Marek Citko was 22 when he scored against England in a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley in 1996. Courted by Milan, Inter and Liverpool, Citko lost everything to a knee ligament injury a year later whilst playing for Widzew Lodz against Górnik Zabrze. Bartosz Barnas talks to a forgotten Polish idol.
This story begins on an autumn evening in 1996. I was sitting in front of the TV with my family. The stadium in Lodz, just like the couch in our small living room, was packed. Widzew were playing Atlético Madrid.
When I heard the Champions League anthem, shivers went down my back. I’d been waiting for this evening for so long. Finally, my favourite player in the Widzew team was ready for Europe’s biggest club competition. Some admired Ronaldo, others loved Shearer or Del Piero. My idol was Marek Citko.
It was raining heavily in Lodz that night. Actually, the downpour was so intense that it seemed as if the gods had poured water from a huge basin. The match was fiercely fought, although Atlético were the better side from the beginning. The Spaniards scored twice in the opening half-hour, but the key moment was yet to come.
Widzew goalkeeper Maciej Szczesny threw the ball to Marek Citko. With a single body swerve Citko beat two Atlético players and began a charge at the Madrid goal. In the centre circle he raised his head and shot from fifty yards. The ball hit the back of the net. It was the most beautiful goal I have ever seen.
That evening, nothing else mattered. That Widzew ultimately lost 1-4 was not important, nor was the fact that the next morning it was a normal school day. For a long time I lay in bed replaying Marek’s goal in my head. I heard the voice of the overjoyed commentator: "It was a technical masterpiece!". Before I closed my eyes, I promised myself that one day I would meet my hero.
Sixteen years later and the dream comes true. We are talking. Both rich in life experiences which have changed us. I managed to grow up, Marek followed a path that he certainly didn’t expect. From a man who was once a Polish football superstar to a quiet former athlete with a “wasted talent” label.
Do you feel like an accomplished soccer player?
“I think not. Although I still think that I have achieved a lot. Scoring goals in the Champions League or at Wembley Stadium was incredible. They are a memento for life.”
Citko is very humble and quiet, it is evident at first glance and you can hear it in his voice. It seems that he doesn’t like to find himself as the centre of attention.
Talking to him, I don’t feel the barrier that some footballers create. Marek is friendly and has no problem answering any questions, even if they are difficult.
I remember watching Widzew games in the Champions League when I was a young boy. It was great to see you play and score so many goals. A few years later I could not accept that my idol couldn’t overcome injury. Once you know it is over, how do you get through that?
“It was not easy, although at first I had no idea that the injury would shatter everything. I remember when I tore a tendon while falling to the pitch, I immediately thought, "That's nothing, it happens. Fast recovery and I will be back to play". I told myself every day, but when rehabilitation got longer and longer, I began to understand that it was much more serious. That my return was not obvious.
“Today I know that some cardinal errors were committed during the treatment. If we hadn’t realised that the doctor who took care of me was not the best, today I probably wouldn’t even be able to walk. But you know, at the time I didn’t think that way. I thought I would get fit quickly and everything will be just like before.”
I know you're a very believing person. Did religion help you through that difficult period?
“Without faith, I would not have made it through, that's for sure. I read the Bible often, and my favourite book is The Book of Job. He took so many blows, lost everything he had, but never for a moment did he forget to stop and praise God. In difficult moments, I told myself that everything bad that happened to me during my career was nothing from the perspective of eternity. I could not break down.
Several years ago, the magazine "Bravo Sport" was extremely popular among kids in Poland. I don’t even know if it is still issued today. Anyway, the truth is that "Bravo Sport" was the first newspaper that introduced me to the world of football. So I read about the stars of the game; stars who always seemed very distant and totally inaccessible. I was convinced that the best players had some kind of superhuman powers. It was clear, that the stars of the game ran faster, shot harder, and were generally unusual.
"Bravo Sport" used to publish weekly rankings of the top athletes in the eyes of young Polish fans. There were people practicing various disciplines; tennis players, boxers, basketball players ... I didn’t know half of them. In 1996, the first place, however, was reserved for one player. Ronaldo? Not at all. The most popular sports star among young Polish fans was Marek Citko.
