PolandAt a time when Polish football has great difficulty in producing players who represent a decent European level, the history of one countryman – a world star in the Seventies – seems to be worth recalling. Many experts, including Sir Alf Ramsey, regarded him as the best right-back of his time. 

“If I could compare my style of play to one of the players playing today, I would say I was like Dani Alves from Barcelona. When I watch him running down the wing, I immediately smile. All this Barcelona thing… Whenever I watch them play, I simply don’t want to watch anyone else!” says Antoni Szymanowski, a member of the Polish national team that won third place in the World Cup 1974 as well as gold and silver medals at the Olympics.

When asked about Szymanowski, former Wisla Krakow striker Andrzej Iwan admits that there were not many better, “When I was a young boy, I went to Wisla matches just to watch Antoni playing on the right side of the back line” said Iwan. “He was like a wall – no player could go past him. In addition, he was able to control the ball with both feet and had a hell of a turn of speed”.

Kazimierz Kmiecik, another of Szymanowski’s team-mates from both Wisla and the Polish national team, recalls: “Probably the best game of Antoni’s career was played at Wembley, in the legendary match against England. He was the king of the right side of the pitch, and even managed to clear the ball off the line, when our rivals were on the verge of scoring.”

When Antoni Szymanowski opens the door to his house in Krakow, it is immediately noticeable that he still has the figure of a 20-year-old man; slim and athletic.  Entering the room, a wedding photo of Szymanowski and his wife sits atop the table. “I met Wanda soon after the legendary match with England,” he says, anticipating the question.

“The pressure on us during that Wembley match was incredible. I think that at least a hundred thousand people sat in the stands. Terrible hatred. You had to be pretty damn strong mentally; otherwise they would break you down quickly”.

Szymanowski , as a player, was likened to a rock. And from the time of his career nothing has changed. He still is tough and rarely accepts compromise. To be perfectly honest, it hasn’t helped him – for several years now he has been edging away from football. He doesn’t respect the Wisla Krakow board.  Even when the previous chairman of the club, Bogdan Basalaj called him and offered a lifetime seat in the grandstand, Szymanowski refused to accept it.

“I will always have Wisla in my heart, because I spent my best years there. But so many times they showed that they don’t want me to be a part of the club anymore. And many years of confusions and misunderstandings cannot be clarified by one phone call”.

A group of the older fans still remember that Szymanowski is a part of the great history of Polish football. He was even selected as the sportsman of the century by Wisla fans; however he did not accept a commemorative award “in protest against “the pushing around of people by the board of the Krakow club.

“Ludwik Mietta-Mikolajewicz [the current president of Wisla] called me a few times and urged me to come and collect the award, but I decided to refuse” says Szymanowski. The award was eventually handed to a charity foundation.

“After that, I met president Mietta-Mikolajewicz on several occasions. Every time he looked away and pretended that he didn’t know me. A few times when I came to the games, even in the old Wisla stadium, they moved me from one chair to another. ‘That’s a permanent place for the artist. That one belongs to our famous fan, a musician.’ – I heard time and again when in the VIP stand. It was very sad for me. One day I just walked out of the stadium and went home”.

A few months ago, a film based on the history of Wisla was released. Szymanowski is not mentioned in the movie once. “I really don’t know why. I can’t believe that no one remembers the history of the club in the 70s. I’m getting older and older, and before I close my eyes I wish that people in the highest seats will explain to me why they hate me so much. What have I done wrong that they keep me away from the club? What?”

Antoni Szymanowski pours some water into a glass and, noticeably, calms down somewhat, “My story has already been written and nothing will change it now. Mr Boguslaw Cupial [the current club owner] writes a new chapter, but he still fills in a page in a book that belongs to us all – The fans, the old players and the new ones”.

Szymanowski declares that he would like to give his medals from the World Championships and the Olympic Games to the club museum, if only the Wisla board would apologise for all the years they were acting like he never existed. “I have already spoken with the family about that idea. I am ready to give my trophies to the club museum, or hand it on to some charity auction. I don’t want any money for them. I haven’t won them for myself, but for our county and the Polish fans” he stresses.

Born into a large family and growing up in the difficult post war era, Szymanowski earned respect as a player for his acheivements. “He was a professional in every way. He enjoyed great esteem in the dressing room, and simply didn’t have to raise his voice to make everyone listen” Kazimierz Kmiecik says. “Even if the team was pretty entertaining, everyone knew their place in the line and had great respect for Antoni” adds Andrzej Iwan.

Despite regular corruption in Polish sport, Szymanowski claims that at no time did he cheat the fans, “I’ll tell you a story, many years ago Gwardia Warsaw came to play against Wisla in Krakow. Gwardia were struggling at the bottom of the table, and the season was coming to an end. Before the game their chairman took me aside and offered a lot of money if I would somehow help them to win the match. When I heard his offer I simply walked out of the room having him told that I will never sell my honour for a few hundred zlotys”. Szymanowski, remains as shocked with the whole situation today as he was all those decades ago. “But that’s nothing! The worst thing was that during the match a Gwardia striker nutmegged me and found himself in front of our goal… Fortunately, he hit the post! Such things like Szymanowski being nutmegged didn’t happen so often, so I am sure that if he had scored, then everybody would say that I had sold the game – But I didn’t do this then and never in my life. I was a really crystal clear man” he says with pride.

