1973 was a good time to be an Englishman in London, until Poland and Jan Tomaszewski came over to play the last qualifying game for the World Cup the following year.
The English are a proud set of people; of their imperial traditions, their culture and music, the royalty that is Buckingham Palace and its inhabitants, a history of defiance at warfronts, and football. Especially their football.
Inventors of the modern form of the game and responsible for popularising it, there is a superiority complex prevalent amongst the Brits that, like woollen clothing, has been handed down through generations, even if continental and global success has found a way to elude the national team for almost the entirety of the game’s history.
It all changed in a brief, sweeping moment in 1966. They won the World Cup, at home to boot, the only time football’s quadrennial marquee event has been played at its spiritual abode. Within the next four years, Manchester United won the Champions League, David Hemery broke the 400m hurdles world record at the Olympics, The Beatles released seven albums and Pink Floyd made their debut with Piper At The Gates of Dawn. England was bouncing.
They rode the wave of euphoria well into the ’70s; Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks’ heroics underlined a spirited, even if eventually inadequate, defence of their crown at the Mexico World Cup. 1973 was momentous; Queen released their debut album, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon hit the charts and England were on the verge of qualifying for the next World Cup. The same year, with Germany ‘74 looming large, Poland came to town for the last qualifying game. The English were already giddy about the success their national team would have at Germany, and their press didn’t break sweat in predicting a cakewalk for the hosts.
An opponent who hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1938, fielding a young, unheralded team, wasn’t giving the Three Lions any sleepless nights, and neither was their previous encounter at Chorzów that year, when Poland won 2-0. England’s answer to that was a 7-0 defeat of Austria at Wembley, heavy enough to cast a shadow of reassurance. Even Poland’s Olympic gold from 1972 failed to make the hosts blink. England manager-in-waiting and professional therapist Brian Clough went to the extent of calling goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a clown”, owing to his moppy haircut and unconventional attire.
Clough’s snobbery perfectly represented how his country saw the Polish team and their players. In Poland, football hasn’t really been the socio-cultural adhesive like in England or some other East-European nations. Back when the team was stuck in a rut of falling short of football’s biggest tournaments, it didn’t have much to draw motivation from. And a trip to Wembley for the qualification knockout was a petrifying prospect.
In conversation with author Jonathan Wilson for his book “Behind The Curtain”, Jan Tomaszewski says “It was like Cinderella going to the ball. It was the first time we’d ever played in a stadium with a roof; with a roof the roar is different. In Poland we had only open stadiums. Wembley was hell.”
When they reached England, they saw a picture of smug self-admiration; the British – like Brazil at the 1950 World Cup final against Uruguay – had embraced victory before the match had begun. And like Uruguay at the Maracana that afternoon, the Poles had found their inspiration in their opponents’ disdain.
Their coach, Kazimierz Górski, had prepared them well for the challenge. He was a military veteran from World War II and knew a thing or two about the siege mentality that the Polish team needed to channel. But unlike England or so many other European countries, especially in the Soviet communist era, Górski believed in a flatter social structure. He encouraged players to speak their minds and follow their instincts, creating a team environment that would be the envy of most others.
Often at age-group football matches, you’ll find parents egging the kids on from the fences. Though the kids are the centre of attention, most eyes and ears are locked towards that one father who is relentless with high-decibel instructions to his lad. The envy of the day, though, is usually that one man, with cap, sneakers and track-pants, shouting words of encouragement at his boy. “Well done, Jim. Proud o’ you. Keep at it.” At Wembley that afternoon, Górski was that dad, not quite the decorated, high-handed instructor like Sir Alf Ramsey, but a less accomplished man who knew how to get his boys over the line. While the English entered the Wembley pitch complacent, Poland were structured, wary of their opponents, yet confident of pulling through.
Barely two minutes into the game, Jan Tomaszewski almost gifted England the lead, failing to notice Allan Clarke standing next to him as he rolled the ball out. The reactionary save broke five metacarpals on his wrist, but woke him and the rest of the team up. Jan Tomaszewski would then go on to have the game of his life at Wembley, eking out a monumental performance just when England thought he was dead meat. The English players tried like only they can, firing in 36 shots and 26 corners, but couldn’t find a way past the Polish goal, barring an equalising penalty. Poetic as bookends go, England had another chance to seal it 2 minutes from time, and Allan Clarke hit the ball sweetly enough to turn away in celebration, only to realise the goalkeeper had parried it away for a corner. The game ended 1-1, which meant Poland had tickets to Germany the next year, and England were going to watch a World Cup from home for the first time.
At the 1974 World Cup, Poland played like a team possessed and ended up with the bronze medal, beating Brazil in the third-place playoff. Such was the impact of their fluid-yet-incisive performance, Germany’s Paul Breitner couldn’t help but wax lyrical.
“I can remember one game where I’ve always maintained we beat a team which was fundamentally better than us. In fact, it was definitely the best team in the competition and still didn’t win the World Cup. I mean Poland in 1974. They had a better team at that World Cup than Germany, Holland, Brazil, or anyone else for that matter. The Poles had the best team in 1974.”
Breitner was one of Europe’s most politically vocal footballers, and one wouldn’t put it past him to take a passing swipe at the more celebrated Dutch team he helped beat in the finals, but for Poland, it was an accomplishment to even have a place in that discussion.
They didn’t rest on their laurels after the World Cup, repeating the bronze medal performance in ’82, with a praiseworthy showing in 1978 sandwiched between them. In 1986, Poland were again going great guns until they ran into Zico and Socrates’ Brazil. It marked an end of a decade long phase that, while possible to emulate, will always have a page to itself when the book on Polish football history is written.
Wembley in 1973 was similar to a burial ground for away sides, especially if they came from lands which hadn’t seen a whole lot of football success. In choosing to challenge the establishment, like their coach had taught with a socialist team structure, Poland could set upon their most glorious footballing era. For England, it was a fault-line in their proud history, having to sit out a tournament a mere 8 years after winning it. They would take 8 more to qualify for another.