Coverage of London 2012 will bring forth numerous, sepia tinted memories of sporting achievements, and Manchester City’s title success has allowed fans a chance to dwell on the club’s past. However it’s unlikely that much time will be spent remembering Polish Olympian and former City midfielder, Kazimierz Deyna. Rob Allen looks at his life and thinks that now is as good a time as any to pay our respects.
It was Legia Warsaw’s elegant midfielder who thumped in two second half goals for Poland in the final of the Munich ’72 Olympics, beating the Hungary 2-1 to secure his nation its greatest football honour and give confidence to a team that would run rampant during the World Cup two years later. The anniversary should be one of joy, but remembering Kazimierz Deyna is to delve into a story of unfulfilled potential, of a career manipulated into near irrelevance by Poland’s communist regime, the wreckage left behind by dishonest agents and the deep unhappiness that can so easily overcome an influential and gifted player once it’s all over.
Deyna, hailing from a small northern village, was a player of numerous aliases. Commonly referred to as ‘Kaziu’, ‘Kazak’, ‘Kaka’ and ‘The Croissant’ (for his looping shots), it was the French media that perhaps most accurately tagged him when they referred to him as ‘The General’ in 1970. In later years, Franz Beckenbauer would refer to him as a complete footballer. His close friend, George Bergier remembers him differently. “Kaz was a strange character. He would not talk about his footballing achievements.” he says, talking in a Manchester coffee shop. “He wasn’t big headed at all, regardless of his achievements. If we were having a conversation with him today you’d have to drag things out of him. He was born with two brains: one in his head and one in his feet.”
Deyna’s two brains would confound fellow players, friends and family for years. At once shy and retiring, without a grasp of English, he would stand on the fringes of any squad he was travelling with, but would hold court with female hotel receptionists without a unified language and find a path through the midfield of the world’s best teams. As a human being, Bergier’s recollections of a man at odds with his ego seem entirely accurate and many others testify of his reluctance to step out of a shadow of his own making. It was in that silence that he would suffer numerous indignities and have his potential as a player cruelly stifled.
ŁKS Łódź was the first club to give Deyna his first team debut at 19 years old, but his record at the club is notably short, with just the one appearance. The Polish authorities had noted his exciting, raw abilities as a creative midfielder and decided he should instead play for Legia Warsaw. Tricky transfer negotiations could easily be avoided in communist Poland and Deyna was called up for national service, stealing him away from Łódź to serve as an officer and play for the army club. It was at Legia that George Bergier first met the young Deyna, and would eventually play a leading role in helping him leave Poland more than ten years later. Bergier, a member of the ‘Central Army Sports Club Legion Warsaw’ athletics team remembers how powerful a player he was at a young age.
He says: “When we were at Legia I went in the goal mouth for fun and the Legia boys were taking shots from distance. Deyna hit one at me. It was hit so hard that it took the skin off my shin.” Goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, another hero of the 1970s Legia and Polish national teams, also recalled that Kazimierz’ shots were ‘nasty’ when interviewed for the 2003 Polish short film ‘Deyna’. Bergier would remain good, albeit distant friends with both Deyna and Tomaszewski throughout their careers, having left Poland to become a waiter at the prestigious Midland Hotel in Manchester. The job would put him in regular contact with both Manchester City and Manchester United officials and players, eventually assisting as an interpreter when European competition took English teams behind the iron curtain.
Between striking that shot against Bergier’s shin and Deyna’s arrival in the UK twelve years later, the player would ride a rollercoaster of fortune and frustration. Not only would he lead Poland to Olympic gold in 1972, overturning a one goal deficit single handed, he would orchestrate the defeats of Argentina and Italy at the 1974 World Cup, helping Poland to third place in an exhibition of unrestrained team spirit. Their individual talent, no greater than the majority of European teams, was let loose under the fatherly tutelage of their coach Kazimierz Gorski and Deyna’s leadership. A Deyna shot from the edge of Italy’s penalty box screamed into Dino Zoff’s net announced his arrival on the world stage. He came third behind Beckenbauer and Cruyff in the European Footballer of the Year rankings that year and would shine at Wembley as Poland denied England their World Cup qualification by holding them to a famous 1 – 1 draw. Europe’s elite clubs were alive to his talent, but for all their grandeur, the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid didn’t have the power to secure his services.
