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When England crashed out of the 1974 World Cup in the qualifying tournament, considered a major shock at the time, Poland, their conquerors, were seen as also-rans, a relative minnow that had audaciously knocked-out the 1966 champions.
Yet if the British media had been as informed as they thought they were, it would have realised that this game, which ended 1-1, was almost as significant as Hungary’s 1953 triumph at Wembley stadium. The Poles didn’t win, but they were, like the Magyars, reigning Olympic gold medallists. Hungary won the Olympic tournament in 1952, Poland 20 years later. In 1954, Hungary finished runners-up in the World Cup, in 1974, Poland were third. Both teams had other things in common, not least that they were both beaten by West Germany.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Polish club football provided some tough opponents in European competition, especially on their own turf. Like many Eastern Bloc nations, there was an air of mystery about clubs from Poland, Hungary and East Germany, to name but a few.
Górnik Zabrze, for example, provided Manchester United with a difficult hurdle in the 1967-68 European Cup, with United only narrowly going through on their way to winning the competition. Górnik, and Poland, had an excellent forward in the form of Wlodek Lubanski, but he would miss out on his country’s finest hour in the World Cup through injury.
Poland’s resurgence really started in 1970 with the appointment of Kazimierz Górski as coach. Górski played just once for Poland in his career, in 1948, but his coaching abilities were never in doubt. The fruits of his work came to the fore in the 1972 Olympics in West Germany, where Poland played some stunning football. They scored 19 goals in six games before reaching the final against Hungary, winning 2-1 in Munich, in front of 80,000 people. Even then, nobody expected Poland to qualify for the 1974 World Cup – they had England in their group, after all. But England, undoubtedly, paid little attention to Poland’s Olympic success and underestimated Górski’s team.
The qualifying group also included Wales and when Poland were beaten 2-0 in Cardiff in March 1973, there seemed little chance they would emerge from the three-team group. However, a 2-0 victory against England that summer in Chorzów changed the dynamic of the group. By the end of September, England were under immense pressure as the Poles were now on top and needed just a draw to qualify. In the end, they got just that and England were out.
History has been written to some extent, because Poland were not highly-rated in 1973, but their performance in West Germany served to reassess their qualities and also put England’s exit into some context. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as they say.
But Poland had a tough group in West Germany, including Argentina and Italy as well as Haiti. Two countries with a World Cup pedigree would surely be too strong for the Poles – at least, that’s how the script was written. Without Lubanski, Poland would struggle. How wrong the pundits were.
Poland had a number of trump cards that most people were unaware of. In goal they had Jan Tomaszewski, the Wisla Krakow keeper that was dismissed as a “clown” by Brian Clough but was responsible, more than most, for denying England a place in West Germany. At the heart of the defence was Jerzy Gorgoń, a giant centre half who could also score goals. In midfield was the jewel in Poland’s crown, Kazimierz Deyna, a visionary player from Legia Warsaw. Deyna’s performances in 1974 made him one of the most coveted players in Europe, but the communist regime in Poland prevented him from moving abroad.
Poland’s forward line had few equals, comprising Grzegorz Lato, Andrzej Szarmach and Robert Gadocha. The balding Lato looked older than his 24 years, but his speed and finishing made him one of 1974’s stars. He played for Stal Mielec, a club from a small town in south-eastern Poland that was synonymous with aircraft manufacturing. Stal were surprise Polish champions in 1972-73, with Lato their leading scorer. With Lubanski unfit, Poland’s goalscoring hopes rested with him. By the start of the World Cup, Lato had won just 13 caps for his country. His partner up front was 23 year-old Szarmach of Górnik Zabrze, a player who had a very cavalier look about him and possessed pace and sharp finishing skills. Both Lato and Szarmach benefitted from the wing play of Robert Gadocha of Legia Warsaw.
