Franciszek Smuda has assembled a young, hungry, talented squad capable of repeating the successes of the golden era from the 70s and early 80sBy Ryan Hubbard | Poland Expert
While it was undoubtedly Jan "The Clown" Tomaszewski's goalkeeping heroics that kept the England strikeforce at bay in North London in 1973, Poland's qualification for the 1974 World Cup was by no means an individual effort. The White Eagles were benefiting from a wealth of talent ahead of the World Cup, with players including Wlodzimierz Lubanski, Grzegorz Lato and Kazimierz Deyna (who still sit first, second and third respectively in the nation's all-time goalscoring chart) all members of the Olympic gold medal winning side from Munich two years earlier.
The 1974 World Cup may be remembered for West Germany's efficiency in defeating the Dutch brand of Total Football, Poland's bronze-medal finish - after defeating defending champions Brazil 1-0 - will always be seen as "what might have been". Had their second-round decider against the hosts not been played on a waterlogged pitch, or if their star striker Lubanski hadn't been injured during qualifying and missed the tournament, there is a real possibility that the Poles could have lifted the trophy.
Kazimierz Gorski's Eagles never went on to reach the heights that they did in '74; a 1976 Olympic silver in Montreal was followed by a World Cup second-round exit in Argentina two years later. But by the time Spain '82 rolled around, new coach Antoni Piechniczek had assembled a side almost as strong as the one that graced the pitches of West Germany eight years earlier.
Spearheaded by the country's star Zbigniew Boniek, Poland qualified for the tournament with a 100 per cent record, smashing 12 past East Germany and Malta in their four games. After stalemates against Italy and Cameroon in the group stage, five second-half goals saw them ease past Peru and into the second round for the third successive tournament. Widzew Lodz striker Boniek netted a hat-trick against Belgium, which proved to be decisive as Poland edged past the Soviet Union into the semi-finals on goal-difference.
However they weren't to better the 1974 side, as two goals from tournament top scorer Paolo Rossi was enough to see the Azzurri through to the final in Madrid. Again having to settle for the third-place play-off, Poland picked up a second bronze medal with a 3-2 victory over France in Alicante.
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The 1986 World Cup was less than memorable for the Biale-Orly, as they made their way home from Mexico in the round of 16 with just a single Wlodzimierz Smolarek goal to their name. By the time Italia '90 reared its head, the country was going through dramatic changes.
September 1989 had seen the collapse of Communism in Poland, and with it, many lost their jobs. As the unemployment figures climbed, the country's most successful clubs began to see attendances and income reduce, and Polish football began a period of decline.
Failing to qualify for three consecutive World Cups during the 90s, and bowing out early in both the 2002 and 2006 finals, the nation slowly fell down the Fifa World Ranking. A disappointing showing at the 2008 European Championship - Poland's first appearance at the competition - followed; and while the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign had its moments, it again ultimately ended in failure.
After missing out on the plane to South Africa, Franciszek Smuda was brought in to replace Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker; and with Euro 2012 in his sights, he set about moulding a team which would be capable of causing a splash on the world stage. Benefiting from a new up-and-coming "Golden Generation", Smuda's likely starting XI contains just a small core of players selected by his predecessor. While Murawski, Dudka and Wasilewski were given important roles in pre-Smuda teams, most of the current crop were all either in the beginning of their international careers, or too young to even think about international football.
|"Borussia Dortmund trio Lewandowski, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek have all established themselves as the key players in the national set-up over the last three years"
However with Smuda clearing out what he considered to be dead wood, he has made space in the squad to give players such as Wojciech Szczesny and Maciej Rybus a chance; and with their excellent form in recent showings, they now look to be integral parts of the national side. The Borussia Dortmund trio of Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek had all made their debut prior to Smuda's appointment, but have all established themselves as the key players in the national set-up over the last three years.
Not to the liking of many Poles, the coach has also given chances to foreign-born players who can trace roots back to the country. The French-born pairing of Ludovic Obraniak and Damien Perquis have settled well into Smuda's squad, and are repaying the faith that the trainer has shown in them; whilst the German-raised Sebastian Boenisch and Eugen Polanski are also key members of the side.
With the added investments into the country's football programme, modern stadiums are beginning to sprout from the ashes of their clubs' dilapidated former homes. Additional security and safety precautions are also in place, and it is hoped that Poland will begin to see a growth in attendances similar to that in England during the early 1990s. It is also hoped that clubs can benefit from new training facilities and academy set-ups, as Poland begins to look for their next big stars.
Many see 2012 as the perfect opportunity for Poland, not only to cement their place back on the footballing map of Europe, but also to create a legacy which will bring more attention to the Polish game in general. With the likes of Lato, Lubanski, Deyna and Boniek long gone, it is up to the new generation of Lewandowski, Blaszczykowski, Piszczek and Szczesny to put on a good showing during Euro 2012 and help to bring the glory days back to Polish football. With arguably one of the most promising Polish sides in history, don't bet against it.