In the space of three days late last summer, Poland goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek’s career changed for ever.
In late August, just hours before the Champions League deadline, he became the most expensive Polish player in history when he signed for Liverpool for œ4.9million from Feyenoord. Two days later, Dudek performed heroics as Poland beat Norway to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1986.
“It was an exceptionally tough time for me,” he recalls. “I had just signed for Liverpool but I had to try to concentrate on Poland’s upcoming match. If I had made any mistakes, the Polish fans would have said that my personal business had been distracting me from national team business.
“It wasn’t true, of course. But it was only after we had won and qualified for the World Cup finals that I realised how stressful the situation had been. I felt extremely tired, but at the same time unbelievably happy.”
Few people had held out much hope of Poland qualifying. “It was very difficult to be optimistic before the qualifiers,” says Dudek. “Poland had not played in the World Cup finals for 15 years. But our coach, Jerzy Engel, told us we were going to do something about this. He created a fantastic atmosphere in the team. Thanks to him we really did something special, and now we’re back in the World Cup.
“Of course, we are not favourites. It is impossible to compare us with France, for example. But that’s good. I prefer us to be seen as underdogs. It will be much easier to spring a surprise if the expectations are not very high.”
In the meantime Dudek can concentrate on his career with Liverpool, a team he says he supported as a boy. Despite the obvious language barrier, Dudek has had few problems settling in at Anfield. “I’ve only had to concentrate on learning two words,” he says. “I shout out ‘away’, if I want defenders to clear a ball, and ‘keeper’, when I decide to catch it.
“I thought it would be difficult to play in a team with so many stars. But I soon realised they are normal people, pleasant and friendly, and that has helped me a lot.”
Who will win the Premier League title race? “I couldn’t tell you,” he says. “Five or six teams have a chance. In theory, if you play against teams at the bottom, it should be easier to win. But not in England! Those kind of games are even more difficult for us.”
However Dudek’s season ends, he has already made a lot of friends in Liverpool, a working-class city where he feels at home. “I have so much respect for hard work,” he says. “I grew up in Knurow, a little mining town. I felt very much at home in Rotterdam, where people are used to working hard, and now I think the same about Liverpool.”
Club Liverpool (Eng)
Born March 23, 1973, in Rybnik
Previous clubs Concordia Knurow, Sokol Tychy, Feyenoord (Hol)
International debut February 1998, v Israel
International caps 19
Honours Dutch League 1999