Piotr Nowak isn’t often accused of being laid-back. As a player in his native Poland, then in Germany’s top flight, and later as one of MLS’ all-time greats, his grit bordered on ferocity. It makes the 50-year-old’s current coaching post, in the sun-soaked Caribbean, all the more curious.
“People have the wrong idea about me,” the former Poland captain told FIFA.com, the island breezes of Antigua and Barbuda whistling through the telephone receiver. “All that yelling, it’s just passion.”
Nowak played his football on the edge. He was a playmaker with a physical alter ego, and he fed off the intensity of a game-day. He grew up in the structure of the old Eastern Bloc and became the ultimate competitor. Nowak, with stern jaw and stocky build, was the consummate professional.
When he coached the USA’s Olympic team in Beijing in 2008 and MLS sides DC United and Philadelphia Union, he stalked the touchline like a man possessed. This bristly personality might have been the cue for aggravation when he arrived in Antigua and Barbuda last year.
“He had some guidelines, let’s just say,” said veteran Antigua and Barbuda goalkeeper Molvin James of his new coach, a smile in his voice. The hero of the Benna Boys side that knocked Haiti out of World Cup qualifying for Brazil 2014 speaks of Nowak with genuine affection. “He wants us in early and up early. Ten o’clock team breakfast means 10 o’clock– not 10:15! We all show up ten minutes early now!”
Nowak won’t deny laying down the law. “I noticed that time is a fluid thing here on the islands,” said the 1996 Polish player of the year. “I had to make some rules about it. Maybe not everyone loved that.”
But that’s where the collisions between Nowak and the local boys ended. It was less a culture shock and more a cultural exchange – a mutual respect between an old pro and a group of hopefuls from a place with little pedigree in the game. Nowak speaks of his players, mostly part-timers, with warmth and charity. “I want to show them the way, to help them understand that today you might be here in the leagues but tomorrow you can be at Real Madrid or Liverpool!”
“He’s a great guy,” said Javorn Stevens. At 17, he’s one of Antigua’s budding stars in attack, singled out for a bright future by Nowak. “I think maybe he sees something special in me, but I know he wants us all to do something with our lives and to know this is our time,” added Stevens, who will likely line up alongside all-time top scorer, Pete ‘Big Pete’ Byers, in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Nowak makes it clear that what’s going on in Antigua and Barbuda is not about him. “My career’s over,” he scoffed. “You don’t see the coach holding up the cup when a team wins something. It’s about the players!”
The Antiguans play their first Russia 2018 qualifier midweek against island neighbors St Lucia at home. What’s most important for Nowak is that his men recognise the opportunity before them.
“I don’t want a team of little Nowaks,” he said, eager to clarify the situation. “I am demanding, yes, but I don’t want to break the spirit of these players, I want them to express themselves. I want them to know this is their time, for themselves and their country.”
Nowak’s voice turns soft. “I admire the hell out of these guys,” he said of the local lads who train before and after work, or a long day of school. “They don’t have much to eat, but they never complain. ‘Let’s keep going’ they say at the end of training. It’s tough life, but they push through with a smile.”
A smattering of England-based players will join the squad before kick-off against St Lucia. It represents a small problem for Nowak. “I need them to know they can’t just waltz in and be the boss,” he said of the England-based players, most from the lower leagues. “They have to respect the team here, and respect what we’re doing.”
Discipline, for a wiser, older Nowak, is about playing the right way. “He doesn’t want us to bang the ball up the field and chase after it,” said James, the goalkeeper getting set to take part in his third FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. “And he’s actually a pretty relaxed guy. He comes right up to us to tell us what he wants – he doesn’t shout in front of everyone and try to embarrass us. We listen to what he says.”