...but they're currently ranked below Benin and Armenia in the FIFA system. The footballing term 'Golden Generation' is applied so often but yet rarely comes to fruition, Poland's Michal Zachodny looks at his country's golden team and wonders what might have been...
Not all of us are interested in the national youth teams of our countries - of course we cheer them on when they have a chance to win something, but the general view is that scouts and club coaches should really be the ones keeping an eye on the potential on view. There’s nothing inherently bad in that approach, generally speaking pressure and attention are the last things our young players need. Irrationally some get disappointed when bad results crop up against perceived ‘weaker’ opposition (wrongly and stereotypically based on the FIFA rankings of senior sides) and then rule them out before they’ve had a chance in senior football. On the other hand some more enlightened viewers watch with interest and note names to follow and bring into pub conversations to defend football’s future. Either way one of the most over used terms in football is ‘Golden Generation’ and I want to look at what was cited as Poland’s very own version.
Currently Polish football’s youth development is non-existent, domestic clubs have turned away from expensive investment in youth programs that bear too little fruit. The expectations raised by Poland’s best crop of youngsters from 2001 have perhaps contributed to the apathy. Winners of the year’s FIFA U18 European Championships, Michał Globisz’s ‘golden’ team’s story began two years earlier in Finland at the U16 tournament, when largely the same group of players was literally kicked off the field by Spanish squad in the 1999 final.
The 4-1 loss to Spain stayed with the Polish youth team as they continued to develop and a moment of revenge came in the first game of group stage in Finland’s European Championship in 2001. It turned out to be as good as they dared to dream, Globisz’s team were two years older and had matured enough to inflict their own 4-1 victory on the Spanish and set their stall out for the rest of the tournament. The Spanish team included the likes of Arteta, Riera, Valdes, and Navarro amongst others now playing at the highest levels of European football but Poland had taken them apart. After that came a draw with Belgium, another win against Denmark, and a final against the Czech Republic. Won in dramatic fashion with two goals in the last two minutes, the Polish team were proclaimed as heroes in their home country. After a glorious tournament huge futures were predicted for all but nearly a decade on, what’s become of Poland’s Golden Generation?
Let’s start with goalkeepers – Paweł Kapsa and Tomasz Kuszczak. The second name you’ll recognize and often spell incorrectly, he’s the one sitting behind Sir Alex Ferguson praying for Edwin Van der Sar to retire. After a spell at Hertha Berlin struggling to get a game, he moved to England and West Brom to kick-start his career. Paweł Kapsa was widely regarded as the better prospect, now playing for Lechia Gdańsk having failed to live up to the promise and considered solid enough for the Polish league but little else. Kapsa’s career has to be regarded as disappointing considering Globisz’s assertion that the keeper had ‘no weaknesses’ in 2001.
In defense Łukasz Nawotczyński was the player that impressed the most during the tournament, not only solid at the back but weighing in with three goals. Contracted to Wisła Kraków and loaned out for experience, Nawotczynski never played for the full Poland side and has now been all but forgotten by his current club - Korona Kielce. Paweł Golański forged a better career, impressing at Kielce and earning full international honours including playing at EURO 2008. He was then sold to Steaua Bucharest for about €1m but struggled, failing to impress and then falling out with the club owner earning him a suspension. When his contract came to an end this summer he moved back to Korona Kielce where he’s now playing regularly again. Błażej Radler played abroad with AFC Tubize in Belgium but moved quickly back to Poland, never again troubling the national side and now playing for Odra Wodzisław in the second tier of Polish football. Similarly Adrian Napierała is now in the second division with GKS Katowice and since 2001, has seen his stock sink considerably.
In the golden team’s midfield Sebastian Mila had the lungs to run all day and earned further headlines by scoring a famous free-kick against Manchester City for Groclin to put them out of the UEFA Cup. After several offers from clubs from abroad he chose Austria Vienna but failed to impress, repeating the disappointment with Valerenga. In 2007 he returned to Poland, firstly with ŁKS Łódź and the following year for Śląsk Wrocław. His once famous running style is now roundly mocked and even the player himself admitted since the free-kick his career has amounted to very little. Wojciech Łobodziński forged a similar path, impressing at Zagłębie Lubin and then moving to Wisła Kraków where he became more familiar with the city’s nightclubs than the football pitch. Now a slow and predictable winger, again his career has amounted to very little considering the early promise. Rafał Grzelak impressed even earlier than Łobodziński and got his dream move to Boavista in 2007, but his time in Portugal was a struggle and quickly he found himself in Greece with Xanthe. The Greek team then swiftly loaned him to Steaua but like his former team mate, a fall out with the owner curtailed his career. Now on loan with Widzew Łódź, he’s fighting to save his future as a footballer.
Przemysław Kaźmierczak – an imposing defensive midfielder - also moved to Portugal and Boavista from Pogoń Szczecin. He impressed there and earned a move to FC Porto in 2007 but was quickly loaned out twice in succession, to Derby County and then Vitoria Setubal. After a free transfer to Śląsk Wrocław in the summer he’s now a shadow of the player that left Poland to continue his career abroad. It doesn’t stop there either, Dariusz Zawadzki, Karol Piątek and Robert Sierant aren’t even playing in Polish top division - struggling at times to get minutes in the lower leagues in spite of their once huge reputations. Matuesz Żytko is still playing in the first division with Ekstraklasa (Polonia Bytom) but after a move to defense his star, like the others, has all but faded completely.
Upfront Łukasz Madej is now reunited with Kaźmierczak and Mila at Śląsk Wrocław but rarely gets minutes on the pitch in the league, destined to become another with a failed season in Portugal (with Academica Coimbra) on their C.V. The most laughable story is Łukasz Mierzejewski, then a striker, now a left-back for Cracovia. He recently received a surprise call up to the national side but his club is currently languishing at the bottom of the table. The saddest story is Łukasz Pachelski, no longer playing after struggling to show any potential in senior football. The only player you may have heard of is Paweł Brożek, once connected with moves to Fulham, various French clubs, and some of the major Russian teams, now another lost talent who failed to move abroad and develop. Once top scorer in Ekstraklasa, he’s currently now struggling at Wisła Kraków. His problems were documented on this very website just a few weeks ago.
The golden generation should now be in the best years of their career, around half of them should be in the national team to play in the next European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. As it stands only Tomasz Kuszczak, second choice goalkeeper, can realistically expect to take part in the tournament despite his limited chances in Manchester. Those who had the chance failed to impress abroad, leaving Poland with high hopes and an even higher reputation, all returning quickly to average careers played out solely in the league. The rest failed to get the transfer to a western club and have watched their prospects disappear in the realities of Poland’s lower leagues.
Why is the best generation of the last decade nowhere to be seen in the national squad? Why have the team that took Spain apart in 2001 failed to reach anything like the levels achieved by their opponents that day? Now as Polish football struggles to build a generation of players capable of competing with a Germany, Spain, England, or Italy, questions need to be asked about where the blame lies and where to go from here.
This year just before World Cup in South Africa began, Poland played Spain and lost 6-0. I wonder if Tomasz Kuszczak thought back to the day when his team mates put four past Spain just nine years ago? I wonder if he had any comprehension of the downhill slide Polish football’s ‘Golden Generation’ were about to embark on, now culminating in a FIFA ranking below Benin? As all those players watched Spain lift the World Cup this summer, I wonder if they spared a moment to think about what could have been? I know I did.
If you would like to read more from Michal and get the latest updates from Poland, please visit the excellent Polish Football Scout.