POZNAN, Poland – Quick: name the club with the most Man of the Match awards so far at Euro 2012. Barcelona? Not quite. Bayern Munich? Close, but it falls short as well. Try unfashionable Bundesliga side Vfl Wolfsburg, whose players have garnered three such awards so far. (Real Madrid tied the mark when Cristiano Ronaldo earned the accolade for his brace against the Netherlands on Sunday.)
The irony is that all three players are in wildly different places within the context of the Lower Saxony club. One could even make the case that when combined with the other Euro 2012 players on the club’s books, they comprise Wolfsburg’s band of misfits.
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic has lit up the tournament with three goals but has been declared surplus to requirements by Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath, who has said he’ll accept the first “fair offer” and insists that the Croat was uncoachable.
The Czech Republic’s Vaclav Pilar, whose scintillating play down the left wing helped rescue his team’s bid for the knockout stages after an early defeat to Russia, has yet to play a game for Wolfsburg, having been sold to the club last January but deciding to delay joining up with the team until after Euro 2012.
Then there is Pilar’s Czech teammate, Petr Jiracek. The Man of the Match in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Poland joined up with Wolfsburg in January yet found playing tough to come by down the stretch. In his last four league games, he was twice pulled off at halftime and was an unused sub in the other two. That fact, not to mention his game-winning goal against the Poles, saw him draw special praise from Czech manager Michal Bilek.
“I’m very happy about [Jiracek],” he said. “In Wolfsburg he didn’t play much towards the end of the season and in the preparation matches it was clear he was not in his top form. But he was improving, and I know that he is now fit. He managed to be fit very fast, and now he’s Man of the Match, he scored goals…He deserves it, his form is excellent.”
Technically, those three aren’t the only Wolfsburg players in the tournament either. Denmark defender Simon Kjaer is also participating, even as he was forced to go on loan at Roma. For his part, Kjaer has stated he will never play for Magath again. It leaves one to wonder how the other three will fair with Magath – as stern a taskmaster as there is in the coaching ranks –once the tournament is over.
As for the international coaches of the aforementioned trio, they’ll be hoping more Man of the Match awards are in the offing.
WROCLAW, Poland – Some Czech fans were drinking at a table at a sidewalk cafe, and as two policemen walked by, they implored each other to keep quiet. “Shhhhh,” the call went up. The policemen were no more than 2 yards past them when the chant went up “Ceska! Ceska!” and everyone in the general vicinity burst into laughter. Even the two cops managed wry smiles.
It’s the kind of scene the organizers of Euro 2012 dreamed about when they were first awarded the tournament in 2007. And it stands in stark contrast to the tension and violence that marred Poland’s game against Russia four days ago, one in which more than 200 people were arrested. More trouble could be brewing, as well. In Warsaw, there are concerns that violence could erupt again ahead of Russia’s last group-stage game against Greece.
But in Wroclaw, almost 190 miles to the southeast, the atmosphere between Poland and Czech fans was beyond cordial, with plenty of good-natured banter going back and forth. At the table full of Czechs, another chant of “Who is Czech? Jump, jump, jump!” went up at a group of Poland fans passing by. The Polish responded by singing “Poland! Red and White!” And smiles were on everyone’s faces. The fact that the two teams will be squaring off today to determine who advances out of Group A was, at least for the moment, pushed into the background.
“The Polish, they like the Czechs,” said Richard, a Czech fan who traveled from Plzen for the match. “We are very surprised. It’s my first time in Poland; it’s been great.”
“The Polish people, very friendly,” said Bobil, another member of the traveling party from Plzen. “The town is beautiful, people are beautiful. Perfect.”
The feeling is mutual. Granted, it takes just a few fans looking for trouble to sour the mood. But around Wroclaw’s fan zone, supporters from both sides milled about, grabbing a meal and a few beers before the game, and there were no hints of trouble.
“It’s been all sweet and smooth,” said Radek, a 39-year-old Poland fan from Bielsko-Biala, with the aid of a translator. “We even traveled together on the same tram, in the same car; everything was fine. In the fan zone, we’ve been having fun with the Czech fans.”
The intensity is bound to increase as kickoff approaches, but for now, all is friendly on the Wroclaw front.
GDANSK, Poland – With Group C hurtling toward a potential three-way tie for the top spot, Italy is experiencing an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu.
The Azzurri are set to face bottom-of-the-group Ireland in their final group-stage match. If they win, and if Spain ties Croatia, there would be a logjam of three teams tied with five points. In this hypothetical scenario, the first two tiebreakers -- total points in games among the tied teams, and goal difference in games among the tied teams -- would fail to break the deadlock. That would mean the third tiebreaker -- total goals scored in the games involving the tied teams -- would be used. If Spain and Croatia happen to tie 2-2, those two teams would advance based on having scored one more goal than Italy.
That is precisely what happened to Italy at Euro 2004, when Denmark and Sweden played to a mutually beneficial 2-2 draw, one that included Mattias Jonson’s 89th-minute equalizer. The two Scandinavian sides advanced and Italy went home. Back then, irate Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon alleged that the game between Denmark and Sweden had been fixed. The Italy manager on that day? None other than current Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni.
