The FIFA World Cup™ is the biggest show on earth; the holy grail for players from every corner of the globe. Before the international elite can convene at football's top table, however, titanic battles are fought by some of the game's top nations merely for the right to be there.
We turn to October 1973, a time when the memories of England's world-beating victory of 1966 were still very much fresh in the minds of football fans everywhere. They faced a must-win game against Poland in to book their place at Germany 1974.
England 1-1 Poland
17 October 1973, Wembley Stadium, London
Scorers: England (Clarke 63 pen); Poland (Domarski 55)
England: Shilton, Madeley, Hughes, Bell, McFarland, Hunter, Currie, Channon, Chivers (Hector 85), Clarke, Martin Peters (c)
Poland: Tomaszewski, Szymanowski, Gorgon, Musial, Bulzacki, Kasperczak, Lato, Cmikiewicz, Deyna (c), Domarski, Gadocha
England started the qualifying round with a 1-0 victory over Wales, the other team in the three team Group 5, but could only draw the return fixture 1-1. Sir Alf Ramsey, the man who led England to glory in 1966, was under increasing criticism over his cautious tactics and strange substitutions. The English were then caught out in Poland, losing 2-0. In the meantime, Wales and the Poles had won each of their home matches against each other but the East Europeans enjoyed the better goal difference. Therefore the Three Lions had to beat the red-clad men from Poland to clinch a place at the finals in Germany.
Some of England's most respected pundits assured the public that the task would be a straightforward one. Legendary manager Brian Clough's pre-match comments are perhaps the most celebrated. He likened the Polish defender Jerzy Gorgon to "a boxer in football boots", while long-haired keeper Jan Tomaszewski, who wore a yellow jersey, red shorts and white stockings was labelled "a circus clown in gloves". That remark came back to haunt Clough and England.
The Poland goal was under siege from the opening whistle, but Tomaszewski's acrobatic brilliance and England's erratic finishing kept the scoresheet clean until the unthinkable happened after 55 minutes. Norman Hunter missed a tackle which allowed Grzegorz Lato to speed along the left flank with England's defence exposed. The bald-headed winger slipped the ball across to the right flank where the unmarked Jan Domarski fired the ball underneath Peter Shilton's dive.
The penalty kick which levelled the scores came when Martin Peters was fouled just inside the box as he was about to break through. Clarke made no mistake from the spot as he slotted home under extreme pressure. The English bombardment continued. Although the Poles had chances on the break, the statistics tell the story: England had 35 shots on goal to Poland's pair.
With a final throw of the dice, Ramsey replaced Martin Chivers with Kevin Hector three minutes from the end. It was an uncommonly late substitution - Ramsey's watch had stopped and he thought there was still plenty of time left - though it almost paid off. However, Hector's header was cleared off the line in the dying seconds. England's dream was dashed.
The 'clown' stole the show. Tomaszewski delivered the most unorthodox but effective performance Wembley had ever seen, stopping everything that came at him with an eccentricity that any circus promoter would have delighted in. The Guardian's Frank Keating was amazed: "He hurled himself arms, knees and bumps-a-daisy all over his penalty area like a slackly strung marionette," he wrote. "And all with a half-taunting, half-surprised smile which made one think this might be his first-ever game."
What they said
"I remember the last thing [Kazimierz] Gorski said before the game: 'You can play football for 20 years and play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books.' He was right. It wasn't my best-ever performance and I had a lot of luck during the match." Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski.
"It was looking desperate, and in such circumstances desperate measures are sometimes required. He [Jerzy Gorgon] barely touched me but I went flying. I dived. It wasn't a penalty, but the referee didn't see it that way." England captain Martin Peters.
"I remember this match very well. Not only our goalkeeper Tomaszewski was magnificent that day, our defenders were in fantastic form too. The last three minutes were the longest in my whole career. Every second felt like an hour. The clock didn't seem to move." Poland striker Grzegorz Lato.
What happened next
The next day's newspaper headlines were stark. The Sun described it as 'the end of the world,' while the Daily Telegraph ran with 'Sir Alf's future in the balance'. As it happened, he was relieved of his duties six months later, to be replaced by Don Revie. England had to wait another seven years to celebrate qualification for another FIFA World Cup.
Poland, meanwhile, proved their merits by finishing third in Germany, losing 1-0 to the hosts and eventual winners, and even beating Brazil in the match for third place.