We’ve just had yet another international break, one where Italy defeated Poland on Sunday night and having seen the game this was honestly a poor Polish performance. It’s been a while since Poland have had a top national side, but there was a time when they had one of the strongest teams in international football.
This was a Polish team that only four months previously had shocked the England team, along with the English supporters and commentators, by qualifying for the World Cup finals at their expense. They had beaten England 2-0 in Poland when the sides met in their first clash of the qualifying group, but when Poland travelled to Wembley Stadium in October 1973, needing a draw to qualify, the English didn’t believe they would have any problems this time around.
In the end, a 1-1 draw, thanks mainly to the heroics of their goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, shocked the football world, and meant that it would be Poland and not England that would head to Germany. Poland had not appeared at a World Cup Finals since 1938, while England had won the competition when they hosted the tournament in 1966. This may be one of the reasons why they hadn’t been taken too seriously by the English. They had won the Olympic gold medal in 1972, but as this was an amateur competition and Great Britain hadn’t competed at the Olympic finals, they probably didn’t take too much interest in that particular Polish achievement.
The truth is, that while technically Polish football was still amateur, most clubs at this time were sponsored by various government entities such as the military and the mining industry. This meant that in reality players were more or less full-time professionals, but still allowed to compete in the Olympics as amateurs, which was the same for most countries under the Soviet communist regime at the time. If you look at that 1972 Olympics, it’s no coincidence that the top four teams along with Poland were the Soviet Union, Hungary and East Germany.
Another reason for Polish football not having much exposure abroad was the fact that Polish footballers were not allowed to leave the country to play abroad until the age of 30, which meant that their world class players were relatively unknown outside of the Polish borders. In 1974 however, that would all change.
On January 6th 1974 the draw for the World cup took place, and would see Poland placed in the same group as Italy, Argentina and Haiti. Italy had reached the final of the previous World Cup and were expecting to not only progress from the group but probably also to win it.
When the draw took place, Polish league football was on its long winter break, and with the clubs not returning to play until March, the Polish football authorities decided to take the opportunity to get some valuable training time for the national side. This included a number of unofficial warm-up games, and between February 20th and 28th they would take part in 4 such matches. In Germany they would face Schalke 04, they would also take on the Yugoslavian Olympic team and an Algerian Military selection. The other game, on February 24th, would take place at the Stadio Comunale Florence, where Poland would line out against the home club, Fiorentina.
One unusual thing about the Fiorentina side that Poland would face, is that it included two Juventus players that the club had borrowed for the occasion, Giuliano Musiello and the aptly named Fernando Viola. Fiorentina had four of their regular players unavailable, Moreno Roggi, Giancarlo Antognoni, Claudio Merlo and Walter Speggiorin, who were all on duty with the Italian Under 23 side. The Viola team had lost the previous weeks game away to Foggia, but they were in 4th place in the table, just 2 points off second place Napoli.
Poland meanwhile would be without their heroic goalkeeper Tomaszewski through injury, and while the Italian press would report that this was a much weakened side that lined up in Florence, in reality they still had seven players from the side who drew with England. This trip was seen as a chance for Poland to try alternative solutions for some of their other injury worries. Their major concern was striker Włodzimierz Lubański, who didn’t make it to Florence and in the end he wouldn’t recover in time for the World Cup.
He had sustained a serious injury in that win over England the previous year, a game in which he had scored the second goal. Lubański was at the time one of the top strikers in Polish football and would be a major loss to the squad for the upcoming World Cup. He had scored on his debut with the national side at just aged 16 and had been top scorer in the Polish league for four seasons in a row. If you take a look even now at the highest ever goal scorers in the history of Polish league football, Lubański is still there at number five. He also scored against the famous Manchester United European Cup winning team of 1968 in their only loss on their way to the trophy
The match against Fiorentina almost never took place, due to the Polish managements anger at how their pre-match preparations were hampered in Florence. On the Saturday, the day before the game, the Polish squad made their way to the Stadio Comunale, expecting to have a training session on the pitch. They were refused however, with stadium officials turning them away stating that as the Italian national team were due to have their training there that afternoon, they didn’t want the pitch getting damaged.