Deyna had secretly growing ambitions to leave and ply his trade in the Spanish, German or Italian leagues, just as he was wanted by clubs there. To keep his ambitions in check, an interview was published in the military press where Deyna declared that he was a loyal son of Poland and he would see out his career as a servant of the nation. Of course, Deyna later told friends that he had given no such interview, that it had been completely fabricated and nobody had spoken to him. The political machine was in motion and, despite allowing international team mates such as Robert Gadocha to leave for opportunities outside the eastern bloc, the bureau had decided that Deyna was too valuable a commodity to be allowed to the west.
The cruel irony was that Deyna was loathed in his home country as a Legia Warsaw player. Much the same as the volatile receptions that greeted Beckenbauer on his travels through Germany with Bayern Munich, Deyna could not touch a ball either in the green of Legia or the red of Poland without resentment of his club’s dominance coming to the fore. He confirmed qualification for the 1978 World Cup by scoring directly from a corner kick versus Portugal, only to be substituted later to a deafening chorus of vitriolic whistles. He was spat on, fruit was thrown in the street, his car vandalised and stones thrown at his windows. Missing a crucial penalty versus Argentina to bring the Polish national team home in ‘78 only pushed him further towards passport control and a new life abroad.
At the age of 32, he was two years past the age when transfers were, in theory, forbidden. It seemed that the final years of his career would finally be an opportunity to show what he was capable of and earn enough money to secure his family’s future. In England, Bill Taylor, a coach with Manchester City, had returned from Argentina and was impressed with Poland’s players despite their unexpected early departure from the competition. George Bergier was approached by Taylor to help them to get a deal in place to bring one of Poland’s shining stars to Manchester. Unfortunately, they weren’t referring to Deyna.
Bergier remembers: “After the 1978 World Cup, Bill said they would like to sign a Polish player that he had seen in Argentina. They said they wanted our star player, Zbigniew Boniek! I told them that would be difficult, because of the Polish government. It would be impossible unless they made an offer that the Polish government, the Polish Football Association and Widzew Łódź could not refuse. The manager of the Polish team, Jacek Gmoch, said it would be impossible to transfer Boniek, but that Deyna was available. I told City and they said that they would like to start negotiations.” Within weeks City’s General Secretary, Bernard Halford accompanied by Bergier had touched down in Warsaw to begin negotiations to bring Deyna to the English First Division in a deal that has become famous for costing the club a £100,000 fee, a quantity of US dollars and a shopping list of Rank Xerox office equipment.
“The deal was done after who knows how many litres of vodka, dry biscuits and black coffees, starting at maybe nine in the morning,” remembers Bergier of the mission. “Polish officials were coming and going from the room as it involved not only the Polish FA, but the Ministry of Defence who had to decide whether or not he was allowed to leave the army as well as the club. It was just me and Bernard trying to get the deal done, Deyna had hardly anything to do with it and neither did Legia. The authorities were stipulating the terms of the deal as they were getting a cut out of it and it involved giving office supplies because it was 1978 and sophisticated office equipment was hard to come by in Poland. We also agreed that Legia would come here for a series of friendlies, playing Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City. Legia won 5-1 at Maine Road.”
On Wednesday 1st November 1978 the Manchester Evening News published the first in a series of articles titled ‘The Deyna Dossier’, establishing the tone of a spy thriller as reports came in from a hostile, foreign land. The paper had sent their sports writer Peter Gardner to Poland to discover this mysterious new star. What Gardner found was a ‘recluse like’ character, living a quiet life, who admitted to worshipping Bobby Charlton as a boy. Offering tributes to a Manchester United legend would hardly win over the City faithful, but Gardner found a player in honest mood. Deyna told him: “Realistically I would have preferred to leave Poland two or three years earlier, but this was not possible. After the West Germany World Cup finals, Bayern Munich were desperate to sign me, although there was no chance of me leaving Poland then.” Gardner was forced to ask questions about Deyna’s creeping age due to a dissenting minority back home, suggesting that City had picked up a player past his prime. For all parties the transfer turned out to be a mistake, but it was the English game and not an issue of age that saw Deyna’s star rapidly fade.
Stefan Szczepłek, a journalist and Deyna’s biographer, visited the player in Manchester. It became clear that the move to a more brutal form of the game had come as a shock to the player. He said: “When it comes to battle, it's like two locomotives have collided. This is why many British attackers, defenders and goalkeepers leave their dentures in the locker room. I'm not going to do that.” Deyna’s style of play, his aptitude for picking out difficult passes, marauding into space he’d discover in midfield and running onto neat passes on the edge of the area to score was compromised by the toothless thugs in the tough First Division. His former national coach, Górski suggested the language barrier compounded Deyna’s frustrations, saying: “If he had spoken the language then he could have communicated better with the players during games. But, it was like he was deaf and dumb.”
