Poland's favourite footballer turns 70

Grzegorz Lato of Poland
© imago images
  • Grzegorz Lato was the shock adidas Golden Boot winner at Germany 1974
  • He inspired Poland to two FIFA World Cup bronzes
  • Today the former winger turns 70

Gerd Muller was the scorching favourite for the adidas Golden Boot at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™. Johan Cruyff followed. Giorgio Chinaglia, Jairzinho, Jupp Heynckes, Gigi Riva, Mario Kempes, Dusan Bajevic, Roberto Boninsegna, and Roland Sandberg completed the top ten.

The 25-name list published by a leading bookmaker in the run-up to the tournament didn’t even feature Grzegorz Lato. Poland, after all, had little chance of escaping a Group 4 comprising Argentina and Italy, Lato was a winger, and he had scored just three times in 12 internationals compared to Muller’s 64 in 54 and Riva’s 35 in 40.

Yet three weeks after scoring a brace in Poland’s 3-2 upset of Argentina in their Neckarstadion opener, Lato collected possession in his own half, employed his supersonic speed to leave two Brazilians for dead, and slotted away a wonder goal at the Olympiastadion as Poland unthinkably finished third and their No16 unthinkably emulated leading marksmen such as Sandor Kocsis, Just Fontaine, Eusebio and Muller.

“He was unstoppable at that tournament,” said Kazimierz Gorski, Poland’s coach at Germany 1974, years later. “A machine.

“We all knew what he could do, but our rivals had no idea what they were in for. His speed, running frightened them.

“For one of his goals [against Argentina], he stole the ball from a [goalkeeper’s] throw-out and scored. A goal he made out of nothing. That was something he specialised in – stealing the ball.

“And on set-pieces, [our opponents] were always looking for our big players and strikers. Lato wasn’t very big, but he had that goalscorer’s instinct, that desire to pounce on any loose ball, to get his head to the ball.”

The world may have been surprised by Lato’s exploits – he had only made one substitute’s appearance when they won the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Munich 1972 – but few in Poland were. In 1969, when he was merely 19, Stal Mielec, in the Polish second flight, caused controversy by offering Lato a house and a car to commit his future to the club.

The move was slated by the press. Lato responded with his feet. With their fair-haired, moustached ace exhilarating, Stal quickly won promotion to the Ekstraklasa and stunningly conquered it for the first time in their history in 1972/73, with Lato finishing as the league’s leading marksman. Four consecutive top-three finishes culminated in a second crown in June 1976.

The following month, Poland reached a second successive Men’s Olympic Football Tournament final, where, despite a Lato goal, they lost 3-1 to East Germany. The Malbork native netted twice at Argentina 1978, where Poland topped a pool including defending champions West Germany before falling short in the second group stage, and, despite being 32, impressed again as they bagged another bronze at Spain 1982.

It is, however, Germany 1974 for which Lato remains most revered. The next player to score over six goals at a World Cup was Ronaldo at Korea/Japan 2002, while between Chile 1962 and South Africa 2010, Lato was the solitary non-forward to receive the adidas Golden Boot.

Polish club crowds are notoriously hostile, but when Lato returned across the Oder–Neisse Line in 1974, he was universally applauded at stadia, just like Andres Iniesta was in Spain after South Africa 2010.

Grzegorz Lato no longer belonged to the only Polish club he would serve. He was a national darling, as his nickname underlined. How could one not applaud ‘Poland’s Favourite Footballer’?

Did You Know?

  • In little over a year from May 1974, the right-winger netted 18 goals in 18 internationals.
  • When Lato turned 30 and was therefore eligible to leave Poland, Pele urged New York Cosmos to add him to a squad including himself, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, Francois Van der Elst and Giorgio Chinaglia. The Pole ultimately saw out his career in Belgium, Mexico and Canada.
  • Lato eclipsed Kazimierz Deyna to become Poland’s most-capped player against Italy at Spain 1982 – a distinction he held for 28 years. His 100 caps is bettered only by Michal Zewlakow, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski.
  • Lato has ten World Cup goals to his name – a figure bettered only by seven players: Sandor Kocsis, Jurgen Klinsmann (both 11), Pele (12), Just Fontaine (13), Gerd Muller (14), Ronaldo (15) and Miroslav Klose (16).
  • Lato served as Polish Football Association (PZPN) president for four years from 2008, overseeing the country’s co-hosting of UEFA EURO 2012.

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