Back to the future for Poland

Poland has a proud footballing history which has sustained the game through some lean years.

Poland celebrate a goal during their 3-2 victory against France in the 1982 World Cup third-place play-off
Poland celebrate a goal during their 3-2 victory against France in the 1982 World Cup third-place play-off ©Bob Thomas/Getty Images

The Polish Football Federation (Polski Związek Piłki Nożnej or PZPN) was founded at a meeting in Warsaw on 20 and 21 December 1919, some 12 months after the country regained independence following World War One.

The PZPN, Poland's oldest and largest sporting organisation, had Edward Cetnarowski as its first president with headquarters in Krakow. The game grew fast: KS Cracovia were crowned Poland's maiden champions in 1921, and on 18 December of the same year the national team made their debut, losing 1-0 to Hungary in Budapest.

After the PZPN obtained FIFA membership in 1923, a national side competed at the next year's Paris Olympics. Another historic landmark was the first final of the Puchar Polski, or Polish Cup, which Wisla Kraków won 2-1 against LKS Sparta Lwów. Meanwhile, a new top flight, the Ekstraklasa, was established in 1927, launched with a Warsaw derby between Legia Warszawa and KS Warszawianka. Although Wisla Kraków were the first champions, KS Ruch Chorzów became the dominant force, lifting five Polish Cups.

The national team made an impression in the 1930s. The Bialo-czerwoni (Red and Whites) took fourth spot at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, before reaching the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup in France two years later. Here they lost 6-5 to Brazil after extra time; Ernest Wilimowski, then Poland's best player, scored four goals.

The PZPN returned to business after World War Two from Warsaw. KSP Polonia Warszawa were the first post-war champions. However, the 1950s and 1960s were lean years despite the talents of Gerard Cieslik, Ernest Pol, Edward Szymkowiak and Lucjan Brychczy. It was striker Cieslik who netted twice when Poland defeated the USSR 2-1 in Chorzow in a World Cup qualifier in 1957. Górnik Zabrze held sway domestically with six league titles in the 1960s. Their participation in the 1970 European Cup Winners' Cup final against Manchester City FC – lost 2-1 in Vienna – combined with Legia Warszawa's run to the European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals that season, heralded better days for Polish football.

Led by Kazimierz Górski, the national team started to sparkle. A gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics was followed by silver in Montreal four years later; sandwiched in between was a third-place finish at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Kazimierz Denya, Włodzmierz Lubański, Jan Tomaszewski, Grzegorz Lato, Robert Gadocha, Henryk Kasperczak, Andrzej Szarmach, Jerzy Gorgoń and Władysław Żmuda were key men.

In that context, Poland's fifth place at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, under coach Jacek Gmoch, represented a failure. However, tragedy struck the PZPN later that year when its president Edward Sznajder died in a car crash.

The national team bounced back at Spain 1982 with Antoni Piechniczek as coach and Zbigniew Boniek – later voted Poland's greatest-ever footballer – as captain. They finished third after overcoming France 3-2 in a play-off. Nonetheless, the next World Cup in Mexico signalled a downturn. Eliminated by Brazil, the side would fail to qualify for a World Cup or UEFA European Championship until the new millennium. A silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics under Janusz Wójcik was small consolation.

Youth football brought redemption. Poland won the UEFA European Under-16 Championship (now a U17 event) in 1993, were runners-up in the same competition six years later, and also collected the U18 title in 2001, indicating a promising future.

Sure enough, the seniors returned to the elite stage at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan under Jerzy Engel. Paweł Janas was in charge of the team that went to the 2006 showpiece in Germany, where again they fell at the group phase. Subsequently it was a Dutchman, Leo Beenhakker, who oversaw Poland's first-ever qualification for the UEFA European Championship: Austria and Switzerland in 2008. Four years later Poland were present at another EURO – as co-hosts in tandem with neighbouring Ukraine.