Saturday, June 15, 2024

Euro 2024 team guides part 16: Poland

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This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2024 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.

Prospects

The appointment of Fernando Santos, who won Euro 2016 with Portugal, as new national team coach was meant to calm the mood around the team after a turbulent World Cup in Qatar. He was a well-known name with success on his CV and experience of working with world-class players. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, it turns out. Santos, in fact, turned out to be a hopeless choice. The qualifying group seemed easy on paper and the thinking was that Poland could qualify for the Euros while also starting a rejuvenation of the squad and introduce several young players who could become the spine of the team after legends such as Wojciech Szczesny or Robert Lewandowski retire.

The qualifying campaign started with a loss against the Czech Republic and continued with a defeat by Moldova, the lowest-ranked team to ever beat Poland. In addition Santos’s body language in press conferences was so bad that it became clear a parting of ways would be the best solution.

A defeat by Albania in September 2023 sealed the Portuguese’s fate and the Polish FA gave the job to Michal Probierz instead. At the beginning of 2023 it was seen as madness to appoint him but the 51-year-old picked up the pieces of this broken team and did just enough to get them to the Euros.

It wasn’t always pretty though. After a win against the Faroe Islands and a draw with Moldova, Poland lost to the Czechs meaning they had to go through the playoffs. There they beat Estonia 5-1 in the semis and Wales on penalties in the final after both opponents had been reduced to 10 men.

Supporters are not deluding themselves thinking that Poland will qualify from the “group of death” that also features France, the Netherlands and Austria. Expectations are very low but that has often worked well in the past with Polish players. Probierz has repeatedly said that this is no time for a revolution. He has a safety-first approach with a 3-5-2 system and it is not difficult to predict who will start the opener against the Dutch.

It has been a long time since we’ve seen a Polish national team go toe-to-toe with a stronger rival. Poland are boring and predictable. However, anything is possible in football and maybe, just maybe, Poland will surprise us all.

The coach

Michal Probierz and Cezary Kulesza are good friends. When Kulesza was the president of Jagiellonia Bialystok, he appointed Probierz as coach and that led to the best period in the club’s history. So it was perhaps no surprise that, in his most difficult time as Polish FA president, he turned to his proven soldier and made Probierz national team coach. Probierz improved the defence significantly, which led to that goalless draw and win on penalties in Cardiff against Wales. He does not give away much in public and trusts his gut and his people. He has also been able to make some shock selections, such as giving Patryk Peda, who was playing in Serie C at the time, a chance and picking Taras Romanczuk instead of Jakub Moder for the Wales match.

The coach likes poems and golf. One of his favourite epigrams is from Jan Sztaudynger: “History is rolling like a wheel. I understood that under the wheel.” His career is full of ups and downs and he often gets into spats with journalists. One of his most memorable – and popular – phrases came after a defeat with Legia Warsaw when he complained about the refereeing, adding: “I am going to go home and pour myself some fucking whisky. What else is left for me to do?”

Often hot-tempered in the past, he has calmed down in the new role and is able to handle the pressure. The players praise him for a good tactical approach and building a good team spirit.

The icon

Robert Lewandowski. It has to be him. For the past 10 years opposing managers have said the same things about the Polish national team. First some platitudes about the team’s solidity before adding“ … but they have the best No 9 in the world”. Most appearances for Poland: Lewandowski. Most goals for Poland: Lewandowski. The most popular Pole in the world: also Lewandowski (although the tennis world No 1, Iga Swiatek, has been closing the gap). He is an idol and a point of reference for all Polish sporting figures and someone who has been sitting at the same table as Messi and Ronaldo, at least when it comes to numbers. A few months ago he accused younger players of lacking personality. Once again he will have to show that personality himself at the tournament. It may be his last, although he has not announced his intentions yet.

Robert Lewandowski’s star shows no sign of being dimmed at Euro 2024. Photograph: Oliver Hardt/Uefa/Getty Images

One to watch

Nicola Zalewski started the World Cup in Qatar, but was dropped after 45 minutes against Mexico and not seen until the last 19 minutes in the last-16 defeat by France. Now he wants to play a bigger role at the Euros and to showcase his talent to clubs around Europe. He won the Conference League with Roma in 2022 but has been given less playing time for the Serie A club this season. He is the best dribbler in the Polish national team and they have no one else like him.

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The maverick

Kamil Grosicki. Now 36, he made his national team debut in 2008 and has played nearly 100 games for his country. He has matured in recent years but has always been considered a bit gung ho. He used to party hard and is now the dance leader in the dressing room. He had to overcome a gambling addition to make it in football. He is good friends with both the national coach and the FA president, Kulesza. The three of them worked together at Jagiellonia Bialystok – Grosicki as player, Probierz as coach and Kulesza as chairman and owner. The latter two were like fathers to Grosicki as he was not always easy to handle.

Kamil

The spine

Szczesny-Kiwior-Zielinski-Lewandowski. Wojciech Szczesny was Poland’s best player at the World Cup in Qatar and the hero of the qualifying penalty shootout against Wales. He has said this will be his last tournament with the national team. Jakub Kiwior has played every Poland game since his debut in 2021 and has become the most important defender in the squad. The key midfielder is Piotr Zielinski – he endured a difficult season at club level with Napoli but everyone hopes that he will be one of the leaders during Euro 2024. And then there is Lewandowski. Eighty-two goals in 148 games at the time of writing and for years the most important player of the team.

Probable starting XI

Celebrity fan

At Euro 2016 there was Russell Crowe, the Australian actor lending his support for Poland on Twitter as they reached the quarter-finals. Now there is Agnieszka Chylinska – a popular singer, songwriter and TV personality in Poland. Recently she has been spotted at many Ekstraklasa games, although it is not yet known whether she will translate her love for club football into international football.

Culinary delight

Poland’s national dish, known all over the world, is pierogi, but fans do not eat them in stadiums. When watching national team matches at home, the most popular snacks are chips and pizza, always accompanied by beer, but at stadiums the must-have is gieta – a grilled sausage with a slice of bread or a roll and a drop of ketchup and mustard. There are even rankings in the media of which clubs sell the best sausage. However, in the lower league fans – especially elderly ones – still come to matches with sunflower seeds.

The Poland team guide was written by Tomasz Wlodarczyk, Maciej Luczak, Radoslaw Przybysz for Meczyki

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