Polska in Brandenburg: Poland’s 1974 World Cup romance

poland 1974

At the Qatar World Cup 2022, the story of the tournament so far has been the void of goals. After the USA held England to another goalless draw on Friday night, a fifth of the winter, this year’s international competition is encroaching ever closer to the record of seven 0-0 draws at a World Cup.

Fair enough, the tally of seven has happened in four editions, but this year, more than ever, it feels as though the quality of striking options in football is limited. While Kylian Mbappe is arguably the cream of the crop, and Lionel Messi remains integral to the goal-grabbing aristocracy, these talismen are shifted to the flanks, where their numbers are just a facet of an all-round performance envisioned of them.

When it comes to out-and-out forwards, the modern game is crying out for them – or they’re ‘getting on’ at least, as we’d say in the UK. But that’s not for the ones that are trying. Olivier Giroud is a template for a brilliant striker, and so is Robert Lewandowski. But when talking about the Polish centre-forward, we, as football fans, are naturally drawn to his inability to perform on the world stage.

Pinching the ball from between the feet of a Saudi Arabian defender, turning on the turbos to sprint towards the goal, before neatly tucking away the second of the game with a technique any finisher would love to have in his artillery – from the perspective of a casual football spectator, the 34-year-old had sunk just another international goal among many.

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Instead, it was a special moment for the attacker in his twilight days, who had just experienced his first taste of a goal at a World Cup. By no means was this a ‘did you know’ situation whereby it exposed Lewandowski of the chink in his armour, but more a testament to his national team’s unavailing success in recent decades.

Before qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and notching just one victory from three in the 2018 Russia World Cup, crashing out in the group stage, Poland had not made it to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, showing their frailties as a football nation.

This was not always the case, however, as at the 1974 World Cup, held in West Germany, Polska propelled themselves to a historical third-placed finish. It is a tale not regularly told nowadays, but one that should be held high in regard to World Cup romances.

Polska’s preeminent prelude

The resurgence of Poland began in 1970 after the appointment of Kazimierz Górski as their head coach. Despite his birthplace falling in Lviv Ukraine, he switched allegiances to Poland after plying his trade for several Polish clubs like Legia Warsaw. His successful playing career was buffered by the second World War, leading to just one international cap for the red and whites.

Refusing to be crestfallen by his international inexperience as a player, he would soon become the leading light in his nation’s greatest period at a managerial level. He started as the coach of the Polish national junior team from 1956 to 1966, then the Polish U-23 national team from 1966 to 1970, and finally the first Poland national football team from 1970 to 1976.

The fruits of his labour for his nation first appeared at the 1972 summer Olympics, funnily enough held in West Germany, just like their future World Cup endeavours. Poland played some compelling football along the road, scoring 19 goals across six games before beating Hungary 2-1 in the final in front of 80,000 people.

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Even after their olympian triumph, nobody expected Polska to qualify for the upcoming World Cup, and some parallels can be drawn between the 1972-74 Poland team and the 1950s Magical Magyars of Hungary.

Their qualifying group consisted of Wales and England and after Polska were comfortably beaten 2-0 in Cardiff in March 1973, there seemed little chance that the red and whites would emerge from the three-team group.

A victory against England, however, changed the dynamic. While Sir Alf Ramsay was under pressure, the Poles needed just a draw to get through, and they did just that. England were out, and finally, Polska were thought of as a great side.

Group stage

Though they had qualified, Górski’s Polish party’s sternest test would come in the knockout group that potted, with Argentina, Italy, and Haiti joining them. Two nations with World Cup pedigree would surely be too strong for the Poles – at least that’s what everyone assumed.

What the rest of the tournament didn’t know was that Polska had a few tricks up their sleeve. After all, it was goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski who was largely responsible for England’s downfall in qualifying, and he was pivotal to Poland’s chances. Accompanying him in defence was the giant, goal-scoring centre-back Jerzy Gorgoń, who helped keep the backline sturdy.

Ahead of him was the crown jewel of Poland’s engine room. Kazimierz Deyna was a visionary player from Legia Warsaw that could turn games on their head all by himself. Playing in between the lines to create opportunities for his forwards, Deyna’s 1974 performances would have earned him a move to Europe had Poland’s communist regime allowed him to do so.

In attack, Poland boasted the finishing abilities of Grzegorz Lato, Andrzej Szarmach and Robert Gadocha. The 1974 World Cup shone a light on Lato’s masterful speed and strike of the ball as he became integral to Poland’s third-placed finish. Partnering him in the centre-forward role was Górnik Zabrze, a player who had a very cavalier look about him and possessed pace and sharp striking skills.

They both benefited from the wing play of Gadocha, whose delivery in the box was a common sighting in West Germany.