“I hope this gives the people who are looking into these games a chance to actually make sure that things don’t go on,” he said after Ireland's 4-0 loss to Spain on Thursday. “I think Italy needs to play its own game. Italy need to win playing to their own strengths because they do have the means at their disposal to win the game. Of course, the results for Croatia and Spain … could have an influence, could create certain doubts, but I like to see the good in people, even if certain referees make mistakes. I don’t think certain things should go on. I’m convinced that they won’t.”
For his part, Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque insisted his side would not be content with simply playing for a draw.
“Of course, we will try to win,” he said. “We will not try for a 2-2 draw. This is not what we are going to concentrate on, this is not of interest to us. We don’t want to make any calculations and we will play for victory.”
Italy will be hoping that is the case.
WARSAW – Peruse some of the rosters from the old North American Soccer League -- and its forebears -- and more than a few successful top level managers jump out. There’s World Cup-winning head coach Cesar Luis Menotti and even current Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp. Then, there is current Poland head coach Franciszek Smuda.
Smuda first landed in the U.S. with lower-league side Vistula Garfield in 1971 but then moved up to the NASL, spending the 1975 season with the Hartford Bicentennials. After a two-season stint in his native country with Legia Warsaw, Smuda later made a bizarre tour of California by playing for the Oakland Stompers, Los Angeles Aztecs and the San Jose Earthquakes -- representing all of them during the 1978 campaign.
When asked during Monday’s press conference ahead of Poland’s match against Russia, Smuda declined to elaborate on his playing past, calling it “pure history," but no matter: Some of his former teammates were more than happy to fill in the blanks about the defender.
“[Smuda] was the one guy I counted,” recalled current New York Red Bulls television analyst Shep Messing, who played goalkeeper alongside the Poland manager when the two were in Oakland. “He was tough and hard, and I thought he was brilliant. He was a very smart guy. It didn’t surprise me when I heard a couple of years ago that he was managing Poland.”
But what stuck in Messing’s memory most of all was a marketing campaign the Stompers embarked on called “Shep and His Shepherds” that featured the goalkeeper and his four defenders, including Smuda.
“We had to pose for a picture like the defenders were sheep,” Messing recalled. “I had a [crook] and the sheep were all around me. Franz was horrified. He was a leader, and I was getting paid a lot of money so I didn’t want to complain. He went into the owner’s office and said, ‘We can’t have this. We want to be tough defensively, but we don’t want anybody to know about it.’”
Smuda soon made his way to Los Angeles, where his steady play was a welcome addition for a team on which defending was usually an afterthought. His understated demeanor made an impression in L.A. as well. “He was really kind of a reserved guy, and we were a traveling Grateful Dead team,” recalled Bob Rigby, a goalkeeper on that Aztecs side. “He was probably normal, but the rest of us, what a cast of characters.”
Smuda returned to Europe after that season, heading to what was then-West Germany with SpVgg Greuther Fürth and soon embarking on his career in management. On Tuesday, Smuda will match with wits with another NASL alumnus, Russia manager Dick Advocaat. And Smuda will be hoping to shepherd his team to a vital victory -- minus the crook.
GDANSK, Poland – Success at major tournaments is often a matter of timing as injuries and poor form can crop up at the worst moments, and scuttle a team’s title hopes.
The same goes for team chemistry. The Netherlands are usually brought up as Exhibit A in terms of what can happen when players allow personal jealousies to undermine the team concept -- today's 1-0 defeat to Denmark showcased their disjointed style, albeit under the lingering concern over racial abuse allegations at a recent training session -- yet Spain has been forced to confront this issue as well.
When Barcelona FC and Real Madrid staged some epic battles across multiple competitions during the 2010-2011 season, relations between the two sets of players became fraught with tension and the concern was that such bad blood would spill over into Spain’s national team. The friction between the two clubs eased somewhat this season and ahead of Spain’s opener against Italy, Spain captain Iker Casillas admitted that time has been the national team’s ally.
“Last year it would have been problematic if we had played the Euros,” he said at Saturday’s press conference. “But now, I think it’s good. The season has been good, and we are going to play the maximum we can. Last year, the players of Barcelona and Real Madrid were not really on good terms. But now, this [tournament] is a strong motivation for all of us, it doesn’t matter which club [one plays for]. There are moments of confusion, but we have to always look on the bright side. FC Barcelona players and Real Madrid players have great relations. They play for their teams, and last season has been good, but now we are playing for national team.”
Relationships between the two sets of players may have improved, but there does appear to be a certain weariness relating to the subject, as evidenced by comments from Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta.
“I don’t think that this topic needs to be elaborated upon,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense now to talk about it further. We would be stupid if we thought about this. All of us are here to defend the same ideal, to play the best Euros possible. That’s above everything. The atmosphere and the relations are perfect. I think that everything is going well. This is not an excuse.”
