Poland made their World Cup debut back in 1938, where a spectacular 6-5 loss against Brazil sent them home. It would take 36 years before The Eagles made another appearance on football’s greatest stage. Poland’s World Cup triumphs were worth that hiatus.
Poland’s Previous World Cup Triumphs
Failed World Cup Qualification Attempts
Poland didn’t enter qualification for the two subsequent World Cups following the 1938 edition, but 1958 saw them return. The Soviet Union and Poland finished on equal points and a play-off in Leipzig decided who was going to Sweden in 1958. The Red Army proved too big of an obstacle for The Eagles, winning 2-0.
In 1962 qualification, Yugoslavia did the same. Qualification for the 1966 and 1970 cups saw little improvement, as they still failed to win their groups. Poland too often stood on the threshold of the World Cup, barely failing to cross it. This threshold seemed even more distant after their opening match of 1974 qualifying, where two Welsh goals reigned supreme. Wales’ ‘big brother’ to the east was next in line, England.
If Poland couldn’t stand their ground against Wales, the Three Lions would surely be an insurmountable obstacle, right? One would be forgiven for believing that, but Robert Gadocha gave Poland the lead in the seventh minute. Two minutes into the second half, Włodzimierz Lubański proved it wasn’t just good luck, as he doubled their lead and assured victory. Poland had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years.
Poland’s 1974 World Cup Return
By all accounts, they found themselves in the most difficult group. Sharing it with Argentina and Italy. But Poland’s triumph at the Munich Olympics two years prior was cause for optimism. Debutants Haiti somewhat mitigated that difficulty without making the group easy. Although it was before Diego Maradona’s era, this Argentinian side was one of the world’s best.
But Poland had a dream start, scoring two goals before the ninth minute and ultimately winning 3-2. This was followed by a sensational win against Haiti. Why was a victory against the unfavoured Caribbean side sensational? Because the Poles won 7-0! Next in line was Italy. Just like they had done in their previous two matches, Poland scored the first two goals. Fabio Capello’s 85th-minute goal just served as consolation for the Azzurri.
Second Group Stage
Sweden, who defeated Uruguay 3-0 and held the greatest ever Dutch side to a draw, was Poland’s first opponent of the second group stage. Winning this group would put them in the final. Finish as runner-ups and they would have to settle with a third-place play-off. Grzegorz Lato’s winning goal right on the stroke of half-time gave Poland just the start they had hoped for. The White and Reds subsequently triumphed 2-1 against Yugoslavia, the reason the Poles were not present at the 1962 World Cup. Poland’s next challenge would prove their most difficult yet. Their opponent was the host and not just any host – West Germany.
Despite a brave performance, Gerd Muller in his prime proved to be the difference between the two nations, as his goal made sure Die Mannschaft were victorious. However, the prospect of winning bronze motivated the Poles to keep morale up. Even though the sheer greatness of their opposition would’ve been enough to make any team tremble.
Reigning world champions Brazil. Against all odds, Lato scored Poland’s winning goal as the final 15 minutes were approaching. Lato’s seventh goal of the tournament, which made him the top scorer. But more importantly, it was the goal that won Poland their first-ever World Cup medal.
1978 World Cup Disappointment
Poland came agonisingly close to reaching UEFA Euro 1976, only failing to qualify because of goal difference. This disappointment was short-lived, though. Because they did qualify for what really mattered – the 1978 World Cup. Their opening match was against West Germany and offered Poland the chance to exorcise their World Cup demons by beating the team that sent them home in ‘74.
Poland didn’t fully exact revenge against Die Mannschaft, but came one step closer to doing so, holding the world champions to a 0-0 draw. In their match against Tunisia (whom West Germany failed to beat), Lato, as he so often did, scored the game’s winning goal. The Poles cemented their first-place finish with a 3-1 win over Mexico.
Second Second Group Stage
Just like four years prior, they reached the second group stage. Poland’s stint in the second group stage must’ve felt more like the Copa America than the World Cup because it consisted of Argentina, Peru and Brazil. Two of which were defeated by Poland in ’74. But a lot can change in four years, which La Albiceleste and Seleção proved with their comfortable wins against the Poles. Their win against Peru just served as consolation. This World Cup was over for Poland.
Third Time Lucky Poland?
Poland’s pattern of narrowly missing out on the Euros persisted in 1980 qualifying, obtaining one less point than required. Fortunately, they also maintained their World Cup pattern, winning every match during qualification. Certainly from one of the easier groups, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. Their 1982 World Cup group contained familiar faces, namely Italy and Peru, both of whom Poland had beaten at previous cups. Debutants Cameroon rounded off the group.
Just like in 1978, Poland started the tournament with a 0-0 deadlock against world power of football. In 1978 it was West Germany, now it was Italy. This trend persisted in Poland’s second match with another goalless draw against debutants Cameroon. Peru, eager to redeem themselves after their loss in 1978, was the final hurdle. Victory was Poland’s only option if they wanted to keep their World Cup dream alive. And win they did, scoring five goals in 26 minutes to deservedly win the group.
Third Second Group Stage
For the third time in a row, Poland had advanced to the second round. But could they replicate their 1974 success, or would this be another fiasco like in 1978? If there were any doubts, Poland eradicated them entirely after demolishing Belgium 3-0. Their third goalless draw of the tournament (against the Soviet Union) secured Poland a place in the semi-finals. West Germany, Italy, France and Poland – the four best national teams in the world.
The Poles were once again poised to take on Italy, a team they had a good track record against. But something happened. Maybe something psychological. Realising that you are only one match away from a World Cup title can have unpredictable effects on the mind. Or maybe Paolo Rossi would’ve scored that brace in that match, regardless of the circumstances. Whatever the case may be, Poland’s World Cup hopes were deleted.
Bronze Medalists Yet Again
But one final challenge remained: the third-place play-off against France. René Girard broke the hearts of millions of Poles as he opened the scoring in the 13th minute. But Poland retaliated dramatically, leading 3-1 right as the second half started. This two-goal cushion made sure Alain Couriol’s 72nd-minute goal only served as consolation for France. Just like in 1974, Poland won bronze by defeating one of the world’s best teams.
Poland’s Last Great Hurrah at the 1986 World Cup
The Poland of 1986 was quite a different one than that of previous World Cups during their successful era, albeit still a respectable side. Despite scoring just one goal in the entire group stage, they still advanced to the round of 16. But once there, Brazil sent them home following a 4-0 demolition. Just like in 1938, Brazil was Poland’s grim reaper. Poland has never reached the second round of a World Cup since 1986. When will this curse be broken?