Poland began their 1974 campaign with realistic expectations. The favourites for the competition were West Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands. Italy and Argentina were among the next bracket so Poland had a considerable challenge. The first game, in Stuttgart, saw Argentina needlessly give the ball away to the hungry and fleet-footed Poles, who scored twice in the first eight minutes. In the seventh minute, goalkeeper Daniel Carnevali dropped the ball at the feet of Lato from a corner and the number 16 had the simple task of scoring. Then Szarmach made it 2-0, breaking free and sending a left-foot shot drive past Carnevali. Argentina pulled a goal back on 60, but Lato took advantage of a poor throw-out by Carnevali to make it 3-1. Babington’s scrambled effort in the 66th minute reduced the deficit again, but Poland were worthy winners and made a few people sit up and take notice.
A 7-0 win against Haiti (who Italy had made hard work of in the first group games), underlined the goalscoring power of Poland, with Szarmach and Lato sharing five goals. Then it was Italy, an azzurri team that included Dino Zoff, Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti, Fabio Capello and Pietro Anastasi. Poland went 2-0 ahead thanks to a header from Szarmach and a superbly-taken first-time shot from Deyna, and future England manager Capello netted five minutes from time for the Italians. Poland were the only team to come through their group with a 100% record, and they’d scored 12 goals in the process – they were now being taken very seriously.
Poland 1974, their men and matches
|6||Gorgoń, Jerzy||*||* 1||*||*||*||*||*|
|12||Deyna, Kazimierz||*||* 1||*1||*||*1||*||*|
Beaten at water polo
In the second stage, Poland were in the same group as Sweden, Yugoslavia and West Germany. It was, arguably, the easiest of the two, for the Dutch and Brazilians were in the other section. There were no semi-finals as such, although the media expected that the meeting between the hosts and Poland on July 3 in Frankfurt would decide who would qualify for the final.
The two teams worked their way through the group, West Germany beating Yugoslavia 2-0 and Poland 1-0 winners against Sweden – a Lato close range header – on June 26. Four days later, the Poles beat Yugoslavia 2-1 (Deyna penalty and Lato) and West Germany won 4-2 against the Swedes. The group was shaping-up as predicted.
July 3 was a stormy day in Frankfurt. The skies were apocalyptic, almost Wagnerian. The Waldstadion pitch was sodden, putting the game between the two best teams in Group B in doubt. The kick-off was delayed while the groundstaff tried to remove the excess water. It eventually got underway, but the surface prevented Poland from playing their normal game. Sometimes, the ball stopped dead on the puddled pitch, on other occasions, it merely skidded. If the game had been played in 2018, it would probably have been abandoned. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining contest, with both teams going for victory – Poland had to win, while the Germans would qualify with just a draw.
Sepp Maier, West Germany’s imposing keeper, was at his best to prevent Deyna, Lato, Gadocha and Henryk Kasperczak from scoring. At the opposite end, Uli Hoeneß missed a penalty kick, his weak effort saved by “the clown”. With 15 minutes remaining, Rainer Bonhof’s run into the area ended with the ball rolling loose to Gerd Müller, who scored with a low shot. It was enough to send West Germany through to the Munich final. They were relieved, in fact, West Germany’s Paul Breitner claimed that Poland were the best side in the 1974 World Cup. On the eve of the final, Poland secured third place, beating Brazil with Lato’s seventh goal of the competition, winning him the golden boot.
Poland’s near-glorious summer opened the world’s eyes to some of the outstanding players that were shining behind the Iron Curtain. Deyna, for instance, was courted by a veritable A-Z of European football, but most players were prevented from moving until they turned 30. Deyna eventually joined Manchester City in 1978 and sadly, died in a car crash at the age of 41.
As for Poland, they were narrowly denied a place in the last eight of the European Championship in 1976, having the misfortune to be in the same qualifying group as the Netherlands. But they were back in the World Cup in 1978, opening the competition with a 0-0 draw against West Germany in Buenos Aires. They won the group and reached the second stage, beaten by Argentina and Brazil. Their team, which was largely the same as 1974, with a few additions, now included Zbigniew Boniek. They finished third again in 1982.
1974 will always be remembered for being the World Cup of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, but it was also the summer of Poland and a wonderfully skilful, expressive team. They have had their heroes since in Poland, but the team of 1974 is the benchmark that every Polish team has to live up to. It’s a tough task.