Szymanowski reached his peak during a difficult period in Polish history. In the 70s and 80s communism was still strong in Poland, and Szymanowski admits that there were a few people connected with the Polish United Workers Party who were working for Wisla; “Those were the days when police and militia ruled the country. In the twinkling of an eye they could turn the honest man into the public enemy. Years later, it turned out that even in our dressing room we had one player who worked for the communists as their informer.”

When he finally decided it was time to leave Wisla in 1978, a media storm erupted around Szymanowski, “I was planning to move to Legia Warsaw, where the coach was Andrzej Strejlau [the former assistant of legendary Kazimierz Gorski]. I believed that in his team I could continue to develop as a player. Unfortunately, Legia unexpectedly withdrew from the negotiations. I didn’t want to play for Wisla anymore and I finally decided to move to another team based in Warsaw – Gwardia. The problem was that I received the offer from Gwardia at the same time as Andrzej Iwan, and the media immediately started to inform that I had not only betrayed Wisla, but also persuaded their best young talent to leave the club at the same time”.

Gwardia’s board promised Iwan that they would buy him a flat in Warsaw, and Szymanowski was told that after one year in the team he would be sold abroad. The rule was simple at that time – only players who were over 30 could go to play for the Western European clubs. Everything seemed to be on the right track until Wisla decided that they wouldn’t sell Iwan – a young striker who was rated as even more talented and valuable than Szymanowski. “They called me when I was packing my stuff and told me that I wasn’t going anywhere” says Iwan.

On the other hand, Szymanowski finally did move to Gwardia. “I decided to part ways with Wisla, mainly because I could not get along with the manager Orest Lenczyk. Players often agree among themselves that they will lose a few games to force the board to sack the manager, and that’s the way most managers lose their jobs. However, I didn’t want to  be part of such conspiracy and I simply decided to go away” Szymanowski describes. “In the media, of course, the image was blurred. It came out that I am crazy, as I was leaving Wisla for no reason, and that I even wanted to take Iwan with me.’You will regret this transfer for the rest of your life’ Zbigniew Jablonski, then president of the club, told me after my last training session in Krakow.”

Today, one of Polish football’s most decorated players is on the sidelines of football, forgotten by the older fans and practically unknown to the younger ones. “After the scandal surrounding the transfer to Gwardia, my name has never regained the power that it used to have in the early 70s. A lot of players who have done incomparably less for Wisla, walked away with the honours, and without the antagonism that surrounded my transfer.”

Szymanowski also notes that players in modern football are not linked with their clubs as they used to be in the past. “With whom will the Wisla, Lech or Legia fans identify when their teams are built mostly on foreigners? Today, the club has become merely a workplace: I will play here for two years, collect the money and then leave. My generation was probably the last which actually had their club in the bottom of the heart”.

The last few years have been extremely tough for the Polish football legend. He worked as a manager for some time but without any success. Most of the money earned on the football pitches Szymanowski spent on his house in Krakow.

He entrusted a huge part of what he earned whilst playing in Belgium, for Club Brugge, to people who promised to multiply his capital. He never saw the money again. “I don’t want to talk about it. I forgave those who cheated me. Money is not everything” he concurs, “That’s what really matters” pointing towards photos of his children and family.

“I don’t need much – I live a modest life. When I wasn’t working as a coach I used to work as a PE teacher. I was employed at school just around the corner” he adds.

Szymanowski also isn’t really interested in the repeatable media bitching by Jan Tomaszewski, once his team-mate, and probably the best Polish goalkeeper in history. “Come on, Jan is already too old for such things” he says. “It doesn’t even look funny when old man like Tomaszewski starts to criticise his former colleagues. Because of him, people start to treat all of us [members of the Olympics-winning team from 1972] as a bunch of old men who hate each other.”

However, the example of Szymanowski shows that healing the old wounds sometimes takes a lot of time. It is difficult to understand how is it possible that one of the best players in the history of Polish football is now far beyond the boundaries of the football world – not even able to watch games played by Wisla, the club where he spent his best years.

“Before I close my eyes, I want to make all these things straight again. I am a real son of Wisla, this club will always be special for me. My brother played for Wisla, my wife used to be a gymnast for this club… Sometimes, when I ride my bike around the stadium and look at this beautiful facility and great fans, I think to myself that the grass on the pitch used to grow from the sweat of my brow. However, since I finished playing it was changed so many times that I don’t even know if it is still important for anyone out there”.

….and, for good measure, here’s the Poland v England group match – in which Szymanowski didn’t play – which the hosts won 2-0.

By Bartosz Barnas

Thanks to Ryan Hubbard for his assistance with this piece.

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona