It’s Polish Independence Day today, November 11th. While the country celebrates their independence gained in 1918, it’s been a long hard road to true freedom. Poland again found itself carved up at the beginning of the Second World War, and even when the conflict was over, it was still under the close control of the Soviet Union. For over 40 years this impacted upon every aspect of life in Poland, including football.
Immigration was not a freedom available to Polish citizens at the time, and top athletes were no different. For a country blessed with many great footballers, they took third place at the World Cups of 1974 and 1982, unfortunately not many of those players got to enjoy a club career outside of Poland. A player needed to reach 30 years of age before he could request permission to leave, and even then, there were other strict criteria to adhere to. This would see a lot of footballers leaving their home country illegally to play abroad.
These days, Italian football is full of Polish players, but it wasn’t until 1982 when we saw the first arrivals from Poland in Serie A. Italian football had banned their clubs from signing foreign players between 1966 and 1980, and two years later, both Zbigniew Boniek and Władysław Żmuda were granted permission to move to Italy. Boniek went to Juventus and later played for Roma, while Żmuda joined Verona, and after a short spell with New York Cosmos, returned to Italy with Cremonese.
This didn’t exactly open the floodgates, and there were no other signings from Poland during the Eighties. The Nineties didn’t bring much improvement, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain. Udinese brought in Marek Koźmiński, Dariusz Adamczuk and Piotr Czachowski, and that was it for that decade. It’s only been in the last eight years or so that we have seen a steady influx of players from Poland into Italy, and they can now be found in clubs all over Serie A and Serie B.
Poland has always produced excellent goalkeepers, and the first of those to arrive in Italy was when Fiorentina signed Artur Boruc from Celtic in 2010. The Scottish club had been impressed by his performances for Legia Warsaw and having initially brought him in on a loan deal, this was then made permanent. Boruc spent five seasons at the Glasgow club, and became a favourite of the fans, no doubt helped by his attitude during derby games with their rivals Rangers. The keeper landed himself in trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion for his behaviour during those Old Firm clashes. He even returned in 2019 with fans of Legia to watch them take on Rangers in a European game at Ibrox.
His first season in Florence saw him make his debut in the Coppa Italia tie with Empoli in October, and he was expected to be the reserve keeper for the league campaign. A serious injury to Sébastien Frey in early November, however, saw Boruc get his chance. Frey was then sold at the end of the 2010/11 season and Boruc would remain the first choice for the following season. The Polish keeper didn’t exactly arrive at a great moment for Fiorentina, his two seasons coinciding with the Sinisa Mihajlović/Delio Rossi era. He earned high praise for his performance during a 2-2 draw at Cesena in April 2011, especially an injury time reflex save from a close range Erjon Bogdani header.
Even in defeat he was often the only player on the Fiorentina side to earn a respectable vote. In January 2012, fans protested outside the ground after a home defeat to Lecce, with Boruc the only member of the team who looked worthy of wearing the jersey. At the end of that season, his second at the club, Fiorentina decided against renewing his contract, and Boruc left for England where he would join Southampton and later Bournemouth. His international career ended in 2017, when he made the last of his 65 appearances for the Poland national side, but at 41-years-old, Arur Boruc is still playing. He joined his former club Legia Warsaw at the beginning of last season, and although injury has kept him out of the side in recent games, he was between the posts when the Polish club won 1-0 away to Spartak Moscow in September in their Europa League group opener.
After Boruc left at the end of the 2011/12 season, it didn’t take long for another Polish player to arrive in Florence. In the January transfer window of 2012/13, saw the signing from Legia of Rafał Wolski. Due to injury problems, he only made his debut on the final day of the season away to Pescara. Wolski came on for the last half hour, with Fiorentina already 4-0 up, replacing hat-trick hero, Adem Ljajić. The following season, Vincenzo Montella would give the Polish trequartista more opportunities, especially with his attack suffering plenty of injuries. He made 14 appearances that season and looked to be a future star when he scored a superb goal against Atalanta. With Fiorentina 1-0 up and less than five minutes to play, Wolski broke the offside trap and ran from the halfway line into the Atalanta area and managed to dribble past the scrambling Atalanta defenders to fire home. He had come on as a sub in that game, but the goal wasn’t enough to earn him a place in the starting line-up for the next game, remaining on the bench as Inter came away from Florence with a win.