Each and every person in Poland loved him and it was often said that Citkomania prevailed. Every journalist wanted an interview with Marek, every kid wanted to meet, or to be him, every girl wanted a kiss.
“Indeed, it was a crazy time. So much was happening in my life. Everyone wanted an interview with me, get an autograph or to drag me to a party. I'll tell you that I was not prepared for it and I think that I was not aware of the scale of it all. Today, only in retrospect, do I realise how popular I was.
“It was faith and everyday routine that kept me on the ground. Because every now and then there was some training, a game or a camp, I managed to cut off from all the hype. It was also a period of my first major decision. I decided to propose to my fiancée, who helped me somehow survive that crazy time.
“I remember that when we once went to the cinema and someone recognized us. We immediately hid around the corner. We had to wait until the movie started, the lights went out, so we could go unnoticed and not cause a sensation.”
From the time when Citko was at his best, Poland hasn’t seen a more talented player. He was more gifted than all of today's stars. He was technically better than Lewandowski or Blaszczykowski, and was able to decide the fate of matches with one touch. He anticipated everything two steps ahead. There is no doubt he could have played in any of the best European leagues.
“The most attractive offer that I got came from Blackburn Rovers. They offered a salary of over one million pounds per year. At that time this was an unimaginable amount of money. However, money never meant a lot to me. I thought I was not ready to play abroad and decided to stay in Poland for a few more months.”
Which teams, apart from Blackburn, wanted to sign you from Widzew?
“In the newspapers you could read that all of the best in Europe, but of course this was an exaggeration. I knew for sure that there were offers from Liverpool, Arsenal, AC Milan and Inter. But Blackburn offered the most money to Widzew, so I only negotiated with them.”
Then came the disastrous injury that eventually ruined your career. You had no claims to the fate that struck such a blow to you?
“I have a personal motto: "Let the will of heaven write your destiny". I think it may serve as an answer.”
Many people can’t cope when they lose everything in one day, and a bad injury is often an excuse for alcohol. Was that you?
“Oh no. It was not my style, you know. Since I was little, I was taught that in difficult times you don’t look to the glass but at the cross. Faith has helped me overcome various temptations in my life. And I can tell you there were a lot of those.”
Are you an unfulfilled talent?
“As a footballer - I think so. But luckily as a man I feel satisfied. And this is much more important. I have a nice family and that’s what really matters. Being a footballer lasts for a few years, but being a father, a husband – that is something that lasts your entire life.”
Today Citko is a football agent. In his words, he wants to help young players make the right decisions. He often watches a lower-league match and tries to bring talented players to the Ekstraklasa.
At first glance, modest and a little withdrawn, Citko does not fit the identikit of modern agents. Most people believe football agents are the incarnations of evil; bloodsuckers feeding on their clients and squeezing them to the bone. However, according to Marek, such opinion is unfair, because in any job there are a group of people whose bad practices affect the perception of the whole.
“Look at doctors or lawyers. There are some black sheep among them, which spoil the opinion of all. So it is with managers and players. Not everyone does his job properly, but I focus on my work. I try to do my best.”
Citko points out that providing the best medical aid for players in case of injury is what’s most important to him. Some time ago, one of his charges – Lukasz Gikiewicz from Slask Wroclaw – broke an ankle. Citko rapidly launched his contacts (the best medical teams available) and the player was healed and fit in just a few weeks.
“That’s what I see as my greatest achievement in my work as an agent. And so I understand my function. You have to be with your player no matter if he is up or down. It’s so easy to pat one’s back when everything goes well. But to support someone in a difficult moment is much more valuable.”
In a low voice Citko says that he regrets that no one gave him a helping hand in the first months after he was injured. Maybe then everything would be different. Maybe there would be more nights like that one in September 1996, when the entire football family of Europe wondered how a young boy from Widzew could ridicule the famous Jose Molina.
Sixteen years have passed since that September evening. Almost everything has changed. It turned out that the world is not so remarkable as that seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. It turned out that even the greatest talent may lose his best years.
One thing hasn’t changed, however. I've never seen a goal more beautiful than the one scored by Marek Citko on that rainy autumn evening.