Famous last-gasp defeats are a Polish tradition, whether in war or football, so there was little surprise at a loss to the Czech Republic that dumped them out of the Euro 2012 finals they have dreamed of holding for years.
It was not the defeat that hurt but the tame way Franciszek Smuda’s players — in stark contrast to their rousing comeback against Russia days earlier — went quietly into the night.
After a hatful of chances in the first 15 minutes, they managed just three shots in the second half of what was billed as their biggest game in 30 years.
“Coach Smuda and his players called this the most important game of their lives. We didn’t see that on the pitch,” columnist Rafal Stec wrote. “If Smuda’s players had fought a desperate, emotion-packed battle with the Czechs but not been able to last to the end, we would have greeted them, even rewarded them, with applause and a common bearing of the pain.”
Two decades of toil has given Poles prosperity most could never have imagined under communism but football has not rewarded them in kind. The 1970s and ’80s golden generation that produced Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek has given way to a succession of average squads that have struggled to win games at major finals, never mind get out of the group.
That failure has fuelled the doubters in the country’s post-1989 liberal revolution, who said something had gone awry with the national character along the way. There is a belief that Poles are too busy thinking about their own interests to unite for a common good and reaching the quarterfinals would have done much to counter that idea.
Moaning at each other is a national pastime too, and captain Jakub Blaszczykowski launched the recriminations with the revelation that players were kept on tenterhooks over whether their families would get any tickets for Saturday’s game.
He also said Smuda, who announced after the game that his contract would not be renewed, had gone too quickly, saying he remained the best Poland have.