Tomek Chodorowicz

The Polish national team will not be at South Africa next year. After being outclassed by Slovenia the Poles lost their last chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Just 15 minutes after the final whistle blew on that match, head coach Leo Beenhakker was sacked. The following day a massive campaign against the Dutch coach was launched in the media. Beenhakker was thought to be guilty. Perhaps he is, but he certainly is not the only one.

“That is a fairly easy group” could be heard around Poland in November of 2007, when the country was drawn with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, and San Marino. Expectations were not unreasonable: Poland must make it to the globe’s most prestigious football tournament.

Poland’s 2010 qualifiers got off to a decent enough start. The 1-1 draw with Slovenia was disappointing, the minimal win over San Marino too, but the Poles showed quality football when beating the Czech Republic, and all was forgiven. The upcoming game against Slovakia was eagerly anticipated. Everything went well, Poland moved a goal ahead of their neighbours and seemed to be in control. Then, in the final ten minutes, Artur Boruc let in two tame strikes and the match was turned on its head. This was the turning point for the Poles on their road to the World Cup.

Leo Beenhakker was the first coach ever to lead Poland to the European Championships. After storming through the 2008 qualifiers he was very popular amongst the Polish support, and respected by the Polish FA (PZPN) too. The fans stayed loyal to the Dutchman all the way, however the PZPN definitely did not. After PZPN elections in November 2008, won by Grzegorz Lato, once a star of the 1974 World Cup, now a prominent PZPN activist, things got rough for Beenhakker. Lato was far from convinced by the Dutch coach and many felt the president thought that Beenhakker was disrespectful towards Polish coaches. Needless to say, the two did not enjoy the healthiest of relationships.       

Beenhakker’s decision to aid his beloved Feyenoord without the FA’s consent did not help build a good atmosphere either. Lato was furious, and Beenhakker was finished. The PZPN now openly spoke about replacing the Dutchman as there were concerns his Feyenoord stint was in some ways unprofessional behaviour. Beenhakker started paying more attention to the Eredivise club where he was unofficially the director of football, than to the “White and Reds”.

When the winter break was over, the Poles were about to face a team that had never caused them serious trouble – Northern Ireland. To draw attention away from his job in the Netherlands, Beenhakker had to do what was expected of him and pick up the three points on Irish soil. The Polish team’s display was embarrassing, Boruc made a series of errors, again, and the points stayed in Belfast. Fans and media alike were greatly disappointed and Beenhakker’s position grew more tenuous.

Apart from Lato, Beenhakker was considered to have rubbed up three quarters of the PZPN the wrong way, and when this wasn’t for his helping out Feyenoord, it was for his perceived lack of honesty. From his very first day as head coach, the Dutchman criticised many aspects of Polish football, especially the youth set-up, bemoaning the absolute lack of any youth training system.   

After another long break the 2010 qualifiers were back on the stage and in order to prolong their chances of a visit to Africa next year, Poland had to beat Northern Ireland at home. The team’s form was a mystery, and the record breaking 10-0 win over San Marino in April counted for nothing. The Polish players and coach Beenhakker had prepared for the game in Germany and assured the fans that they had what it takes. The match was anticipated with caution, nevertheless, with fair expectation that the Poles should claim three points. What happened however was that Poland were brushed aside and only through luck secured a draw. With other results going for them the Euro 2012 co-hosts still had a chance, but the game against Slovenia was crucial.

The game in Maribor, Slovenia, is one that the Polish fans would like to forget quickly and forever. A completely one sided game saw Slovenia dispense with the Poles 3-0. The match had been as one sided as any Poland fan could remember, and it seemed Polish football had reached rock bottom.

Immediately following the defeat Grzegorz Lato was interviewed on TV. In that interview he announced that Leo Beenhakker was no longer working for the Polish national team, and that on the following day the PZPN would start looking for a new coach. The only problem was that Lato had not told Beenhakker. This time it was the Dutchman who was rightly furious, stating "I wish he had told me before he told TV".

Beenhakker had many complaints: The Polish game has unprofessional players, unrealistic media expectation and lacks a crucial youth development programme, with little to no support from the domestic PZPN. Many commentators felt that Beenhakker spoke the truth. The world of football is moving faster than football in Poland, and the Eastern European nation has much catching up to do. Apart from a handful of old coaches, who hark back to the glory days of the 70s and 80s, most people involved with the game appreciate the need for drastic change.

However, Beenhakker’s side should still have had enough about it to sail past Northern Ireland and Slovenia though regardless. The two games remaining, against Slovakia and the Czech Republic, appear meaningless for the Poles. The next permanent Poland boss will also surely be a native coach after president Lato stated that Beenhakker’s successor will be Polish. This means the CVs already sent to Warsaw by Lothar Matthaus and others will not even be looked at, whilst Beenhakker would surely advise his colleagues against taking the job.

Whoever ends up in the Polish hot-seat will face a difficult challenge in the years ahead. After the qualifiers for the World Cup have grinded to a halt, the next official game to be played will be the first match of Euro 2012, which Poland will co-host: until then it’s friendlies. Before 2012 there must be a revolution within the national team. Many of the current crop will be too old in three years time and replacements must be found. The pressure on Poland as that tournament will be huge. All this makes the FA’s decision as to who will replace Beenhakker one of the most crucial they will ever make. Sadly, few believe they will get it right.

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