With Poland scarcely managing to qualify for any tournaments at all over the past twenty years, it is understandable many write them off this time, even with home advantage. But let's make one thing absolutely clear: Poland used to be good, very good.
In the 1974 World Cup, they not only boasted the Golden Boot winner in Greg Lato, but also finished in third place with the highest number of goals scored out of any team. True, seven of their 16 strikes came against hopeless Haiti, but they also registered impressive wins over Argentina and Italy in the first group stage.
Back in those days, there was a second group stage after the first round, and Poland won their first two matches in that also, brushing aside Sweden and Yugoslavia. They needed to beat their arch political rivals FR Germany in the final match to progress to the final, but narrowly lost 1-0 - the only time they even dropped points in the entire tournament. I can only imagine the heartbreak that defeat caused in Poland. They would have wanted to have won that match so much.
Amazingly, though, Poland rallied from that disappointment to defeat Brazil in the third-fourth place playoff - an absolutely unbelievable achievement for the small, war-torn, communist-crushed nation at that time. And amazingly, just eight years later in the heat of Spain, the Poles finished third again, only going out to eventual winners Italy. Most satisfyingly for them, they gained a 0-0 draw against their former occupiers the Soviet Union just one year after they broke free from Moscow via the Solidarity Movement.
What we in England most remember Poland for, though, was an infamous night at the old Wembley Stadium on October 17th 1973, where the home team needed a win to progress to the following year's World Cup Finals. Before the game, Brian Clough - departed from Derby just two days previously, and presumably having nothing better to do - famously labelled Poland's goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski a clown and suggested England could score a hatful.
The Three Lions certainly created a hatful of chances and should have won easily, but Tomaszewski rather outdid his detractors' expectations, pulling off some great saves and also riding his luck. With England battering his goal, commentator Barry Davies was left shell-shocked when Norman Hunter
missed a crucial challenge which allowed Poland to take the lead with a breakaway goal that absolutely silenced the 90000 crowd.
England fought back, got an injury-time penalty, scored it, and still had two chances to win it after that. But they couldn't score again, and Alf Ramsay, the only manager to win the World Cup for England, ended his reign amid a chorus of boos and jeers. Clough, meanwhile, was asked if he had reappraised his assessment of Tomaszewski. Old Big Head's reply was refreshingly simple: "Would you want him in YOUR side every week?"