The game is too far back to stand out in the memory of many football fans, but the 1938 World Cup clash between Poland and Brazil was a classic.  What went before and after for Poland puts football in a little more context.  Here's Juliet Jacques.

Stade de la Meinau, Strasbourg, 5 June 1938. Poland line up against Brazil for their first World Cup finals game. It became one of the most incredible games in the tournament’s history. The fates of the Polish players proved even more extraordinary.

Brazil star Leônidas opened the scoring after 18 minutes; five minutes later, Poland star Ernst Wilimowski beat three defenders and Brazil keeper Batatais, who hauled him down; Fryderyk Scherfke converted the penalty. Thereafter, the game belonged to Wilimowski, even though his team were 3-1 down at half-time.

Soon after the restart, Ruch Chorzów striker Wilimowski had scored twice, levelling the game. It looked like Poland might secure a shock victory, but Peració put Brazil 4-3 up. Just before the death, Wilimowski scored his third, forcing extra time. Then Leônidas became the second player to hit a hat-trick, seemingly settling matters, but with two minutes left, Wilimowski struck his fourth.

Poland pressed for an equaliser, which would have earned a replay, half-back Erwin Nyc hitting the crossbar as Brazil defended desperately, but the match ended 6-5, and Poland were eliminated. This lone first round loss represented the zenith of inter-war Polish football, as the World Cup superseded the Olympics as the most prestigious international football tournament.

Although the first clubs in modern Poland were formed in 1903, Polish football began in December 1919 when the PZPN (Polski Zwiazek Pilki Noznej – Polish Football Association) was founded in Warsaw. After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles restored independence to Poland, which had been divided between the Kingdom of Prussia (later part of Germany), the Russian Empire and Austria in 1795 and then absorbed into the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Second Polish Republic further destabilised Eastern Europe, thrown into chaos by the Russian Revolution. Poland’s borders were fixed at a heavy cost, after wars with Russia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, and three uprisings in Upper Silesia. With peace restored, the national team finally played its first match in December 1921, losing 1-0 to Hungary in Budapest.

Poland entered the 1924 Olympic Games – their first international tournament. In the first round, they again faced Hungary, the second of three defining inter-war games against their neighbours. The Magyars thrashed Poland 5-0, and the Poles did not play another competitive match until 1933.

The foundation of the amateur but competitive Polish Soccer League in 1927 proved crucial in lifting the national side’s fortunes. The League initially included fourteen teams, its composition reflecting Poland’s racial balance: there were eleven ethnic Polish teams, two Jewish (one from Lwów, the other Kraków) and 1.FC Kattowitz, formerly FC Preußen, who used the German spelling of Katowice after the city came under Polish rule.

Kattowitz’s bitter rivalry with ethnically Polish Wisła Kraków was coloured by the recent Silesian Uprisings. Negotiating at Versailles, the Weimar government claimed that if Upper Silesia were awarded to Poland, their loss of the region’s industry, particularly its mines, then Germany could not pay reparations demanded by the victorious Allies. Consequently, the Treaty ordered a plebiscite to decide which nation owned it. The vote would cover eastern Upper Silesia, largely Polish, and the German-dominated west.

German business told employees that they could lose their jobs and pensions if they voted for Polish rule, and German troops intimidated local Poles; the secret Polish Military Organisation confronted them, resulting in uprisings in 1919 and 1920. The plebiscite finally occurred in March 1921, two days after the Treaty of Riga ended Poland’s war with Russia: the Germans won by 200,000 votes, but the decision to allow anyone over twenty resident in Upper Silesia to participate prompted mass German migration – and the third Silesian Uprising.

The League of Nations intervened, dividing the territory. Katowice fell within the Polish area: as 22,774 people had voted for Upper Silesia to belong to Germany, and just 3,000 for Poland, the city was granted a level of self-rule. Although the autonomous Silesian province was Polish-dominated, Katowice became its capital. After the military coup of May 1926, the centralist government attempted to limit its power: something the German Upper Silesians deeply resented.

The decisive game of the League’s first season was between 1.FC and Wisła in Katowice. Wisła won 2-0, but 1.FC claimed that referee Zygmunt Hanke had favoured Wisła, as the Polish authorities would not let the German team become champions. Soon, 1.FC’s goalkeeper, Emil Görlitz, became the first Silesian to play for Poland; full-back Erich Heidenreich refused his call-up, defining himself as German. 1.FC soon declined, suffering relegation two years later; ethnically Polish club Ruch Hajduki Wielkie, whose name ‘Ruch’ (‘motion’) was taken by some Germans as a reference to the Uprisings, filled the Silesian power vacuum.

