Some players wear their hearts on their sleeve and we love them for it. Michal Zachodny tells us about his favorite player, a horrific injury, and a magnificent comeback.
Every football fan has a favorite player and I’m no different. Often people choose the player that scores a lot, or the one that always seems to be on the ball and I can’t argue with that. However, my personal favorite has always been Marcin Wasilewski - a player for whom a tricky winger is like a red flag for a bull. Fasten your seat belts because I’m about to deliver a story that should be sent to Hollywood as soon as possible, and Marcin Wasilewski is the hero of it.
My local team is Slask Wroclaw – my dad took me to my first game more than a decade ago and that’s where it all started, I fell in love with a team that was only just fighting to gain promotion to the top division and happily, in my first season of supporting them they did it in great style. Big money came out of nowhere, huge signings (that later proved to be deadly for the clubs budget and sent Slask down all the way to third division but that’s different story) and big names, but one came to the club silently and made a huge impact on the team. I can’t confirm if it’s true but the story goes that Marcin Wasilewski was bought by Slask in the summer of 2000 from Hutnik Kraków for €1000 and ten footballs. Bargain.
The right-back played aggressively, flying into tackles and yellow cards following wherever he played but there was never a lost ball - he fought for every inch of the field and the fans loved it. He scored his first league goal for Slask against Legia and I was there to cheer it and it proved a serious step towards saving the club from relegation. As I said before money become tight at Oporowska but he stayed while many went to look for it elsewhere. He become a leader and despite a strange season - they beat the Polish champions twice, the only ones to beat them at all that season all while in and around relegation zone - he was by far our best player. He scored 4 in the league in total but the one I remember perfectly was a free kick against Amica Wronka away – after which he showed a prepared ‘bull celebration’ which still makes me laugh today.
Slask went down and sadly Wasilewski moved on as he was way too good to stay in Wroclaw and see his team relegated again. His next 3 seasons were spent playing for Wisla Plock and when he turned 25, Amica came calling. In the winter transfer window of 2007 Anderlecht Brussels came in for the now full international (he made debut back in 2002 under Zbigniew Boniek’s management). This was a new chapter in his story but I still had an eye on him – he’d made huge progress since his time in Wroclaw but retained his ‘never say die’ attitude – always fighting for the ball, and still a heart-on-his-sleeve type of footballer and hard tackler.
Many Polish players went abroad and disappeared, coming back a year later saying that the coach didn’t gave them a chance, team-mates didn’t like them, and the injuries also played a part. Marcin Wasilewski never was that kind of moaning player, considered but always saying what he thought, he scored twice in the first round of the Belgium league to help his team fight for the Championship. Next year it was the domestic cup (and supercup) while in 2008/2009 he ended trophy-less but was most certainly the best Polish right-back playing the game. He scored 8, mostly with his head (are you there Tim Cahill?), proving deadly from set pieces, and every team was afraid of him while home fans fell in love with the fighting Pole (or as they called him ‘Polish tank’ or simply ‘Wasyl’). Also, Wasilewski played three times for Poland at EURO 2008 and was one of very few that we simply couldn’t complain about after the teams disappointing performance in Austria and Switzerland. That summer he was linked with several clubs from Premier League…
He came back to Anderlecht and was back to his best, scoring once in their opening four games. Then came their fifth league game against Standard Liege and he went in with a sliding tackle for a loose ball. As the whistle blew for an earlier challenge Axel Witsel flew in with his studs up and caught Wasyl square, causing an open leg fracture. When I saw the headlines that evening and the video an hour later I had tears in my eyes. He was hard player but you couldn’t call him dirty and he wasn’t capable of doing something like that to another player himself. We all thought that the man had bones made out of steel but that stupid, reckless and horrible Witsel challenge proved us wrong.
I’ve seen the video once and that was enough so the best thing to do is to give voice to Wasilewski -
‘I was conscious all the time, despite the pain that was simply indescribable. They gave me strong pain-killers straight away and I had four surgeries in next few weeks. The worst was the last one – my wife said that I was biting my pillow from the unbearable pain.’
He stayed optimistic though and despite various surgeon’s pessimism, he started talking about coming back in his very first interview. The rehabilitation was long and painful but the fans and club were behind him. Every game, 27 minutes in the Anderlecht game fans chanted ‘Wasyl, Wasyl’ from the stands as that was the minute when Witsel had broken his leg.
He made his comeback in the last game of the season months before surgeons had dared hoped. That last 10 minutes of the season ended in a Championship for Anderlecht – dedicated by players and coaching staff to Wasilewski – and the joy in his eyes was evident for all to see. We all thought that the summer of 2010 would be all about him getting back to his best, back in the national team, and back in the Anderlecht’s first squad, but another set-back with his injury as the pain reappeared meant another surgery was needed and he wasn’t fit for the season’s start. As the rounds went by, he was trying to get back to his best but struggled and only appeared in several reserve games. The club was forced to admit that if the situation with his form and fitness didn’t improve, his contract that ran to the summer of 2011 couldn’t be extended.
It’s fair to say that nothing motivates Wasilewski more that a perceived failure. He trained harder and finally played pain free – it was not ‘all in his head’ as had been suggested by some – and his determination on the pitch remained. This Sunday he got the chance he wanted – a place in the first team again and an opportunity to complete the comeback. 42 minutes in to the away game against Zulte-Waregem and he jogged into the box for a free kick. As the cross came over he found himself unmarked 12 yards out and headed it in, recalling his best form for Anderlecht. He went crazy, running to the Anderlecht fans to thank them for their remarkable support during those months. They won’t have to chant his name in the 27th minute any more – they have their ‘Wasyl’ back.
I could end the fairy tale (sort of) story here but he deserves a few words from his manager Ariel Jacobs, who said after the game that a ‘normal player would not achieve something like that but Marcin is super-human’, adding that ‘lots of players would have given up long ago. We all have great respect for his strength and will to make this remarkable comeback’. Wasilewski, also booked in that game (which may prove more typical for the old Wasilewski than the goal he scored) also shared few thoughts after the game:
‘I will remember fans support to the end of my life. I dedicate this goal to everyone involved in my rehabilitation and the ones that helped me get through all these months of pain. I dream of playing for Poland during EURO 2012, I’m pain free now.’
EURO 2012? 17 months ago it was feared he may never walk or run again. Jacobs was right – many would have given in to the pain, to the everyday agony of work in the rehabilitation center, only to watch on as others played in his place. Not Wasilewski though, getting back to his best was all that mattered and despite set-backs and 5 surgeries, he did indeed make the dream comeback, playing 90 minutes again and his old style scoring and picking up a yellow card. Give up? Marcin Wasilewski simply is not that kind of player.
If you would like to read more from Michal and get the latest updates from Poland, please visit the excellent Polish Football Scout.