This Poland team know what real hard work and adversity are

Beating Portugal would see Poland into a first European Championship semi-final

Poland players take part in a training session at Centre Robert Louis Dreyfus, in Marseille. Photograph: EPA

Poland players take part in a training session at Centre Robert Louis Dreyfus, in Marseille. Photograph: EPA

 

When Krzysztof Maczynski anchors the Poland midfield against Portugal on Thursday, he may remember the time he bore a heavier weight. Galeria Krakowska, which stands next to Krakow’s main railway station, is typical of the glitzy shopping malls that have sprung up around the country in recent years and it owes at least a tiny debt to an unsung player who has been instrumental to a summer of considerable promise in France.

Ten years ago, as a 19-year-old on the brink of signing his first professional contract with Wisla Krakow, Maczynski tore a cruciate ligament. The timing was awful. In some countries the support network would be comprehensive but, with an impoverished Wisla unable to pay him a living while he recovered, he found himself alone. It was a precarious situation and almost any job would do; Maczynski spent a sizeable part of his rehabilitation unloading trucks on the Galeria Krakowska building site, fearful that the slightest overexertion might put paid to a football career already in the balance.

“Fortunately, my colleagues all knew that I was a Wisla player and did not allow me to be overloaded,” Maczynski told the Polish newspaper Przeglad Sportowy before Euro 2016. Their willingness to shoulder extra work was welcome but none of the other jobs he took on before returning to the pitch and finally signing that contract were a piece of cake either. Maczynski stacked shelves at a branch of Tesco after his lifting work finished and then there was his job in Nowa Huta. A steelwork complex in the sprawling socialist-realist suburb of Krakow looms up as a vast, slightly dystopian vision and that was where, for two months, Maczynski worked as an assistant builder and, among other tasks, spent his days mixing concrete.

The journey he has made since is approaching its high point but none of that experience has been lost on him. “I saw people toil there to feed their families,” he said. “I am lucky that I can make money playing football. I respect what I have. Others earn much less money spending 12 hours at a smelter; it’s just hard work.”

It certainly puts into perspective the job of partnering Grzegorz Krychowiak at Euro 2016, and Poland have not found themselves unduly stretched so far.

Xherdan Shaqiri’s acrobatic goal for Switzerland in the round of 16 was the only one they have conceded in four games - Maczynski has started all bar the relatively inconsequential final group game - and that owes plenty to the work of their central pair even if there are concerns at the other end that neither is especially creative.

Second Captains

Apart from a season in China with Guizhou Renhe, Maczynski has spent his entire career in Poland and is back with Wisla; it says something about his relatively late rise, not assisted by the cruciate injury, that he made his international debut at 26, his tenacity and reading of the game rendering him an increasingly important member of Adam Nawalka’s side during qualifying for this tournament.

It has been a long road and, in common with several of his Poland team-mates, there have been difficult personal circumstances to contend with too. Maczynski’s father is an alcoholic and the consequence is that, perhaps happily for his football career, he has a strong aversion to drink. “Because of him I feel disgusted with it and that will not change until the end of my life,” he said. “I can drink beer with juice, but with vodka or whisky you cannot persuade me. I tried drinking once after passing my driving test and immediately threw up. I want to be a role model to my younger siblings, showing that you gain in life by being a good person.”

The presence of Maczynski’s godfather, a guiding influence close to the family, meant he was largely shielded from any destruction brought about by his father’s condition. His parents divorced several years ago but his mother, perhaps aware that turfing her former husband out on to the street could lead to his demise, insists that he still lives in the family home.

That is far from the most troubling back story in the Poland squad and, while it would be glib to unthinkingly suggest cause and effect, you wonder at the extent to which adversity has shaped a team of huge character and, at its best, relentless energy. The story of the centre-back Kamil Glik, who recovered from a life-threatening bout of meningitis as a child and saw alcoholism kill his father, has been widely publicised and so has the most shocking of all - that of the winger Jakub Blaszczykowski, who saw his father kill his mother when he was 11 years old. Another forward, Kamil Grosicki, has a complicated history of gambling addiction and associated debts, while Robert Lewandowski is another who lost his father at a young age.

Whatever impact these unhappy tales have had, it is beyond doubt that the impressive Nawalka has worked tirelessly to make his squad’s personalities feel at ease. His proactive approach, calling players weekly to see how their careers and lives are progressing, sits well and there is a sense that, more than any time in recent years, Poland are benefiting from mutual trust.

The faith Nawalka has shown in Maczynski certainly bears that out. For many years there were fears over his apparent frailty - he stands at 5ft 9in and tells the story of how he was once barred from entering a nightclub because he was too small - but he has beefed up and, at 29, he has the look now of an international footballer.

Poland, whose only serious failing this month has been erratic finishing, appear convincing, too, and a first European Championship semi-final looks a distinct possibility.

“Every player dreams of going out there with the eagle on his chest and of being able to fight for their national team,” Maczynski said before the Switzerland game. “For an athlete, there is nothing better than playing for your nation.” It has been a long time coming for Maczynski and perhaps a glass of something non-alcoholic will be raised to those understanding colleagues from Galeria Krakowska if they come through in Marseille.

Guardian services

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