Before 2002 Poland had qualified for 0 European Championships and 5 World Cups (all 4 in a row 1974-1986 and 1938). Out of these 5 World Cups, they finished third in the tournament twice (1974 and 1982). In both cases being knocked out by the eventual winners.
In 2002 Poland qualified for the World Cup, in 2008 for their first European Championship, they co-hosted Euro 2012 with Ukraine, but Poland never got out of their initial group in this millennium. Well, at least not until Euro 2016, where they where they were knocked out in the quarterfinals. They managed meagre combined goalscore of 4-2 over 5 matches.
As you may have noticed in the other articles in this series, then in the past we talked about clear difference in the way countries play football. These cultures have in time become stereotypes as national team players for second line European national teams (such as Serbia, Sweden, and also Poland) usually play all over Europe. However, Polish football is shaped by their national identity. The existence of Poland has come and gone in history. Poland only exists, when the Polish people fight for it.
Therefore fight, pride, teamwork are important aspects of the Polish games. Yesterday Zlatan’s influence on Sweden was mentioned. Poland have their Zlatan in Robert Lewandowski. Maybe the best Polish football player in history, and an absolute goal machine in Germany for Bayern Munich. Lewandowski is the captain, and the team is built around getting the most out of his talent in attack. Maybe too singularly focused around him.
And attack is going to be the focus of Poland. During the qualification they only managed two clean sheets. One less than in the group stage in 2016. Letting in goals against all the different countries in their group, even if they did qualify as the clear group winner. In the first round of the qualification Kazakhstan (who finished last) got one of their 3 points from 3 draws playing 2-2 at home to Poland. And they lost 4-0 in Copenhagen against Denmark, but won all the other 8 group games. Poland let in more goals than each of all the 3 next team in their group.
So 3 goals per game minimum sounds like a good bet in Poland’s games.
Where do the Poles play?
4 players in the Polish World Cup squad play in Polish football. For the size of the country the Polish league is light-years behind Spain, which has a comparable population. Polish football has had problems with corruption and extremely violent hooligans, which holds back the potential of the country to reach the top of Europe. But things might be improving, but the main problem for Polish football might well be themselves.
Poles used to play primarily in German football, with the Bundesliga heavily influencing the Polish national team. However, today, out of the current 23: 7 play in Italy, 5 in England/Wales, 1 in France, 1 in Belgium, 1 in Bulgaria, 1 in Russia, and only 3 in Germany.
The best of the Polish team play in top European clubs, but they do not have a lot of depth on the bench.
Political influence and national narrative
Poland is not yet lost. Poland has been carved up by Russian, Germany, and Austria multiple times in history. Wars of survival characterise the Polish historical narrative. There is little love for Germany, and even less for Russia. Before their Euro 2012 group game against Germany, the Polish coaching staff controversially showed Second World War documentaries to the players to motivated them for their game.
Poland has a long and complex history of suffering and feeling betrayed by Western allies. A history only recently being retold in the West after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Understanding the Polish narrative has also forced many Europeans to rethink their own historical narrative. After the Second World War there was no Polish historians to correct the French, English, and German narratives, which came to dominate European history.
Poland weighed down by, but also vigilant of their history, tend in period to focus overly defensive in their football. Polish narrative is that existence is victory. Survival before triumph. Glorious last stands instead surprising offensive victory. The Polish narrative has to change before they can assume their rightful place at the top of the European game. Poland is in football terms more a Scandinavian country than a nation over nearly 40 million. If Poland can change and grow internally they are the country in Europe with the most promise. But they have to change and want to change.
Group and expectations
Group H also features Senegal and Colombia, which each have the absolute strength in attack. This group could likely be the one with the most goals scored during the 2018 World Cup. And Poland start against those two.
First is Senegal. Sane and especially Koulibaly seem to be their defensive stars, who will have to help backs and a goalkeeper of a significantly lower quality. And there will be no rest for the two central defender, because there are no good alternatives. If they can keep Lewandowski out of the game, the Poland is facing an uphill battle. Why? Because in the other of the pitch they face the pace of Mané and Keita Baldé. If Poland push many players forward to aid and closed down Lewandowski, then they will be destroyed on the counter. This is a completely open game between two teams that have their strength in attack. You might as well roll a die as to predict the game.
Next is Colombia. 21 goals for 19 against in 18 qualification matches. But this is a team with international star such as Bacca, Muriel, Falcao, Cuadrado, and especially James Rodriguez in the attacking positions. If Poland (or Senegal for that matter) want to play attacking football against Colombia, then Colombia has a lot of attacking options, and then the average of 1-1 per game in qualification might be close to 3-3… Colombia also has a couple of good defenders, but there is no depth, and their midfield is their weakest line. Again Poland face a completely open game.
Finally we have Japan. Easily forgotten for having little to no international starts in European football. Just as previously mentioned with Korea and Iran, then expect a national team that is ready to near die for their country, when they defend. But also expect a team that does well against other Asian teams, but still only finished a single point ahead of Saudi Arabia in qualification. Saudi Arabia that got destroy in the opening game by the Russian hosts.
Nobody knows much about Japan, nobody expect anything from them, and likely the three others will fight over who goes through from the group. But this also offers Japan the perfect platform for a surprise. The others might become over confident and forget just how hard the Japanese are will the work and fight for a point. But within all reason, then there is a 60-65% chance for each of Poland, Senegal and Colombia going through, and then 5-20% for Japan.
If Poland does make it through from the group, then the round of 16 should be the end for them. Belgium and England are clear favourites to go through from Group G. However, who finishes first and second is just as hard to tell as in Poland’s group. But both Belgium and England are a level above any of the teams in group H, so it is unlikely that any team from H reaches the quarterfinals.