They called it a marvel in Poland.
Michal Pol from Przegląd Sportowy, the oldest sports daily in the country, wrote it off as “a miracle, something that shouldn’t happen according to nature, physics and Murphy’s law.” There was almost an aura of necromancy about it, like an undead warrior had been killed by the modest shield-bearer and nobody was quite sure how.
The date was Oct. 11, 2014, exactly 90 days since Germany had been anointed the best soccer team in the universe. And Poland beat them 2-0 in a Euro 2016 qualifier for the first time in national history. Warsaw burned with joy.
There was an element of disbelief about all of it, from the clasped hands to the sky in the national stadium’s crowd to the befuddled journalists finding words on their keyboards. This was only the second round of qualifying matches in a Group D world champion Germany was expected to maul. Poland’s only match before Germany had been against Gibraltar, and a 7-0 win against the Euro qualifying debutantes did little to assuage the wonderment at Poland’s ascendance against Germany.
This was an anomaly. It had to be. Poland finished dead last in its only two previous appearances at the Euro tournament, and it had not earned its spot at the 2012 edition. It hosted.
But Poland continued winning, continued rolling across the plains of Europe like the great Winged Hussars rolling up the Ottoman army outside Vienna. By the end Poland had beaten every team in the group at least once except Scotland, with which they’d played two highly entertaining 2-2 draws. The latter concluded with a Robert Lewandowski equalizer in the 94th minute to knock the Scots from playoff contention.
In the end Group D looked like this. Poland snugly underneath Germany with one of those goal differentials you bronze and put on the mantle by the front door.
Since that 2-2 draw against Scotland, Poland has won each of its last five matches stretching back to last October. That includes an energetic 4-2 win over a surprisingly good Iceland team, a 3-1 win over a very good crew of Czechs who won their Euro qualifying group, and an average of three goals per game over that run.
The Poles are a rocket-powered jalopy running at breakneck speed over potholes and barbed wire and land mines. And if you don’t have a horse in the Euro 2016 race, they should be your team.
To understand how we got here, you have to understand where we came from. More to the point, how Poland went from Eastern European bore to one of the most fun teams on Earth.
One of the primary reasons why this particular Poland team caught so many by surprise is they slept on Robert Lewandowski’s supporting cast. At the 2012 Euros, the Poles played cynical soccer behind their statuesque striker under then-manager Franciszek Smuda, who resigned immediately following the team’s last-place finish in the group. In a group with Greece, the Poles somehow played the most dour soccer of the lot.
Set up in the 4-2-3-1 that had recently gained its papers as The Thing To Do, Poland tried Ludovic Obraniak under Lewandowski before turning to Rafał Murawski for the final two games against Russia and the Czech Republic. Poland mustered one goal in those 180 minutes and the morass in the middle turned them into a dump-and-chase team scurrying down the flanks mostly behind small moments of magic from Jakub Błaszczykowski. Lewandowski was a bystander. Smuda’s men were all studs.
Poland was not at the 2014 World Cup, which kept newly minted manager Adam Nawałka’s reclamation project under wraps to the wider world. The cover came off three months later when Poland beat Germany. And now they are in the Euros, being held back from a breakthrough by only the thinnest threads.
But all this doesn’t answer the most basic question on offer here: why should you root for Poland?
We are constantly peering through the looking glass for the next big thing in soccer trends, from formations to playing styles to defensive alignment to newfangled statistical approaches. But there is something beautiful in how matter-of-fact Nawałka’s Poland really is. Genetics have always been kind to Polish legs, imbued with some unholy speed from Somewhere. But there is silk about this team where there wasn’t before. To watch Arkadiusz Milik bear down on a defender is something.
They are fun, of course, maybe the most important hallmark. The Poles are so unencumbered by history and expectation and the teeth of those crushing weights that it comes out in their soccer. They are direct without being obtuse and build through the middle without being ponderous. In this way they’ve become the anti-Brazil, which has allowed them to almost fashion a modern Polish soccer identity from the loam.
And then there is the disparity in how good this team has become versus how unheralded they have been in international press. Behind Lewandowski, maybe Błaszczykowski and perhaps keeper Wojciech Szczęsny, none of these players are international superstars. That’s maybe about to change for defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, who just won his second straight Europa League title with Sevilla. Word is, Barcelona is looking.
Milik too has been gaining steam at Ajax, where he’s probably building to a move somewhere bigger. But that’s more or less the story of Poland in 2016. In the middle of a transition from cobblestone to asphalt.
An incredible nine players on Poland’s Euro 2016 roster still play in the Polish league, shielded from everyone outside that corner of the world in a relative sense to grow into themselves. Then there are the generally underrated pieces like towering center back Kamil Glik (Torino), raiding fullback Łukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund), and super-blur winger Kamil Grosicki (Rennes), who would do his winged ancestors proud.
Poland has no history here, few household names and loads of style. You should root for them at the Euros this summer. They are fun and young and talented and fast and unheralded. Whatever happens, I can promise you’ll enjoy yourself.