Wolski would start only three of the remaining fifteen league games, his last appearance coming in a 3-4 home defeat to Sassuolo on May 6th. At the beginning of the next season, he was shipped out to Serie B side Bari on loan, which lasted until December and in January 2015 he was again sent on loan, this time to Belgian side KV Mechelen. After just over a year with the Belgian side, his final loan spell saw him return to Poland, joining Wisła Kraków. Between March and April, he scored four goals in five games. The end of that season saw the end of his loan spell and also the end of his time with Fiorentina.
Wolski remained in Poland, signing for Lechia Gdansk. Here he won a Polish Cup in the 2018/19 season, but the following campaign would be his last with the club. Wolski managed one goal in the 2019/20 season in Gdansk, which came against Wisła Płock in early August, by March he would be joining Wisła Płock. His time at Gdansk ended controversially, with the player owed salary and bonus money. When Wolski sent an official request to be paid, the money finally arrived, but a day after the deadline. This allowed him to terminate his contract with the club and to join Wisła Płock on a free transfer. This season Wolski has played in twelve of the club’s fourteen games so far and has three goals to his name. Now 29-years-old, it looks like Rafał Wolski’s future lies in his homeland, one of those Fiorentina signings which just didn’t work out.
During that 2015/16 season, while Wolski was out on loan, another Polish player arrived on loan. Jakub Błaszczykowski was a much bigger name and a much more experienced player when he arrived in Florence. Kuba was marked by an early tragedy in his life, witnessing his father stab his mother to death when he was ten years old. With his mother gone and his father in prison, he was raised by his grandmother. His uncle, Jerzy Brzęczek, himself a Polish international footballer at the time, convinced him to stick with football, and in 2004 he joined Wisła Kraków. He broke into the first team and by 2006 had been called up to the Poland senior team.
With the Polish club he won a league title in his first season there, and in 2007 he was signed by German club, Borussia Dortmund. He played with Dortmund for eight seasons, winning the Bundesliga twice and reaching a Champions League final. With the Poland national side, he became captain in 2010, and is the second most capped player for his country, only Robert Lewandowski has represented his country more than Kuba. His arrival in Florence coincided with that of Paulo Sousa, now the manager of Poland. By October there were already talks about Fiorentina making his loan move a permanent one, having already impressed the club.
His Viola debut came on the third day of the season, a late substitute appearance in a win over Genoa, but two games later he scored the first goal in a 2-0 win over Delio Rossi’s Bologna. Matías Vecino headed on a cross into the box, and Kuba was steaming in at the back post to fire home. He then started the next five games before injury put him out until January. His return came at Palermo, with half an hour left to play and Fiorentina 2-0 up. He replaced Josip Iličić, who had scored both goals. The home side then pulled one back through Alberto Gilardino, before Błaszczykowski made sure of the three points with an injury time goal. Borja Valero chipped a beautiful ball over the heads of the Palermo defenders and Kuba with just Stefano Sorrentino to beat, made no mistake.
After that though, he would only make three league starts for the club. Jakub Błaszczykowski would make a total of fifteen league appearances that season, scoring two goals, and also played in five of our Europa League games. Before the final game of the season at Lazio, Kuba had already said his goodbyes at the club, and left Florence after a season which was unfortunately hampered by injury problems. He did go on to represent Poland that summer at the Euros, scoring twice as he led his country to the quarter-final stage. Having already scored a penalty in the shoot-out win over Switzerland, it was his penalty miss which would see them bow out in another shoot-out to the tournament winners, Portugal.
