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9 July, 2014

And Then There Was a Team

To Eastern and Central Europeans, football and sports at large was a substitute for political liberty, a token of symbolic participation in European historical narrative and culture

Sitting in downtown Wrocław and raising a glass of wine, my friend, cultural attaché of Lithuania in Poland, and I both found ourselves absorbed by an exciting chat about Polish football. All of a sudden, a sharp historical association crossed my mind. Exactly forty years ago, in 1974, the then seemingly unbeatable Brazil was defeated twice – first by Holland and then by Poland. 1974 was not the time of Brazil. It signified the arrival of a different epoch.

In 1974, I was 12. I deeply fell in love with Dutch football almost at the same time as I developed my life-long infatuation with the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink, Arie Haan, Johnny Rep, Wim van Hanegem, Rinus Israël, Ruud Geels have all joined the gallery of my saints and heroes along with Frans Hals, Jan Vermeer, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch, Meindert Hobbema, and Rembrandt. From the very first sight, I began admiring Dutch football for what it was – a combination of incredible speed, both bodily and mental, intelligence, beauty, elegance, and a unifying style, the so-called total football where the rigid division of labor disappeared and where strikers and stoppers were able to change their roles switching to one another’s domain.

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The sensational defeat Holland inflicted on Brazil with 2–0 made me think that there was no other team that would make me as exalted as I was watching the Magnificent Orange. I was wrong. There was a team almost as brilliant as Holland. It was Poland. They both defeated Brazil rising to the very top of the football world and establishing themselves as the major powers. It was my father with whom I was then watching those historic matches, and in whose presence my naïve conviction that Brazil, no matter whether with or without Pele, would be invincible was crushed. I was simply unable to come to terms with thought that the team of Roberto Rivellino and Jairzinho, two heirs to the 1970 world cup winning team, would be humiliated by two European teams.

Poland was a sensational team. I will never forget the legends of the Kazimierz Górski team, such as Grzegorz Lato, Andrzej Szarmach, Robert Gadocha, Kazimierz Deyna, Jan Domarski, Jan Tomaszewski. On their way to the third place in the cup which secured them bronze medals, Poland defeated Sweden, Italy, Argentina, and Haiti. They seriously challenged West Germany, the 1974 World Cup winner-to-be, in a difficult semi-final which Poland lost 0–1 after Gerd Müller scored the winning goal. Jan Tomaszewski saved the penalty kick, and Robert Gadocha was close to scoring the goal for Poland. (The man grew up in Wrocław where his parents were expelled from Vilnius after World War II.)

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The rest is history. Poland defeated Brazil 1–0, and Holland lost the final to West Germany with 1–2. The feeling of cosmic injustice for Holland, the team that was secretly admired even by its rivals, coupled with fantasies as to what would have happened had Poland won the game over West Germany. Would it have been gold for the powerful Holland, and silver for the daring Poland? Bronze for the reasonable and disciplined West Germany? Who knows…

Immediately after the 1974 World Cup, the paths of these two magnificent teams crossed. Poland and Holland were bound to compete in the same group of the European Football Cup where they tried to qualify for the final phase of the championship. When they played in the first leg of their games, the Polish team playing at home gave quite an unforgettable performance crushing Dutch Masters 4–1. Then Holland retaliated 3–0, yet the feeling was that no sound person with an expert opinion in football would have assumed responsibility to say who would win in their games. They were equally good.  

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The miracle did not last long, alas. The gold medal winners of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the bronze medal winners of the 1974 World Cup, and silver medal winners of the 1976 Montreal Olympics retreated and made a glorious comeback only in 1982 when the magnificent Zbigniew Boniek, who played with Michel Platini in Juventus at that time, led Poland back to the bronze in the 1982 World Cup. Holland came quite close to the dream to win the gold in the 1978 World Cup when Rob Rensenbrink hit the post the last minute of the final game with Argentina when the score was still 1–1. As we all know, it was the silver again… Then Holland had to retreat until 1988 when the generation of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard led by the same coach of genius, Rinus Michels, the head of Ajax and of the 1974 Holland team, won the 1988 European Cup – by the token of good fortune and fate, that was in Germany.


