This article appeared in today’s Gazeta Wyborca (in Polish).
On July 3rd 1974 at around 4pm a huge thunderstorm broke over the Waldstadion in Frankfurt, about an hour before the scheduled start of the World Cup second stage group match between West Germany and Poland. This was effectively the semi-final between the host nation and Poland, the revelation of the tournament. Having surprised everyone by eliminating England in pre-tournament qualification, they played an exuberant brand of the beautiful game mainly thanks to the distribution of midfielder Kazimierz Deyna through to Grzegorz Lato and Robert Gadocha, two wingers that tormented defences and created most of the goals.
The thunderstorm waterlogged the pitch, and while the fire brigade was able to clear enough water to allow the game to start, the Polish wingers were nullified. As the correspondent of the London Times wrote “Lato and Gadocha were always thorns in the German side, but too often the ball was left behind, trapped either by mud or water”. Poland, a team that was capable of winning the competition, was sunk by a Gerd Muller strike in the 76th minute.
More prosaically, the Polish Wundermannschaft was also a product of Poland’s relatively liberal version of Communism in the late 1960s and 70s. Communism was almost as lousy at creating football teams as it was skilled at winning Olympic gold medals. Consider East Germany, whose iron discipline and performance-enhancing drugs produced 519 medals at 11 Olympiads, the second highest rate per games (after the Soviet Union), but qualified only once out of 9 World Cups and 8 European Championships entered. Football just requires a little more individualism than the Communist system envisaged.
Not only did Moscow give Poles more leeway in this period, but détente also led to opening up of imports from the west, both legally and on the black market. Moreover, Poles in this era travelled the world- it was standing joke in my family when our Polish relatives came to visit that they pleaded poverty but had visited more countries than we could afford.
In Soccernomics Simon Kuper and I have argued that the fundamental conditions for a strong national football team is a large population, a wealthy economy and experience. A larger population gives you more chances to unearth an exceptional talent, wealth gives you the opportunity to develop it and experience makes you more astute deploying that talent on the pitch. And then there are networks.
The closer you are to the most successful nations, the more likely it is that some of the things that make them successful will rub off on you. By all these measures Poland was doing relatively well in the 1960s and 70s. The economy was growing as was trade and interaction with western Europe. Then came martial and the crackdown. The economy collapsed and Poles were once again cut off, excluded from the successful European football networks: West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
The Polish football winter has been a long one. The national team did not even qualify for its first European Championship until 2008. Before this year it has only qualified twice for the World Cup finals. Co-hosting the 2012 European Championship proved a big disappointment, failing to qualify from the group phase and even to win a game despite home advantage. In 2012/13 Poland’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup involved only three wins in 10 games , coming fourth behind England, Ukraine and Montenegro.
Since then the team has progressed. In qualifying for Euro 2016 the team came close to beating World Champions Germany for top spot and beat them 2-0 at home. Then at the finals themselves Poland, drawn in a group with Germany again, tied on points at the top of the table and went on to reach the quarter-finals and lose on penalties to the eventual winners Portugal.
What has changed? The most obvious answer is a world class striker in the form of Robert Lewandowski. First at Dortmund and then at Bayern Munich he has set the Bundesliga alight and was the league’s player of the year in 2016/17. His tally of 55 goals from 95 games for the national team also marks him out as world class. But Poland also has a new generation of stars including players such as Szczesny and Piszczek. This is a strong team and the unexpected defeat at the hands of Senegal should not distract fans from the clear improvement of recent years which has taken the team to eighth in the FIFA World Rankings above England, the Netherlands and Italy.
What has also changed is the economic character of Poland. Since 1991 the economy has integrated rapidly into the western European system, accelerated by access to the EU and accompanied by significant financial support. As the border controls came down many Poles migrated but remittances and eventual return has helped contribute to growth. The main driver of growth has been proximity to the economic engine of Germany whose businesses have been eager to outsource to Poland’s supply of low cost labour. Even the financial crisis of 2008 did not dent progress, and GDP per capita has risen from 30% of the German average in 1990 to 60% by 2016.
The hosting of Euro 2012 has also played a role. Although there is serious debate to be had about the overall economic benefits of hosting major sports championships, it clearly benefitted the struggling national league. In the five years before the Euros annual attendance at Ekstraklasa games average 1.7 million, in the following five years it averaged 2.5 million, an increase of about 50%. Some might think this odd since so many of the top players have moved overseas (only four of the 23 man squad at this World Cup play in Poland). But just as Polish workers migrating has not harmed the domestic economy, not least because of what these people give back, so it is with migrant footballers.
Poland still retains one distinct difference from its western neighbours. Teams such as Germany, France and England have benefitted significantly from the diversity introduced by migrant communities (including Poles). Poland’s team is noticeably monochromatic and monocultural. The government’s resistance to migration and increasingly alienation from the values of western Europe threatens the economic base and access to the European network. Poland has moved quickly to become part of the western European network, but the way to make further is through more openness not less. Isolation is never the answer, in either economics or football.
Stefan Szymanski is Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan and joint author with Simon Kuper of Futbonomia. His father was a Polish soldier who stayed in Britain after the Second World War. He was for 20 years a visiting professor at Warsaw University of Technology Business School.