After another loan spell, this time at Wolfsburg, he returned home to Poland, to save his former club, Wisła Kraków, from disaster. The club was on the brink of financial collapse, after an assortment of Ultras and criminals had infiltrated the club and bled it dry. Kuba not only offered his playing services for free, although for legal reasons he had to accept a minimum wage payment which he donated to charity, but also loaning the club money to get it back on its feet and save it from extinction. His brother is now the chairman of the club and Jakub Błaszczykowski is still a part of the playing squad, although his appearances have been limited, but he will forever be a hero to those who love Wisła Kraków.
As Kuba departed, another Polish goalkeeper was arriving in Florence. Bartłomiej Drągowski was signed from Polish club Jagiellonia Białystok in the summer of 2016. Still only 19-years-old, he had already attracted attention from many big clubs when Fiorentina managed to bring him in. He had made his debut in the Polish Ekstraklasa at 16, and had since gone on to play 69 games for his club. Ciprian Tătărușanu was the first-choice keeper at Fiorentina at the time, and in that first season the Polish keeper also suffered a knee injury. He would only make his debut on the final day of the season in a 2-2 draw with Pescara. The 2017/18 season saw Stefano Pioli take over as manager and also brought the departure of Tătărușanu.
Things didn’t go much better for Bart though, as Marco Sportiello was now the number one choice. The Polish keeper only made three appearances in the league, the last of those came on the final day of the season at the San Siro. He replaced an injured Sportiello at half-time, with Fiorentina 2-1 down, but Milan would go on to win 5-1. The following season saw another keeper come in, as Alban Lafont was now the first choice. After making another three appearances, in January he went on a loan move to Empoli, which saw Pietro Terracciano make the opposite move.
Bart had been on the verge of leaving Fiorentina altogether, disappointed at never having been given a chance to prove himself. Instead, that loan move at Empoli, made Serie A sit up and take notice. By the start of the next season, Rocco Commisso had taken over the club and convinced Drągowski that he had a big part to play in the future of the club. He has certainly proved himself worthy of the keeper’s jersey at Fiorentina, and although he has been out recently through injury, the good news is, that today, on Polish Independence Day, Bartłomiej Drągowski has returned to training with the rest of the squad.
Which brings us to another player who went on loan to Empoli and looks like he may be about to prove himself too. Szymon Żurkowski was bought by Fiorentina in the same transfer window which saw Drągowski head to Empoli. Fiorentina left him on loan with his club, Górnik Zabrze, until the end of the 2018/19 season and he arrived in Florence in the summer of 2019. By January, he was on his way to Empoli, having made just two appearances at Fiorentina. He made his debut in Florence as a late substitute in the scoreless draw with Juventus early in the season, but couldn’t fight his way into Vincenzo Montella’s plans, and the arrival of Beppe Iachini didn’t change things.
He made seven appearances with Empoli in Serie B after his arrival mid-season, scoring once, as the missed out on promotion in the play-offs. Last season went much better, as they topped the table to gain automatic promotion to Serie A, with Żurkowski contributing two goals in his 25 appearances. His loan spell was renewed for this season, a good chance to see how he fares with Empoli in the top-flight. So far, so good, as the Polish midfielder has played in all but one of his team’s league games, scoring in the last two. His first ever goal came as an injury time winner at Sassuolo, and he followed that up last weekend against Genoa. Picking the ball up in space, he struck a beautiful left foot shot from distance. It may take him a bit longer than Drągowski, but he may yet prove himself worthy enough to earn a recall to Fiorentina.
Given the number of Polish players arriving in Italy, I’m sure we’ll see more at Fiorentina in the future. There is plenty of young talent in the Polish league, and if I was to name one for the future, I would choose another goalkeeper from Bart’s old club. Xavier Dziekoński has just turned 18 but is already making a name for himself at Jagiellonia Białystok. One more goalkeeper that has impressed me, is Cezary Miszta. He has been the reserve at Legia behind Boruc, but with the former Fiorentina keeper out injured, he has stepped in admirably in their recent Europa League games. Who knows, we may yet find ourselves with another Polish keeper in the future, but for now, Bart is doing his country proud in Florence.