Poland Today Eyewitness: The Summer of ’82 (with Michał Pol)


Football heroes embodied the fighting spirit of an entire nation

Michał Pol has been a top sports journalist in Poland for almost two decades, with Gazeta Wyborcza (1994-2009) and currently for Agora’s Sport.pl portal. He is a familiar pundit on the EkstraKlasa league for nSport and has covered five European football championships, three World Cups and four Olympic games.

Poland Today recently caught up with Michał Pol as he looked back on the Polish football team’s memorable performances and its momentous third-place finish at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Michał thinks back over those days when, as an eleven year old, the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), was in the midst of social and political upheaval
during martial law.

I am from what we Poles like to call the ‘Teleranek’ (Telly-morning’) generation, those kids who every Sunday morning in the 1970s and 80s would get up early at the weekend to tune into their favourite Polish, sometimes Czech and even on some occasions, western cartoons like the Flintstones. One winter morning, when I was just 11 years old, I got up as usual at about 8am and strolled out to turn on the television but all I found was a bald guy in a military uniform reading in an uncomfortably serious tone, with an odd frown on his face. He was wearing glasses, glancing up and down every now and then at a big sheet of paper. This of course was General Jaruzelski.
My parents told me that ‘Teleranek’ wouldn’t be on that morning. You can imagine the disappointment for a kid.

The following summer was like no other, as we had qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. We drew the first two games 0-0 against Italy and Cameroon so there wasn’t much hope of advancing at that stage. Next up was Peru and we trashed them, 5-1. Lato, Smolarek, Boniek, Buncol and Ciołek all scored within twenty minutes of each other. In the second round, we trounced Belgium 3-0 in our opening match. So finally, our chances of qualifying rested on getting at least a draw with the Soviet Union.

You know, these were the guys we thought had tanks at our borders. There were so many reports and fears that there could be an invasion. Despite being conscious of the anger on the streets, I didn’t really understand it.

All I understood was that we had to get at least a draw from this game or else the buzz would be over. I can recall vividly that it was a very tough game, both teams having everything to play for. At that time I was on a fencing training course, so the whole camp – kids, instructors, even the grumpy director – got together in front of a small TV in the main assembly room to watch this ‘do or die’ match. One of our great players, Włodzimierz Smolarek – who had helped us win our vital encounter against East Germany in the qualifiers – was fouled by a Russian, I’m not sure who.

The Russian put out his hand to pick him up but Smolarek just slapped it away and shrugged him off. We all erupted in cheers, it was like we had scored a goal or had won the World Cup itself. It ended 0-0 so we were in the quarter final, against all expectations. Nobody had given us any hope. The excitement was fantastic.

I remember really well the quarter-final against Belgium and the tragic moment when Zbigniew ‘Zibi’ Boniek, after scoring what is now regarded as one of the best hat-tricks in World Cup history, got a second yellow card. It meant he would miss the semi-final against Italy. When our players eventually returned home, after getting knocked out by the Italians but coming away with a consolation third place win against France, they were absolute heroes.

Of course, I know now that the government tried to use it for propaganda purposes. Yet, for somebody so young it was a great feeling of joy and pride.

Two summers later I found myself crossing the East German border on my way to England – it was my first trip abroad. I was on my own heading to an aunt in England to do a month-long English course. I had an old Soviet Russian helmet and the remains of a World War II grenade in my backpack to help break the ice with my cousin, who had written to tell me he collected war paraphenalia. I was the only student in the group from behind the Iron Curtain, so for them I was like something from another planet.

So here we are, it’s 30 years later and things are very different. But, I’ve always done my best to adapt. I even have 13,000 followers on Twitter now so I can really keep in touch and interact with both my old and young readers. Back in October, I offered a live feed of the Polish Football Association (PZPN) Presidential election.

The position is put on such a pedestal that it’s almost like the third most important position in the whole country. Zbigniew Boniek’s election as the new President of the PZPN was the icing on the cake. People were really excited afterwards. It was like stepping three decades back in time, watching the ‘Polish Pelé’ at the ’82 World Cup. I really am a lucky guy. I’ve taken part in a shoot out with Zinedine Zidane and scored goals against Van Der Saar. But the ’82 World Cup – that takes some beating.

by Damien Moran, Poland Today


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