Nothing quite compares to the euphoria and the excitement that gathers as a nation unites in patriotic pride when a major football tournament comes around. Often, this can be the birthing pool of national heroes that make a name for themselves, and often it can be the scene of a great underdog story as the hosts exceed all expectations – punching above their weight against the heavyweight champions fighting for the title on their home turf.
This summer, Poland and Ukraine go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite in their own respective backyards as joint-hosts of Euro 2012. Despite the disappointment for co-hosts Austria and Switzerland four years earlier, the home teams generally have a strong record of progressing to the knockout stages – and it could be the Poles who axe some of the favourites this time round.
Poland are only competing in their second European championship – a surprise considering a golden era in the 70s and 80s for the country, which resulted in third place finishes at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups respectively – so they’re enjoying their best years as a footballing nation for a couple of decades. They have made it to three of the last four major tournaments, including this summer’s European Championships, but this will be their best chance of progression to the knockout stages yet.
The nucleus of Poland’s squad has developed considerably since failing to make it past the group stages four years ago. With the safe-hands of Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and a trio of Bundesliga-winning Borussia Dortmund players, Franciszek Smuda’s men have the ability to cause a surprise or two. A recent 0-0 draw against Portugal and a win over Latvia suggest that they come in to the tournament with a bit of form as well.
While Szczęsny and Polish compatriot and second choice keeper Łukasz Fabiański have plied their trade in the Premier League for a few seasons now, it is their Bundesliga-based trio who have made the biggest stir this season.
Dortmund, under the guidance of charismatic boss Jürgen Klopp, pipped Champions League finalists Bayern Munich to the league title for the second consecutive season and defeated Bayern 5-2 in the German Cup Final to round off a great season. Much of their success has been down to the influence of their Polish contingent, despite plenty of top German talent at their disposal.
Robert Lewandowski, who is being linked with a big money move to Manchester United this summer, scored 30 goals to fire Dortmund to glory, and he could well be an outside contender for the Euro 2012 Golden boot. Poland’s captain, Jakub Błaszczykowski, made two assists in the German Cup final and has been a regular in the side since 2007 and Łukasz Piszczek, has been a key part of the Dortmund defence this term.
Not only are they top class players, but they come in with crucial confidence that could reflect in strong performances on the pitch. German giants Dortmund had been dormant for the best part of a decade before their 2011 title success, and it is testament to the quality of the three Polish players that they won the league again – despite star midfielder Nuri Sahin leaving for Real Madrid and German wonderkid Mario Götze being ruled out with a hip injury for a large period of the season.
Lewandowski is the hosts’ star man, and undoubtedly they will be expecting great things of him, but the whole squad will have a passionate home crowd on their side and that could inspire them to progression from their group. Poland have been drawn against Czech Republic, Greece and Russia in arguably the weakest group of the tournament and – as we saw when Ghana had the whole of Africa on their side at the 2010 World Cup, home favourites are capable of building up a real head of steam and performing well above their expectations.
Of course there are a lot of very strong European teams that Poland will have to face if they are to upset the odds and progress to the latter stages of the tournament, but there is always a possibility of a dark horse in a major tournament like this. Ghana were agonisingly close to the World Cup semi-finals two years ago, and Poland’s Group A opposition Greece shocked everyone by going all the way in Euro 2004. Who knows, maybe this could be another one of those special years when the form guide goes well and truly out of the window.