Dispirited Poles pin hopes on brighter future
Poland and their fans are unlikely to harbour fond memories of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. However, on Tuesday evening a note of optimism had returned to the ranks, as a group of fans staged a spontaneous kickabout in front of Hanover central station as they waited good-humouredly to make the long journey home.
Their national heroes had provided at least a degree of consolation for a disappointing campaign with a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica in their final Group A fixture.
The result will have only slightly sweetened an otherwise bitter pill for Poland's elite footballers, who crossed the border to the west with considerably higher ambitions. The side coached by Pawel Janas fully intended to banish the memory of a dismal showing four years ago, when the men in red exited the tournament after the group phase. Expectations were boosted by the location of this year's tournament in neighbouring Germany, home from home for stars Jacek Krzynowek and Ebi Smolarek, where the surroundings were familiar, and with substantial support from both travelling and expatriate fans.
What happened next was an eerie repeat of events in 2002. It started with a shock 2-0 opening defeat against an Ecuador side the Poles conspicuously underestimated, and was followed by a somewhat unlucky 1-0 defeat to the host nation courtesy of Oliver Neuville's stoppage-time strike. Once again, Poland's dream of a decent run lay in tatters.
Players make no secret of devastation
"I'm disappointed we've not made the next round. This team was good enough to go further," insisted striker Maciej Zurawski, who failed to get on the scoreboard at the tournament. For his part, Krzynowek said: "I'm relieved our fans have stayed so friendly, given what we put them through in the first two matches. Maybe we'll give them something to celebrate in the future." The players will hope the victory over Costa Rica, achieved with Poland's only goals at the FIFA World Cup and scored tellingly by defender Bartosz Bosacki, signals something of a new start.
In reality, the Polish camp was a turbulent place throughout, as the players trained to a backdrop of rumbling discontent with coach Janas refusing to deviate from his chosen course. The media refused to drop the subject of Janas' squad selection, which failed to include keeper Jerzy Dudek of Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Tomasz Frankowski. Next, the players chosen to represent their country looked short of guile and inspiration, leaving fighting spirit as the only strategic route to success. It was enough to withstand a 90-minute German onslaught, but not enough to make it to the final whistle.
Hint of complacency
Krzynowek reckoned Poland's three group opponents were mentally stronger. "We thought we could take it easy. I'm aware a number of the teams have worked very hard on mental strength ahead of the tournament, but that's not something we do. It was every man for himself." The left-sided midfielder, bound for Wolfsburg from Bayer Leverkusen this summer, was rated a possible ace in the Polish pack before the event but only showed his abilities sporadically. His 25-year-old Bundesliga colleague Smolarek, on the books at Borussia Dortmund, provided one of the few rays of light and could potentially form the fulcrum of a rejuvenated side.
There must be a question-mark hanging over Janas' future at the national helm. Some experts might feel that a man who guided his team to consecutive premature exits at the global showcase tournament may not be entirely suited to the rebuilding exercise likely to take place ahead of 2010. "I believe the World Cup in Germany has given all of us plenty more experience, and it'll make us stronger. We've learnt a great deal, and we could profit from that in the future," Krzynowek mused.
Reasons to be cheerful?
Apart from 33-year-old captain Jacek Bak, none of the current team appears likely to end his international career just yet. That suggests a future squad bristling with potential and the additional benefit of newly-won experience, but also with rising young talent knocking on the door of the national set-up. A healthy dose of internal competition would undoubtedly benefit the Poles, and should a gifted playmaker emerge from a vast reserve of youthful talent currently ascending the ranks back home, the next generation national side might yet reach the heights of the world game like their predecessors in 1974 and 1982.