In 1932, Józef Kałuża became manager of Poland. A member of their 1924 Olympic squad, Kałuża based his side around Upper Silesian players. The region’s wealth meant that their ‘amateur’ players could take notional jobs and dedicate themselves to football. Consequently, Ruch dominated the League, champions every year from 1933 to 1936 and again in 1938. Their star was Wilimowski, born in Kattowitz in 1916 whilst it was part of the German Empire, and signed from 1.FC in 1933. After his father died on the Western Front, Wilimowski took his stepfather’s name and grew up speaking German at home, using a Silesian dialect in public after Katowice became part of the Second Polish Republic.

In Kałuża’s first game, Poland beat 1930 World Cup semi-finalists Yugoslavia 3-0 in Zagreb. Later that year, they thrashed Romania 5-0 in Bucharest, Silesian debutants Ewald Urban and Gerard Wodarz both scoring. Increasingly confident, Poland made their first entry into the World Cup.

On 15 October 1933, Poland lost the first leg of their qualification play-off 2-1 to Czechoslovakia in Warsaw. The second leg was scheduled for 15 April 1934, but it was never played. With international relations worsening, the Polish government, resentful of the League of Nations’ decision to award Javorina and Ždiar to Czechoslovakia in 1925, barred Kałuża’s team from travelling to Prague. Qualifying by default, the Czechs eventually reached the Final.

After several poor results, Kałuża faced huge pressure: only Upper Silesian support kept him in place. In June 1936, the PZPN finally chose to enter Poland in the Berlin Olympics. Rapidly assembling his team, Kałuża had to do without Wilimowski, suspended for heavy drinking. Replacement Hubert Gad scored four goals, but their star striker’s absence was keenly felt as Poland lost the semi-final to Austria.

Restored, Wilimowski scored in Poland’s 4-0 win over Yugoslavia in Warsaw on 10 October 1937. Two goals from Leonard Piontek, of 1937 League runners-up AKS Chorzów, and one from Jerzy Wostal, virtually assured qualification for the 1938 World Cup. Despite losing 1-0 in Belgrade six months later, the Poles went to France on aggregate.

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On 27 August 1939, Poland beat 1938 World Cup Finalists Hungary 4-2 in a friendly in Warsaw. It came four days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact. With the Treaty guaranteeing western Poland, including Upper Silesia, to Germany and the east to Russia, Hitler began his invasion less than a week after ‘The Last Game’.

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The day after the occupation, the Nazis outlawed all Polish organisations. Wanting the Silesian players for the German team, they also barred Polish nationals from competitive sport – the only country where they did so. This forced Poland’s World Cup side to make a choice: assume German citizenship or stop playing. Several of the team signed the Volksliste, which classed citizens of German-occupied territories in Poland into four categories of desirability to the regime.

Because of the region’s relative prosperity, Himmler allowed the majority of Upper Silesian citizens to sign. Many fell into Category Three: Poles from Silesia who had not fought Germans during the Uprisings. To emphasise their German identity, several of the players who signed changed their names. Scherfke used Friedrich as his forename, forward Ryszard Piec appeared for Turn und Sport Lupine (formerly Naprzód Lipiny) as Richard Pietz, and Nyc, who had adopted the Polish spelling of his surname in 1934, reverted to his birth name, Nytz.

The Nazis incorporated 1.FC Kattowitz into the expanded Silesian regional league, the Gauliga Oberschlesien. AKS Chorzów were amongst several Polish clubs involved and renamed, as Germania Königshütte; Ruch Chorzów (as RHW became in 1939) were forced to appear as Bismarckhütter SV 99.

Signing allowed Poland’s Silesian core to continue playing, but also to be drafted into the Wehrmacht. Several of the side that faced Brazil – half-backs Ewald Dytko and Wilhelm Góra, Nytz (who played for the Luftwaffe team), Wodarz and ethnic German Scherfke – were called up as the war spread to the Eastern Front.

Dytko, Góra and Wodarz were captured by the Allies. Dytko remained a prisoner until the war’s end, but Góra and Wodarz joined the exiled Polish II Corps, fighting for the Allies as the war turned their way. Escaping a PoW camp in Hungary after resisting the Nazi invasion, full-back Antoni Gałecki also joined the Corps after reaching Palestine.

