When they trudged from the field in Bratislava as losers last October, the Poland players were disappointed, to put it mildly. The Poles were leading until seven minutes from time, but a quick-fire brace from Slovakia striker Stanislav Sestak turned the game on its head as the home side sent their neighbours home empty-handed.
It was a doubly distressing evening for Leo Beenhakker and his side, as it was also their first defeat in 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ European qualifying Group 3, following a promising start with seven points from three games.
Victory in Bratislava would have put the Poles comfortably clear at the head of the section, but the Slovaks took over top spot instead. Rubbing salt into the wound, fellow neighbours and rivals Czech Republic also overtook Poland in the standings. However, the men from the east European nation of 38 million boast a long history of shrugging off setbacks. 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' arguably applies more to Poland than any other footballing nation.
Return to European top 20
Indeed, the Poles have delivered an immediate riposte to their rivals with a three-place climb in the January FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings to 31st spot, the first time they have beaten their long-term average placing of 32nd since last October. They fell to 34th in the wake of the unlucky defeat in Slovakia, but the team marshalled by star keeper Artur Boruc, on the books with Glasgow giants Celtic, is already on the road to recovery.
The 13-point improvement has taken Poland past Sweden and Scotland, and back into the top twenty European nations. However, there is a long way to go before the current team emulate their best-ever FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, 16th spot back in September 2007. Should Beenhakker hit his declared target of a place at South Africa 2010, the topic of a new best-ever placing may return to the table.
Building mental strength
"After the 2006 World Cup, I took charge of a group totally lacking in confidence and belief. We’ve spent a long time working on our mental strength," the 66-year-old Dutch coach exclusively told FIFA.com in advance of UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
For all that effort, the Poles suffered the same fate on the continental stage as they did in the global showdown two years earlier, failing to survive the group phase. Nevertheless, the nation which produced a genuinely world-class star in Zbigniew Boniek has consistently shown the morale and footballing class to bounce back from adversity.
Even the country’s traditionally cynical sporting press expects further progress and a greater share of team responsibilities from Euzebiusz Smolarek. The 28-year-old, whose father Wlodzimierz himself earned full international honours, first attracted attention as a shooting star with Feyenoord and Borussia Dortmund, before moving to Spain's Racing Santander. The striker is currently on loan to English Premier League outfit Bolton Wanderers, where he will hope to add a greater physical dimension to his game and become a truly inspirational leader out on the field for his country.
High hopes of new generation
Apart from Smolarek, the key figures include Brazil-born Legia Warsaw midfielder Roger Guerreiro, and star keeper Boruc, whose heroics at EURO 2008 underlined his status as one of the best in the world in his position.
Nevertheless, Beenhakker is keen to bring on a clutch of talented newcomers as rapidly as possible. Striker Tomasz Zahorski and defender Adam Kokoszka head up a group of home-based players still under the age of 24 but judged to possess enough talent to grace the world stage - and ideally at South Africa 2010.
After successfully qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and EURO 2008, Poland can remain justifiably hopeful of a place at football’s next major international showpiece. An accomplishment of that magnitude would undoubtedly be reflected in an even stronger placing in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.