Eventually the Polish squad moved on to Coverciano, still not happy about having to train under the eyes of the Italian team and management. Added to that, they were without footballs to train with and needed to wait until Fiorentina staff supplied them with those. The Polish management team threatened to pull out of the game, but eventually tempers were calmed and things went back to normal.
The Polish team then went back to the Stadio Comunale later that afternoon to watch the Italian side in a training match against the Arezzo youth team (5-0). The Polish manager Kazimierz Górski speaking to the press afterwards said that there wasn’t really much to gain from watching this practice match and he would be remaining in Italy after the Polish squad departed so he could watch the Italian side in a proper game, when they took on West Germany on Wednesday in Rome.
On the day of the Fiorentina v Poland game, Sunday afternoon, the Italian squad and management would be there in the stands to have a look at their World Cup opponents. There were also observers here from both Argentina and Haiti. They would have the chance to see seven players that would line up against Italy in June in West Germany, including two of the stars of Polish football, Grzegorz Lato and Kazimierz Deyna. Deyna is seen by many as the greatest ever Polish footballer. Unfortunately, not being allowed to leave Poland until he reached 30 meant that many beyond Poland wouldn’t get to see him at his best, apart from at the World Cup. He did eventually leave Poland in 1978, moving to Manchester City, and later he went to the US where he joined the San Diego Sockers. He even appeared in the movie Escape to Victory alongside Pelé and Sylvester Stallone.
Grzegorz Lato was another player who would go on to star in the World Cup, he had helped his club Stal Mielec win the Polish league the previous season. He had also been a member of the Polish Olympic winning team, and in 100 games for his country he would score 45 goals.
This four-match trip for Poland was a chance for the squad to get together for an extended period, train together and for some players the chance to prove they should be part of the final World Cup squad. With injury doubts and some players not on top form, it was also a chance for the manager to try out different options. Only one player that lined out here in Florence would not make that final cut, Romauld Chojnacki the unlucky man. Of the other 10 in this starting line up only the goalkeeper Kalinowski would not make an appearance in Germany given the return of Tomaszewski.
Poland would win the other 3 of their friendly matches on this trip, but here in Florence, it was Fiorentina who came out on top. All thanks to a penalty scored by a player who was not on great terms at the time with the club and the fans. Giancarlo De Sisti was rumoured to be on his way to Juventus at the end of the season, and while he would leave the club, it would be to rejoin his former team, Roma. After a first half where Poland offered little, and Deyna seemed more concerned with not getting injured by his marker Bruno Beatrice, ten minutes after the break brought the only goal of the game.
A corner kick saw the Polish goalkeeper Kalinowski come out to claim the ball but instead found himself well out of position for Domenico Caso’s shot on goal. The defender Adam Musiał decided to take his place, but his obvious handball was spotted by the referee who had no option but to award the penalty.
The Italian manager Ferruccio Valcareggi (a former Fiorentina player and manager) and his squad may have been left feeling quite underwhelmed by the Polish performance. I’m sure they didn’t imagine that this would be the same sort of display they would be up against when they faced them four months later in Stuttgart for the final game in their World Cup group.
By the time the sides did meet for that game, Poland had already shown their class by defeating Argentina and with a 7-0 win over Haiti. Italy meanwhile could only draw with the Argentinians, and while Poland had already guaranteed their place in the next round, Italy knew their own position in the tournament was at risk. With Deyna scoring the second goal, a 2-1 win for Poland gave them top spot in the group and sent Italy to a shock early exit.
Poland would go on to finish 3rd in this World Cup, only going out to the hosts and eventual winners West Germany, in a game that most Polish people still believe should not have gone ahead. Severe rain before the match had turned the pitch into something that resembled a water sports arena. They also defeated the World Cup holders Brazil in that play-off for third place.
This Polish team is still rightly regarded as one of, if not the finest Polish teams ever. Along their way to getting there, playing and losing against Fiorentina was all part of that important preparation.
After finishing this story I heard the sad news that Adam Musiał, the man who's handball caused the penalty in this game, has died here in Kraków where I live. R.I.P