Some, including Pietz, escaped active service: forward Leonard Piontek remained Germania Königshütte’s star as they dominated the Gauliga Oberschlesien, outperforming state-sponsored 1.FC Kattowitz. But the player who had the most complex relationship with the regime was the star, Wilimowski.

After Germany’s shock first round World Cup exit, the Nazis wanted Wilimowski to spearhead their attack. Resuming German citizenship lost after the Silesian Uprisings, Wilimowski signed the Volksliste and continued playing – becoming the only member of Poland’s World Cup team to represent Germany, playing in eight friendlies and scoring 13 goals in 1941 and 1942.

The Nazis designated 1.FC as Silesia’s state-sponsored club; they held Wilimowski’s transfer from Kattwitz to Ruch as a teenager against him. After the invasion, he was reassigned to 1.FC, with Nyc and Dytko. He played there until February 1940, when he took a job as a police officer, allowing him to escape service and represent Polizei-Sportverein Chemnitz, and then 1860 München and Luftwaffe side Rote Jäger.

Goalkeeper Edward Madejski also continued playing – in Poland. Defying the ban, he featured in illegal tournaments for Kraków amateur sports club AKS. The Gestapo arrested Madejski and sent him to nearby Montelupich, for political prisoners. He escaped and returned to underground football, daring to travel to Warsaw for games before the Nazi regime collapsed.

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The Red Army marched into Poland in 1945. Although six million Polish citizens had died – ninety per cent of them non-military losses – all those who started against Brazil survived, although squad member Antoni Łyto perished at Auschwitz. Those who coached them did not. Kałuża died in Kraków in 1944, aged 48. Trainer Marian Spoida, Kałuża’s 1924 Olympic team-mate, died in the Katyn massacre, one of 22,000 killed when the Soviet secret police attempted to execute all Officer Corps in Russian-occupied Poland.

The World Cup side, particularly those on the Volksliste, had considerable troubles with Poland’s new Communist regime. Scherfke chose to stay in West Berlin. Góra wanted to return to Upper Silesia, from which most Germans were banished after the Allies awarded the entire area to Poland. The ethnic Germans were transported to East and West Germany and replaced with Poles: Góra, born a citizen of the German Empire, was barred from returning.

Dytko and Nyc were allowed back on the condition that they sign a declaration of loyalty to the Polish state. Nyc had to secure a statement from other Polish players that he had supported Resistance activities during the war. After playing in Britain as a PoW, Wodarz returned to Ruch Chorzów as the Polish League resumed in 1946, managing them twice after his retirement.

The player who had the worst experience in Communist Poland was the one who had most actively disobeyed Nazi law. Edward Madejski returned to Upper Silesia, playing until his retirement. In 1956, he was arrested by the secret police on trumped-up spying charges, spending three years in prison despite the regime’s de-Stalinisation under Władysław Gomulka, named President that same year.

The Communists regarded Wilimowski as a traitor and prevented his return to Silesia. He continued playing in West Germany, retiring in 1959, aged 43. In 1974, Wilimowski asked to visit the Poland team who had qualified for their first World Cup since 1938. The squad, which finished third in West Germany, included Silesian stars Jan Tomaszewski, Jerzy Gorgoń and Henryk Kasperczak. The PZPN denied him. Poland’s coach, Kazimierz Górski, met Wilimowski in a West German hotel.

“If you did nothing wrong,” said Górski, “then perhaps you should have returned to Poland to explain your actions.”

“I was afraid,” replied Wilimowski.

In 1995, after the collapse of Polish Communism, Ruch Chorzów invited Wilimowski to Upper Silesia to celebrate their 75th anniversary. Adamant that he would never have left Katowice had it not been for the war, Wilimowski wanted to return, but had to stay in Germany to care for his sick wife. He died there on 30 August 1997.

Five years later, another Upper Silesian scored four goals in a single World Cup match, against Saudi Arabia. Poland were playing in their first World Cup since 1986, the last hurrah of their great Seventies and early Eighties side, but Miroslav Klose – born Mirosław Kloze in Opole, the centre of modern Upper Silesia’s minority population in – represented Germany.

In 2006, Klose struck up a formidable partnership with fellow Upper Silesian Lukas Podolski, whose family had moved near Cologne when he was two. On home soil, Germany eliminated Poland, beating them 1-0 in a crucial First Round match. Klose and Podolski led German football’s renaissance as they finished third in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and made the 2008 European Championship final: whether or not the Upper Silesians will contribute to another great Polish side remains to be seen.

Juliet writes regularly for the Guardian in the UK and can be found here and on Twitter @JulietJacques

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