Football is far from being an isolated phenomenon of modern society and politics. The same applies to other sports. The paradox is, however, that whereas Eastern and Central Europe is always permeated with political aspects of sports (its isolation from Western Europe for five decades is the sole reason for that), sports and football in particular in Western Europe have always been far more related to social criticism, solidarity manifestations, and social sensibilities in general than on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In most cases, football in Eastern Europe used to serve the official propaganda causes. I will never forget how astonished I was to reveal that before the second leg of the 1975 final of the Super Cup of Europe between Dynamo Kyiv and Bayern Munich, Ukrainian war veterans kept asking Dynamo not to let them down playing against a German team. I learned this from the interview with Vladimir Veremeyev, a virtuoso master of the corner kick, an incarnation of the legendary coach and manager Valery Lobanovsky who was a virtuoso of the corner kick himself. And the genius of that team won the game.                                      

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The sense of pride of a small Dutch, English, or French town over its talented footballers, Flemish or Walloon cultural sensitivities, German regions as indicative of some traditions, social divisions in Scotland and in the UK in general over football clubs of that same city, and the like, are something that is difficult to find in our part of Europe. We would unavoidably see in a good team a token of national solidarity of the country, a consolidating and unifying power, a battle cry, or a liberating symbol – no matter whether it was the victories of the former Czechoslovakia over the USSR in ice hockey, or the triumph of the Lithuanian basketball team Žalgiris with its epic victories over CSKA.

For us, football (and sports at large) became a substitute for political liberty, a token of our symbolic participation in European historical narrative and culture. It provided us with a frame of reference when dealing with our identities, cravings, dreams, stories, and unfulfilled ambitions. As a form of symbolic compensation for the major political iniquities and injustice inflicted on our countries, football was and continues to be a symbolic design within which we play our imagined European political games. Last but not the least, the sports allowed us to settle accounts with the past. And humor played quite an important role in this process.  

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I cannot help recalling a story of 1976 when the World Ice Hockey Championship was held in Katowice. A miracle happened there when the hosts of the tournament, the Polish national ice hockey team defeated USSR 6–4. What happened next was something quite related to my Jewish background and family: both my parents – my Jewish father, and half-Jewish and half-Polish mother – were laughing to death and telling me about how local Jews in Klaipėda began quietly celebrating the victory of Poland adding some salt of Jewish humor to it. The real heroes of the game were two Polish ice hockey players – Wiesław Jobczyk and Jerzy Potz. So it happened that the last names of both heroes, who scored more than once in that sensational game, offered some sexual allusions, potz being the Yiddish for the male center of pride and identity, and Jobczyk indicating most intimate action in Russian.

Who could deny that the triumph of the 1974 Polish football team was a historic rehearsal of the Solidarity Movement of 1980? And who could object the idea that had we been independent and free nations by then, we would never have approached football from such a direct sociological and political angle? For football is political for those who have already lost freedom or who are on the way to regaining it. Yet it is deeply culture-centered and economics-oriented for those who are far more fortunate than we were.

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When I watch DVDs with my favorite football games, I find myself thinking that the genius of Dutch football naturally evokes my passion for Dutch Baroque painting without a single trace of Dutch politics; something similar happens when I watch flashback games with my favorite 1982–1986 French football team with Michel Platini, which each time evoke my admiration for the French spirit of unpredictability and stunning surprise. This spirit is so manifest in the manner of acting of my favorite actor Patrick Dewaere who himself played a footballer in the film Coup de tête (1979) and who committed suicide in 1982, the year of the rise of the star of French team. Why is it that I start thinking about politics immediately when I watch the highlight episodes with Polish football stars?

Because football is our collective memory, a form of our European narrative. Because it is the paradis pour tous – just like the title of the film after which Patrick Dewaere took his life. Because we grow up, mature, and age together with football. Because we get, beget, and lose the sense of meaning of our life playing the game – too simple, beautiful, brute, cynical, and treacherous to call it otherwise than life. A metaphor of life, it is a potent reminder of this sporting life with all its gains and losses.

This is why I toast to the 1974 Polish football team. I salute it. And I love it. Because it will leave a much deeper imprint in my memory and soul than Brazil in 2014 – no matter how strong and good the winner will be. 

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*This piece is also available in Polish at Gazeta Wyborzca

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