this in order of the groups drawn, so we’ll start with everything you probably don’t need to know about one of this summer’s co-hosts, Poland.
The History: The golden years of the Poland national football team came in a decade between 1973 and 1983. With players such as the supremely talented Zbigniew Boniek and Grzegorz Lato, Poland beat both Argentina and Brazil before finishing in third place at the 1974 World Cup finals, and four years later reached the second round of the finals in Argentina. In 1982, they were beaten in the semi-finals by Italy, before beating France by three goals to two in the third place play-off. Surprisingly, this summer is only the second time that Poland has qualified for the finals of this competition. The first time was just four years ago in Switzerland and Austria, and the team was a disappointment, drawing one and losing two of its three matches and finishing with one of the worst record of all of those that had competed in the tournament.
The Team: Poland were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first team to announce their final squad of players for this summer’s tournament with a squad which has a couple of familiar names for those amongst us that focus their attention on the Premier League. Arsenal supporters may be interested in keeping an eye on their entire collection of goalkeepers, as both Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczęsny will be travelling home for this tournament. The key players, however, both ply their trade in Germany with Borussia Dortmund. Captain Jakub Błaszczykowski has been playing for Dortmund for the last five years and has won two successive Bundesliga titles in this time. Perhaps even more important than Błaszczykowski, however, is his team-mate, striker Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski ended last season as the third highest scorer in the league with twenty-two goals and has been attracting admiring glances from England, Spain and Italy.
The Coach: Franciszek Smuda is a veteran of the Polish game, having been coaching for the last twenty-nine years. His wealth of experience hit its zenith with the three Polish league championships in four years that he won with Widzew Lódź and Wisla Krakow between 1996 and 1999. With such domestic success behind him, it was always anticipated that Smuda would end up coaching the national team, and this opportunity finally came in 2009. For all of his experience, however, Smuda is not universally popular and high profile fall-outs with several experienced players has meant that Poland are a little light on experience going into this tournament. As is conventional, hopes in Poland are high that this team can do well in this tournament. Smuda may well find that his popularity will plummet even further should his team fail to get through the group stages of the competition. Poland are currently in sixty-fifth place in the FIFA rankings.
The Prospects: Looking on the bright side for a moment, the draw for this summer’s tournament has been kind to Poland. As co-hosts they were seeded, and have been drawn to play against Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic. With all three matches being played in Poland – two in Warsaw and one in Wroclaw – hopes are high amongst the home support that this team can significantly improve upon the disappointing experience of their tournament finals debut from four years ago. The reality, however, is that even this comfortable looking draw can mask the deficiencies of the team. Most troubling of all is its lack of potency in front of goal, with only Lewandowski having managed double figures as a goalscorer for his national team. If Poland are over-reliant on this one player and he gets injured or is successfully marked out of games, then the team could struggle to even get out of this modest group.
The Kit: Poland’s kit for this tournament, is made by Nike and hasn’t been without a degree of controversy itself. At the end of last year, the Polish Football Association, the PSPN, made a decision on commercial grounds to drop the well-known eagle badge which adorns the front of their shirts. The decision was unpopular enough for the team’s friendly match against Italy in Wroclaw to be marked by chants of “Where’s the eagle?” and “Screw the FA” as Italy coasted to a comfortable two-nil win, whilst the matter of the whereabouts of the eagle also reached the Polish parliament, with president Bronislaw Komorowski adding his support for those against its removal. It was, you will probably not be surprised to hear, later restored, although this is alongside the modern (and, let’s be honest, not particularly well-designed) squiggle that was to replace it. Other than that, this is standard Nike fare, with overly flashy accoutrements kept to a minimum and the sole oddity about it being the fact that the red band across the middle of the shirt doesn’t extend all the way around its design.
The National Anthem: “Poland Is Not Yet Lost” is the name of the Polish national anthem, a jaunty number that refers specifically not to the German and Soviet occupations of the twentieth century but to the seventeenth century Swedish invasion known as “The Deluge.” With lyrics written by Józef Wybicki, the original manuscript for the song remained in the hands of its writer’s descendants until it was lost during an Allied bombing of Berlin, where Wybicki’s great-great-grandson was living at the time, in 1944. The song is, along with the country’s national colours and its coat of arms, defined by the Polish constitution as one of the three official national symbols of the country.
The British Media Will Say: “In such a moderate group and with home advantage, they should get through to the quarter-finals at least”, “I’ve only heard of the goalkeepers”, “I bet his name is a high score in Scrabble”, “England would have beaten this team”, “They need to get off to a good start, “It won’t be good for the tournament if the hosts get knocked out in the group stages” (although this argument may go out of the window should it become a straight battle between Ukraine and England to qualify from their group).
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