Pole position for prosaic team
Following Ireland's abysmal exit from the Euro 2008 qualifiers, support will naturally draw to the nearest underdog, Poland. Bouts of mediocrity notwithstanding, Poland can progress beyond the first round of the Euro finals. By Ken Early
Two years ago, many Irish decided to join our 150,000 or so Polish immigrant brothers and sisters in cheering on Bialo Czerwoni – the red-and-whites – in the last World Cup. Five days into the tournament, the leaden Polish team became the first side to be knocked out. Ireland's Poland-mania – originally so noble, so magnanimous – now felt like an embarrassing intrusion on private grief, and quickly melted away.
The bad news for those thinking of giving Poland another go in Euro 2008 is that, once again, they are one of the weakest teams in the competition. Only Austria, who qualified as hosts, are definitely worse. Yet the reasons to support them this time around are a little more compelling. There are new parallels between our two humble sporting nations, and Polish success at the Euro would bode well for our own hopes of national footballing resurrection. Like the Irish, the Poles, confronted one too many times with crushing evidence of their own heartbreaking mediocrity, have bowed to the inevitable and called in expert foreign help. Where we have pinned our hopes on Giovanni Trapattoni, Poland hired the ancient Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, who in the course of a 40-year career has coached everyone from Real Madrid to Trinidad.
While Trapattoni's appointment has mostly been well-received in Ireland, the Polish football establishment was initially sceptical about Beenhakker. After all, Poland's golden team of the 70s and early 80s finished third at two World Cups, achievements which some of the prouder Poles mistake for a tradition of excellence. When Beenhakker's first competitive match ended in a 3-1 home defeat to Finland, there was open revolt.
“It wasn't easy,” says Jan de Zeeuw, a Dutch agent specialising in Polish players who is now the general manager of the Poland team under Beenhakker. “I've been coming to Poland more than 30 years, but for the first three months even I didn't read the newspapers, and had a lot of problems. A lot of former Poland trainers, especially in the beginning, were against Beenhakker, against the changes. They were and they still are big opponents. But the important thing was that the public, from the beginning on, was very positive. Yesterday Beenhakker was on a TV show where he was asked, ‘did you ever have so much support from the public in a club or a country you've managed over 40 years?' He's very well accepted here, everybody is now positive to us about everything that happened.”
De Zeeuw thinks Polish football needed a fresh impetus which only an outsider could provide. “Coming from Holland, you see a big difference in approach. They're still living in the past. These guys, the coaches, the club coaches – they're from the old times. The old good times... they're always talking about how good it was. Well, it was good. But when was their last good result? 1982.”
The first task for Beenhakker was to restore the team's shattered morale. In a 2006 study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Centre, Poland ranked 28th of 33 countries surveyed in “national pride”, as measured by questions like “I would rather be a citizen of my country than of any other country in the world.” After the World Cup, sporting pride was at a particular low, wounded by the sickening stoppage-time defeat to Germany that seemed to re-emphasise the nation's special accursed status.
“The biggest challenge was that when he started, Poland was in a very minor atmosphere, everything was very negative around the football, around the national team,” says De Zeeuw, whose Polish connections enabled him to do for Beenhakker what Liam Brady might do for Giovanni Trapattoni. “At the beginning he didn't speak Polish, but I speak Polish, and I could help him to choose his staff.” Unlike Trapattoni, the Dutchman based himself in his country of employment - “about 85 per cent of the time he's in Poland” says De Zeeuw - and turned up at a lot of Polish league matches.
Training camps were key to Beenhakker getting to know the players at his disposal. When the foreign-based players were unavailable, he took squads of Polish-based players on trips to places like Dubai and Turkey. De Zeeuw: “The idea was that a lot of young players have the chance to train with Beenhakker, and you saw always that the first trainings they were full of stress. But then you could see players who reacted very well to it.
“One of his big things is, you have to see which players are able to make in a very short time the connection to international level. Because the level of the Polish league is not the highest. If you compare it to Germany, Italy, England – a very big difference. But even so, you can find players who can make in a very short time the connection.”
“He just started to work his way, with great enthusiasm and motivation and hard work. He met some players personally - players who had problems because they weren't at the World Cup, players who didn't play well at the World Cup. We had the training camps, and slowly, slowly, he tried in his way to change things in a positive way. And the first result was winning in October against Portugal.”
The Polish team's state of mind was transformed in nine crazy minutes in Chorzow when midfielder Ebi Smolarek punished abysmal Portuguese defending with two clinical strikes. Victory seemed impossible – Portugal had Cristiano Ronaldo, Poland had Grzegorz “Wooden Legs” Rasiak – yet somehow it happened. Beenhakker has expertly surfed the swell of confidence ever since. De Zeeuw: “It's incredible, if you see what started after the first big success, ever since we won against Portugal - the enthusiasm of the people. This country deserves better results.”
The Poles would probably say they also deserved better luck, and they've had that too. In the decisive group match away to Portugal, they took the lead through a deflected shot. Portugal powered back in the second half, Maniche equalising before Ronaldo made it 2-1 with a brilliant volley. Then, with two minutes remaining, Poland captain Jacek Krzynowek meandered infield and took a pot shot from 35 yards that skidded off the wet grass, hit the post, and rebounded into the net off the head of Portugal keeper Ricardo to seal Poland's first-ever qualification for a European Championship.
Poland's new-found luck did not desert them in the draw which placed them alongside Germany, Croatia and Austria in Group B. De Zeeuw admits: “The expectations are rather big. There was a poll - does the public expect that we will survive the group phase? The result was 79 per cent said yes, we will get to the second round.”
And why not? Austria are beatable, while Croatia will be weakened by the absence of their injured top scorer Eduardo. As for Germany, Poland owes them one. “Any match against Germany is very important, not only in Poland, but also for me and Leo as Dutch,” says De Zeeuw. “But having a good result against the Germans and two bad results in the other matches won't help.”
Beenhakker and his team will spend the next few weeks fine-tuning. “It's a problem of every national team - not much time together,” says De Zeeuw. “When Poland had their last big success in 1982, the players were together for many, many, many weeks before the World Cup. This is not possible these days. Next Monday we start our training camp for the Euro, and we will have seven or eight players who will join us only after the first week, because of various obligations. But now we'll have for the first time, a longer time that we can work together. Beenhakker always said, give me some time with those guys and they are incredible.”
De Zeeuw is reticent when asked which Polish players might impress the watching world this summer. “The big positive from our team is not the individual quality of an extreme player on the level of Ronaldo. We don't have any players like that, it's more the collective, the group. In the qualification Ebi Smolarek scored a lot of goals. For the public in Poland he was at that moment the star. But it's more about the collective.”
What advice would De Zeeuw give Trapattoni about how to turn around a foreign country's national team? “The quality of Mr Beenhakker is that - maybe it's a quality a lot of Dutch have – he's adaptable. You cannot change alone the mentality of a country and their style. So you have to be a big diplomat, trying to do it your way, because Beenhakker is doing it his way, but in a very diplomatic way. The football language in every country is the same. He simply followed his skills and his ideas, and it worked out.” With any luck, Bialo Czerwoni will have led where Ireland will shortly follow.