As the teams were drawn for the qualifying groups for the World Cup in 2014 last night, for Polish fans, it felt inevitable towards the end which of the teams from Pot 1 would be joining them in Group H. England. According to Opta statistics, ‘by autumn 2013, England will have played Poland in 14 World Cup/European Championship qualifiers since June 1989.’ Most recently, the Poles took on England during the campaign for a place at Germany 2006. The English won both of the tightly contested matches 2:1. Pawel Janas’s squad at the time was much stronger then what we can expect from the Polish team this time, though it is too soon to speculate on squads at least until after Euro 2012.
Should the teams meet at Wembley in the fall of 2013, it will mark almost exactly 40 years since one of the most famous matches between the two sides, a deciding World Cup qualifier in 1973. The match would signalize the beginning of the golden era for Polish football, while the English took nearly seven years before their national team recovered from failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.
The build-up and pressure before the match was intense. England had just seven years before won the World Cup and made a trip to the quarter-finals the tournament after that. Non-qualification was not even considered, despite having lost in their trip to Poland 0:2 earlier in qualifying. The always out-spoken Brian Clough, doing punditry at the time, called Poland’s goalie Jan Tomaszewski a ‘clown‘ and would end up as the poster-boy of English over-confidence. The Poles meanwhile had won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics and had an extremely talented squad led by arguably the greatest Polish football manager ever, Kazimierz Gorski. There was a quiet confidence in the Polish camp that ‘Fortress Wembley’ was for the taking. Gorski laid it out simply for his players in his pre-match speech:
‘You can play football for 20 years and play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books.’
Beyond all the pre-match commentary, the stakes were simple, if England win, they qualify, losing or drawing means the Poles will be the ones celebrating a trip to the World Cup the following summer in West Germany.
Immediately from the kick-off, the English were on the attack. The Poles spent most of the time sitting on the back foot throwing back everything coming there way. Time after time England were thwarted by the ‘clown‘ Jan Tomaszweski who was putting on quite possibly one of the most impressive goal-keeping performances in history. Even watching the match on Youtube, there are times you are absolutely convinced the ball is going in before Tomaszewski strings himself out in an amazing acrobatic move and deflects it. The Guardian’sFrank Keating recounted it as such:
“He hurled himself arms, knees and bumps-a-daisy all over his penalty area like a slackly strung marionette. And all with a half-taunting, half-surprised smile which made one think this might be his first-ever game.”
England’s attack sent the ball wide, over, at Tomaszewski, in to Polish defenders, but never in to the net. In the 55th minute, disaster struck for the English team. A mistimed tackle by Norman Hunter let Polish winger Grzegorz Lato escape down the left, he played the ball across to an unmarked Jan Domarski who was streaking down the right, and Domarski put a powerful low shot under England’s goalkeeper Peter Shilton. The scoreboard at Wembley flashed England 0:1 Poland. Eight minutes later there was some hope again as England captain Martin Peters was taken down just inside the Polish penalty box. Peters later admitted he took a dive to win the penalty, stating:
“It was looking desperate, and in such circumstances desperate measures are sometimes required.”
Clarke finished the formality as he sent Tomaszweski the wrong way and England were level on score, but still not qualified for the World Cup. The Poles sank back and continued absorbing the English bombardment. Tomaszewski and poor finishing though kept them from getting the one goal they needed. The full-time whistle went and England’s players stood around in shock as the Poles ran and danced about around them. The states were almost unbeliveable, England had 35 shots compared to Polands’ 2. The Sun newspaper called it, “The end of the World”. People on the terraces at Wembley were reportedly in tears.
The Poles would go on to have a storming tournament in Germany the following year, losing to eventual champion West Germany 0:1 but beating Brazil in the third place match to finish with the bronze. This golden generation would be dubbed the ‘Brazilians of Europe’ for their speed and flair and were one of the biggest forces in European football for the next decade. It is unlikely the English will under-estimate the Poles when they meet again in World Cup qualifying, but hopefully the two sides put in a performance that honors their counterparts from 40 years earlier.