Roughly 40 years ago, Poland were among the world's elite, becoming Olympic gold medallists in 1972 and finishing third at the FIFA World Cup™ in both 1974 and 1982.
Now the Biało-Czerwoni (The White and Reds) are well on their way back to the top – and who better to assess their progress than Zbigniew Boniek, one of the key players in that legendary Polish side during the 1970s and 1980s and now president of the country’s national football association (PZPN).
"We’ve achieved a great deal over the past few years and will continue along this path," the 60-year-old explained upon his re-election in October 2016. "We’ll also turn our attention to youth and amateur football in the future and try to lift our women’s national team to the same level as the men’s, who have been doing magnificently."
Poland’s journey back to the pinnacle of world football is evident from February’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where the team reached 14th – their best placing since the list was introduced. The country has occupied an average of 40th place, even tumbling to an all-time low of 78th in 2013.
It is no coincidence that 2013 was also the year that current national team coach Adam Nawalka took the helm. The man who became a Polish Ekstraklasa winner as a player in 1978 and featured at the World Cup in Argentina the same year instilled a new mentality within the squad. While a more serious, earnest approach and painstaking planning are his trademarks, it was nonetheless slightly surprising to see Nawalka leading Poland back to the upper echelons of European football, given that he had yet to enjoy much success as a club coach when he was appointed to his current role.
He has achieved the improbable by building a team around his indisputably world-class striker Robert Lewandowski. In goal, he can count on the services of two players – Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny – who have already proven themselves as a formidable last line of defence. By placing Kamil Glik at the heart of the back line, Nawalka has also managed to create a tough defence from which Poland can quickly switch play via fleet-footed wingers Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Blaszczykowski.
Up front, the discovery of 22-year-old striker Arkadiusz Milik – a player who knows how to use the space created by the opposing defence’s tendency to focus their energies on Lewandowski – has proven to be a fundamental factor in the team’s success. Grzegorz Krychowiak continues to lead Poland’s midfield, despite currently going through difficult times at Paris Saint-Germain after winning the UEFA Europa League with Sevilla two years running.
"We’re a totally different team with a new coach and a new way of playing – we’re a new generation," confirmed Milik, who played a crucial role in the emergence of this new-look side. In October 2014, Poland faced newly crowned world champions Germany at Warsaw’s National Stadium – a team they had never beaten before. Milik opened the scoring as the White and Reds went on to triumph 2-0. "That’s the best Poland team I’ve ever played in," Lewandowski later said.
While their success continued, it no longer seemed surprising. Nawalka’s charges completed their UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying campaign behind Germany but ahead of Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar to seal their place in France. Their 0-0 draw with Joachim Low’s side in the group stages of the tournament showed they weren't easy to brush aside, as eventual European champions Portugal later discovered. Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates eventually prevailed on penalties in the quarter-finals – the first time Poland had reached this stage at a European Championship. Who knows what might have been possible for the Eastern Europeans with a little more luck?
The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying campaign shows that Nawalka’s men have not lost their edge. Currently unbeaten, they lead Group E ahead of Montenegro, Denmark, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan and already have the finals in their sights, even if there is still some way to go.
If Poland claim their ticket to Russia, they could be considered one of the tournament’s dark horses – just as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s.