The ball had reared up at chest height and Michal Pazdan went for it, leaping in with his studs up and leg outstretched. The Poland centre-half did not get it. Instead, he left his mark on Jon Walters, the Republic of Ireland striker. It was November 2013. The legend of Kung-fu Pazdan was born.
It has taken a twist at the European Championship, where Poland have impressed en route to a quarter-final meeting with Portugal in Marseille on Thursday night. Never before have they emerged from the group phase at the tournament and the sense of excitement has gone off the chart.
There is belief, too, that this can be Poland’s year. The kitman, Pawel Kosedowski, has admitted that he has shirts printed for the final and, if they get there, it will be the prompt for a show of solidarity with Pazdan, the cult hero, who has the toughness of teak and the look of Kojak.
A Facebook campaign has taken hold, in which supporters have promised to shave their heads to look like Pazdan were Poland to get past Portugal and then Belgium or Wales in the semi-final. On Wednesday afternoon there were more than 57,000 signatories, with more than 75,000 others interested.
Pazdan is a symbol of this team. The 28-year-old was taken to Euro 2008 by the then manager Leo Beenhakker, who said the defender had the potential to be a future A-lister. It has not quite worked out like that. The Legia Warsaw player has spent his career in the Polish league, and he has been solid rather than spectacular.
Until now. Pazdan gave a breakout performance in Poland’s second group game – the 0‑0 draw against Germany, when the world champions were restricted to nothing more than a few clear chances. With better finishing at the other end from the striker Arkadiusz Milik, Poland might have won.
They had beaten Northern Ireland 1-0 in their opening game – their first win at a European Championship finals, which led to wild celebrations. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, was at the stadium and he went into the dressing room to congratulate the players.
The Germany result and the manner of the performance fired the optimism and with Pazdan – and others – showing how determination and a team ethic can help to overcome the odds, Poland have captured the imagination.
Their No1 celebrity fan is the actor Russell Crowe, who has described them on Twitter as “pure underdogs, who feel like a real team”. Crowe has evidently been seduced and he has taken to tweeting messages of support. He has even written in Polish ‘Do boju Polska!’, which translates as ‘Let’s go, Poland.’
An attempt was made to reach out to him and invite him to the last-16 tie against Switzerland, although that did not happen. Indeed, a Twitter troll set up an account purporting to be that of Crowe – and doing so in plausible fashion – in which he said he would not attend and added a few offensive remarks. Briefly, one of those storms swirled. Twitter, eh?
Poland’s campaign has been characterised by grit, selflessness and exuberance. The atmosphere at the team hotel in La Baule, on France’s Atlantic coastline, has been relaxed. At Euro 2012, when Poland were the co-hosts, the team stayed in central Warsaw. There were cameras everywhere and no escape. It seemed like a mistake. Now, when the players look out of their windows, they can see beautiful beaches and the sea.
Their karma is good and there is the impression that they are enjoying themselves, which is supported by a look at the Polish Football Association’s TV channel – Laczy nas Pilka (Football unites us). The tone is one of good fun and Artur Jedrzejczyk, the left-back, has emerged as the star of it. On Tuesday he joked how Pazdan had done well only because of him, and one of the latest videos showed the squad paint-balling. Jedrzejczyk can be heard to say that Pazdan is a sitting duck because of his baldness.
Robert Lewandowski is the squad’s star, the one player with world-class credentials but the Bayern Munich striker has been happy to make sacrifices to draw the focus of opposing defenders to open up the space for others, particularly his partner, Milik.
Lewandowski is the most-fouled player at the championship, according to the statistics, and it has been difficult to ignore the feeling that he has been targeted. Poland were unhappy that a referee, Mark Clattenburg, did not give him greater protection in the Switzerland game. But Lewandowski has stood up to the physical onslaught and Portugal might worry that he is surely due a first goal at the finals.
Milik is another talking point. He got the winner against Northern Ireland but another statistic shows that only one player – Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo – has had more shots off target than him. The 22-year-old from Ajax has been criticised for a clutch of glaring misses and finds himself under the spotlight.
The coach, Adam Nawalka, has built his team on firm foundations and it is set up to break at pace. Joachim Löw, the Germany manager, has said that Poland are one of the best counterattacking teams he has seen over the past two years. The Borussia Dortmund winger Jakub Blaszczykowski, who scored in the 1-0 victory against Ukraine, in the final group tie, and against Switzerland, is in form.
Poland conceded their only goal of the tournament against Switzerland – it finished 1-1, before they advanced on penalties – and it took a magnificent scissors kick from Xherdan Shaqiri to do it. Lukasz Fabianski made excellent saves and it is clear that the goalkeeper has benefited from being the undisputed No1 at Swansea City and, also, that he is finally getting the credit he deserves.
Fabianski stepped in after Wojciech Szczesny felt a thigh injury following the Northern Ireland game and he took his place in a team photograph during the post-Switzerland celebrations. In it, Fabianski looked as though he was gasping. Poland intend to continue their remarkable journey.
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