If that is indeed the case – and the public really won’t know unless Spain begins to struggle – then that would further burnish the man-management chops of manager Vicente Del Bosque.
Leave it to Poland manager Franciszek Smuda to make news before a ball has even been kicked at Euro 2012.
According to Smuda, the Borussia Dortmund trio of Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek will all soon be at new clubs.
“In my opinion, in a moment they will be gone from Borussia,” Smuda told Reuters. “’Lewy’ is going to Manchester United, Kuba also somewhere in England, Piszczek to Real [Madrid]. They have a goal and they want to grow. I base the squad on them.”
The key phrase that Dortmund fans are no doubt pinning their hopes on is the “In my opinion” part. And it’s staggering to think that Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp would choose to sell off such a hugely influential chunk of his side all at once, although he does have German international Marco Reus joining the club from Borussia Moenchengladbach for the upcoming season.
And if Lewandowski’s move to the Red Devils comes to fruition, it will be interesting to see if he can break into a lineup where Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez are competing for places. At minimum Lewandowski can expect plenty of questions following Poland’s biggest game in years, the Euro 2012 opener against Greece.
WARSAW -- As headstones go, the one overlooking Kazimierz Deyna’s grave is relatively unadorned. There’s an engraving of his eternally youthful face. The number 10 he wore as a player. And then there is just one word: Szacunek. In Polish it means “respect” and on Wednesday, for the first time in 22 years, the Polish people were finally able to convey that sentiment to perhaps the most famous soccer player in the country’s history.
It was on Sept. 1, 1989, that Deyna, then just 41 years old, was tragically killed in a single car accident. Ever since that day, his ashes have remained in San Diego, Calif., where he and his family lived at the time but on Tuesday, his remains were finally brought back to the country of his birth. A day later, given his standing as an army officer, they were re-interred with full honors at the Powaski Military Cemetery in the Zoliborz district of Warsaw.
The cemetery is primarily reserved for the country’s war dead, but given that the military was historically one of the prime sponsors of the nation’s athletic programs -- including Legia Warsaw, the club with which Deyna spent most of his career -- it also contains the graves of some of Poland’s biggest sporting heroes. The grave next to Deyna’s is that of Witold Woyda, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in fencing. Across the way is another Olympic fencing medalist, Andrzej Piatkowski.
As for why it has taken 23 years for Deyna’s remains to be brought back to his native land, it's a question that elicits some conflicting answers. Some allege that politics, both within the Polish Football Association and the Polish government, were to blame. A more understandable explanation is that Deyna’s widow, Mariola, and son, Norbert, wanted his grave to be closer to their adopted California home.
But when the question was put to Mariola herself, she simply says with a smile, “Why now? This was his country, and the people loved him very much.”
Janusz Dorosiewicz, a family friend adds, “[For] the next generation to remember him, the decision was made: He belongs to us, not the family. [In the past] it was not a good atmosphere to bring him back. This was the right time to do it.”
For many fans, the moment is long overdue for a player who quarterbacked the Poland national team to its greatest heights. In some ways, it’s fitting that Deyna’s grave now lies near two Olympic fencers given the way his probing passes picked apart opposing defenses. He was part of the side that won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics as well as the one that finished third at the 1974 World Cup. Later that year, he finished third in the voting for European Footballer of the Year behind icons Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer.
Warsaw native Bogumil Klukowski, the father of Canadian international Mike Klukowski, was among those attending the re-interment and was eager to discuss his memories of Deyna. “His technique, his [touch], it was like Pele. He could see everything. He had eyes around his head. He was a super player, the best.”
But even those plaudits don’t do justice to Deyna’s impact at home.
“For Poland, Deyna was like Michael Jordan, maybe bigger than that,” says Chris Reiko, a journalist with New York-based Polish daily, Nowy Dziennik, via telephone. “All the big clubs wanted him, even though they knew they couldn’t get him.”
That was down to the intransigence of Poland’s then-communist government, which was loath to part with a national treasure. It wasn’t until Deyna was 31 that he was allowed a transfer to Manchester City. After three seasons with the Sky Blues, Deyna played out his career in the U.S. with the San Diego Sockers, first outdoors in the North American Soccer League and then indoors in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Deyna’s later years were marred by a growing drinking problem, brought on in part by some allegedly fraudulent business dealings perpetrated by his agent, Ted Miodonski. Deyna was arrested three times for driving under the influence and was found to have twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system at the time of his accident.
But on Wednesday, the focus was on how Deyna lived as opposed to how he died and the desire to recall a national hero was evident in young and old alike. One could see the colors of his club, Legia Warsaw, everywhere. A boy who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old was sporting a Legia sweatshirt festooned with Deyna’s face and a number 10 on the back. Following the ceremony, two men held up a poster of the 1974 Poland side that fell to Germany in the World Cup semifinals.
Still, it seemed as though the attendance of the ceremony wasn’t what it could have been as there were only a few hundred people on hand.
“If he had come back two years after he died, there would have been 100,000,” said Stanely Niemczak, another of those in attendance.
Perhaps, but at least now those fans will have plenty of time to pay their respects.