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Polska began their 1974 campaign with realistic expectations. Before this, they had only ever qualified for one World Cup back in 1938, in which they lost their opening game 5-6, eliminating them at the first time of asking. Meanwhile, the favourites were West Germany and Brazil, while Netherlands, Italy, and Argentina were second in line.

This meant that Polska had a tough task to escape the group of death. But within the first eight minutes of their opening game, they showed limitless signs of doing just that. With the first goal falling at the feet of the fleeting Lato, and the 2-0 cushion coming via a superbly taken first-time shot from Szamarch, Argentina were stunned by the presence of the powerful Polish offence.

Although the football-crazy South American nation pulled one back on the hour mark, Lato capitalised on a poor throw-out by goalkeeper Carnevali, making it 3-1, before Carlos Babington’s scrambled effort provided the closing goal in a 3-2 Polish victory.

Haiti were next on Poland’s hit list, and a 7-0 crushing victory portrayed Polska’s power in the forward line. In the easiest fixture the red and whites would be challenged with, Szamarch and Lato shared five goals. The only team left on the agenda was the mighty Azzuri.

Despite featuring Dino Zoff, Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti, Fabio Capello and Pietro Anastasi, Italy proved to be another plain-sailing victory for Polska. Scoring 12 goals and conceding just once, with a 2-0 victory against the boot-shaped peninsula being the most recent of three straight victories, Poland became the only team to escape their group with a 100% record.

They were now being taken seriously.

The knockouts

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 group. 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.

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The two expected teams, West Germany and Poland, cruised thtrough their opening games, with the Poles beating Sweden 1-0, as well as Yugoslavia 2-1 by way of a Deyna penalty and yet another Lato goal from open play. The host nation, meanwhile, were more convincing, with a 2-0 over Yugoslavia and 4-2 over Sweden.

It set up a tantalising final match day in Group B, with the winner of Poland vs West Germany progressing to the World Cup final (I know, the tournament formatting was a bit unstable to say the least back then).

So near, yet so far

Whilst torrential rain threatened the durability of the pitch and the date of the fixture, the show went ahead. Played to the tune of Poland’s most important sporting fixture up until that point, the rumblings came in the shape of the possibility of the quiet eastern European nation reaching an unlikely World Cup final.

July 3rd was a stormy day in Frankfurt, not only for reasons beyond the weather. As the skies were apocalyptic, the conditions for Poland weren’t much better, with groundstaff removing excess water from the pitch before kickoff, affecting Poland’s capacity to play their brand of football.

Had the match been played in 2022, the game would perhaps never have gone ahead due to, firstly, health and safety, and secondly, the ridiculous turf the ball was expected to manoeuvre on. Thankfully, if there’s anything good that came out of Qatar hosting this edition, it’s that there’s only a slither of chance that any rain at all even brushes the pitch, let alone a storm you’d see in the tropics.

Anyways, Poland had to win, while the Germans would have qualified with a draw due to their superior goal difference. Despite the ball struggling to move further than a few yards at a time, it unfolded with an air of excitement as Sepp Maier and Tomaszewski proved to be key difference-makers at each end of the pitch in between the sticks.

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Whereas the West German shotstopper was at his best to prevent Lato from scoring, a player that went on to win the golden boot after notching seven goals, the latter of the two mentioned goalkeepers stopped Uli Hoeneß from converting a penalty after his weak effort was easily held.

Unfortunately for the underdogs behind the Iron Curtain, their hard work to keep one of the best in the world at bay came undone with 15 minutes left on the clock. 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, as 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 to assert their dominance one last time.

The lasting legacy

Surprisingly, there’s not actually a lot of legacy left from this Polish side. As I’ve harped on about a million times in previous articles, there’s a certain romance between football and nations that were trapped behind the forbidding Iron Curtain. This is mostly because the West was blind to the talent that lay behind the Berlin Wall, except, of course, the supreme artillery that lay within the West German ranks.

But while other stories behind the iron curtain that I’ve covered before, such as Red Star Belgrade’s 1991 immortal triumph, were still relatively well-documented, this Polish side was news to me. It was a story I had only ever heard recently thanks to a VT during this year’s World Cup.

1974 will always be known as Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer’s heyday, and for good reason, too. But we must never throw Poland’s third-placed finish under the radar. They were an expressive team under Górski, who, again, even though we have mentioned him throughout, deserves an article of recognition himself.

Football is a global language, and the best part about writing a weekly feature for Football Bloody Hell is that I’m constantly asked to find a new story to cover. While this is by no means a new story as such, it is one I never knew about until now. Hopefully, through reading this, you have a better idea of Poland’s football history, which is certainly not something that should be underestimated.

Poland haven’t always been short of goals.