UEFA EURO 2012 co-hosts Poland had to wait until 2008 to make their UEFA European Championship breakthrough but boast a proud record on the international stage, having reached two semi-finals in seven FIFA World Cups. UEFA.com casts a glance back over the history of the Polish game, from a striker with six toes to a crystal crown.
The man with six toes
The Biało-czerwoni (Red and Whites) first made a name for themselves during the 1930s, finishing fourth at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and reaching the last 16 of the World Cup two years later. Their campaign in France ended with a 6-5 extra-time defeat by Brazil, Ernest Wilimowski becoming the only player in World Cup history to score four in one match and still finishing on the losing side. For many, the Katowice-born forward is the greatest footballer Poland has produced. As well as 112 goals in 86 league outings for KS Ruch Hajduki Wielkie, he once racked up ten in a single game. Wilimowski, who had six toes on one foot, was nonetheless Polish football's forgotten man for several decades having opted to represent Germany after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Cieślik carries off USSR shock
Founded in 1919, the Polish Football Federation (PZPN) returned to business at the end of the war, but the 1950s and 1960s were lean years despite talents like Gerard Cieślik, Ernest Pol, Edward Szymkowiak and Lucjan Brychczy. Pol still tops the all-time Polish First Division scoring charts thanks to his 186 strikes, with Brychczy second and Cieślik third, but they were unable to deliver success in the international arena. There were highlights, chief among them a 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat of the Soviet Union, Cieślik firing both goals before he and his team-mates were carried from the pitch by supporters. In the domestic realm Górnik Zabrze held sway with six league titles in the 1960s, and their run to the 1970 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final, where they lost 1-0 to Manchester City FC in Vienna remains the only time a Polish club have graced a European showpiece.
Lato's seven crystal balls
That promising performance, and Legia Warszawa's run to the European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals the same season, suggested change was in the air. With Kazimierz Górski in the dugout the national team began an era of unprecedented success, heralded by Olympics gold in 1972. Two years later they finished third at the World Cup, driven by the likes of Kazimierz Deyna, Jan Tomaszewski and Grzegorz Lato. Lato, now PZPN president, finished top scorer in West Germany with seven goals. In recognition, a Polish glass company presented him with a special crown with seven crystal balls to symbolise each strike. "I still have it, it was beautiful gift," he told UEFA.com.
Boniek takes the baton
Poland reached the semi-finals again in Spain eight years later, with Antoni Piechniczek as coach and the supremely gifted Zbigniew Boniek captain. One of the country's finest ever players, Boniek was the subject of the highest transfer fee paid for a Polish footballer for many years when he moved from RTS Widzew Łódź to Juventus for €1.3m in 1982. Even he was unable to prevent defeat by Brazil in the last 16 at the 1986 World Cup, however. As Poland packed their bags, they bid farewell to the competition for the last time in the 20th century.
Youth conquers all
The nation's youth made the country proud during the wilderness years, and Poland made headlines by winning the 1993 UEFA European Under-16 Championship. They finished runners-up in the same competition six years later and added the U18 title in 2001, suggesting better times lay ahead. So it proved, as Jerzy Engel's charges returned to world football's top table at the 2002 World Cup. Poland failed to survive the group stage, and made a similarly swift exit in Germany in 2006, but the appointment of Leo Beenhakker brought improvement and they were given a first taste of UEFA European Championship action when the Dutchman steered them to Austria and Switzerland in 2008. They bowed out with a point.
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