When he arrived in Germany for his first FIFA World Cup™ in June 1974, Wladyslaw Zmuda was not only unfamilar to the footballing world at large, he was also something of an unknown quantity in his own country.
Seven matches and several weeks later, the central defender was being hailed as one of the revelations of the tournament, having emerged as a key figure in the back line of a Poland team that finished third. For a player then barely out of his teens, it was the start of a 12-year love affair with world football's most prestigious event.
Zmuda's top-level career had begun in earnest only the season before, but his rise to prominence was spectacular. He started out with Motor Lublin before spreading his wings in 1973 and switching to Gwardia Warsaw, the Polish capital's second club, with whom the 19-year-old had an early taste of international competition in the 1973/74 UEFA Cup.
Poland coach Kazimierz Gorski took the risk of selecting Zmuda for the 1974 FIFA World Cup, the youngster travelling to Germany with what was essentially the team that had taken Olympic gold at the Munich games in 1972. Such was Gorski's confidence in Zmuda that he did not hesitate to deploy him at the heart of his defence alongside Antoni Szymanowski, Jerzy Gorgon and Adam Musial.
Nine days after turning 20, Zmuda made his finals debut in Poland's 3-2 opening win over Argentina. The Poles finished top of their first-round group after further victories over Haiti and Italy and though fans may remember the great attacking displays that produced 12 goals in those three games, their defenders came to the fore in the tournament's latter stages, conceding just two goals in the four matches that followed.
Standing 1.87m tall, Zmuda dictated proceedings in seven full matches without picking up so much as a caution, despite the demands posed by facing world-class players like Gerd Muller, Gigi Riva and Mario Kempes. Even Brazil – with Dirceu, Jairzinho and Rivelino in the ranks – were denied by the odurate Polish rearguard as they succumbed 1-0 to the eastern Europeans in the play-off for third place.
Had he delivered such displays today, Zmuda would surely have been inundated with offers from the wealthiest clubs in Europe. In 1974, however, an embargo on player transfers from the Eastern Bloc to Western Europe prevented such upward mobility. Undeterred, Zmuda pursued his career in Poland with Slask Wroclaw, winning one league title, and later Widzew Lodz, where he captured two successive titles before Italian club Hellas Verona secured permission to sign him in 1982.
Before moving to Italy, Zmuda enjoyed another FIFA World Cup fairy tale with his country. Having featured in all six of Poland's games at the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina – reaching the second-group phase – he appeared on the global stage for a third time at that summer's finals in Spain. As in 1974, Poland would finish third with Zmuda playing a pivotal role in a defence that kept four clean sheets in five matches before succumbing 2-0 to eventual winners Italy in the semi-finals.
After two injury-plagued seasons at Verona, Zmuda had a brief spell with New York Cosmos in the United States before returning to Italy with Cremonese. Before retiring in 1987, he fitted in one more FIFA World Cup appearance, 12 months earlier in Mexico, where he featured for the final eight minutes of Poland's 4-0 second-round defeat by Brazil. In the process he joined the exclusive club of players to have appeared in four final tournaments, bettered only by Mexico's Antonio Carbajal and Germany's Lothar Matthaus.
His long, successful international career brought 91 caps and two goals yet it is without doubt his FIFA World Cup heroics that will live longest in the memory, his 21 appearances on the greatest stage still a Polish record today.
|06/07/1974||Munich||BRA||0:1 (0:0)||POL||Match for third place|
|03/07/1974||Frankfurt/Main||POL||0:1 (0:0)||FRG||Second round|
|30/06/1974||Frankfurt/Main||POL||2:1 (1:1)||YUG||Second round|
|26/06/1974||Stuttgart||SWE||0:1 (0:1)||POL||Second round|
|23/06/1974||Stuttgart||POL||2:1 (2:0)||ITA||Group matches|
|19/06/1974||Munich||HAI||0:7 (0:5)||POL||Group matches|
|15/06/1974||Stuttgart||POL||3:2 (2:0)||ARG||Group matches|