George Bergier agrees that, without an understanding of English, Deyna was trapped in his own head and unable to express his ideas. He stayed at Manchester City until 1981, managing only 38 appearances for the club in three years. For a player of Deyna’s standing, captain of club and country for so long, his time in England was understandably miserable. Bergier says that there was only one time he saw Deyna genuinely content - his cameo in the film, ‘Escape to Victory’. The filming gave Deyna a new lease of life, Bergier says, because ‘he was among equals’ with Pelé, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles. Deyna’s son Norbert agrees, recalling that being in a Hollywood movie was one of his father’s most cherished achievements. Although his appearances are fleeting and obviously without dialogue, the off camera antics and the chance to play football with legends, regardless of their similarly fading stature, offered him a belated chance to play alongside the best and distract him from the reality of his own career.
Moving to the San Diego Sockers in January 1981 to compete in the emerging Major Soccer League in the United States was the second and last transfer for Deyna. His agent Ted Miodonski, a Pole in residence in California, engineered the move to the States and did the same for current Poland manager, Franciszek Smuda who would play in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Jose. Sadly, both players would be defrauded of their earnings by Miodonski, leaving Deyna with nothing to show for his career. After initially setting the fledging Major League Soccer alight as a leading light in a dominant San Diego team, things changed. His anxiety at the passing of time, the loss of his savings and the gradual failure of his marriage started to take its toll and the usually reserved player began to lose his cool. Not only would his wife, Mariola find it difficult to live with a man whose star was fading, but he would inexplicably fail to turn up for matches, collect fines and become more outspoken publically than ever before.
On February 14th 1986, the LA Times published a stinging interview in which Deyna lashed out at his coach, the Englishman Ron Newman. After playing a key role in the team for five years, Deyna was left out and was compelled to fight back. He said: "What the hell is going on? I usually play it cool and keep it inside. But it's bad to keep it inside. It makes me angry and disappointed when I don't play. And why didn't the coach come to me and explain? I like fair people and fair stuff. This is not fair. If you fight, fight face to face. Don't knife me in the back." Was this really Kazimierz Deyna talking? It was uncharacteristic of a man who was known for being laid back and unemotional, but assuming that there was no additional theatre added on the part of the journalist, it’s obvious that his patience was wearing thin and years of frustration were ready to burst out of him.
Newman stood his ground and went on building the Sockers team around other players, drafting in Deyna as and when required. By June 1987 Deyna was without a club. Not only would he now be facing life without football, but he would lose the house he had acquired with Ted Miodonski’s assistance and find himself living alone after separating from Mariola. The General couldn’t fall much further. Deyna was arrested for drink-driving on three separate occasions between 1984 and 1987, highlighting a growing problem. A new living as a youth coach couldn’t match the thrill of playing the game himself and returning occasionally to Europe to star in veteran matches alongside his former Polish international team mates compounded his misery, as the players he had lined up with 25 years before were all moving on with their lives, some going on to become respected coaches, businessmen and journalists.
His former team mates saw Deyna for the last time after an exhibition match in Denmark in 1989. Both Tomasziewski and the former striker Grzegorz Lato spoke in the film ‘Deyna’ and recalled their captain’s emotional distance from the rest of the squad. He was evidently the same in his forties as he was as an awkward twenty-something and, despite imploring him to make the short journey with them to Poland, Deyna returned to the States alone. His biographer, Szczepłek speculated that it was either shame at having achieved so little since he left his home country or simply a lack of money that got in the way. Whatever the reason, his chance to see Poland once more was gone.
On September 1st 1989, Kazimierz Deyna destroyed his Dodge Colt by driving at speed into the back of a parked truck that was sat, with its hazard lights blinking, on the hard shoulder of Interstate 15. At just 42 years old Deyna was dead, after crashing at twice the legal alcohol limit. The coroner reported that there were no skid marks visible on the road. He had not attempted to brake and was found to have just 50 cents in his pocket. 22 footballs were found in the boot of the car.
Whatever went on in his head, the deal that Deyna got from his country and from football was raw. His two goals to seal gold in the 1972 Olympics should be an opportunity to dwell, not on the misfortune of a man who struggled to deal with his talent and his money being placed in the hands of unscrupulous double dealers, but on his abilities as a footballer. He brought moments of excitement to what is now the world’s richest club as they struggled for survival in the late seventies, and volleyed City to safety as they fought relegation in his final season before leaving for one last blast in the California sunshine. His friends’ memories suggest that if the modest player was here today he would be the last to make a fuss of what he achieved. As he’s now gone, the least we can do is take a moment to remember.
Rob can be found on Twitter @northernrob.