Robert Lewandowski Alone Might Not Be Enough For Poland
1:21 PM EDT on November 4, 2022
It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.
One of the tough asynchronicities about the World Cup in its current form is that qualifying from South America, Africa, and Europe is so competitive that many of the best players in the world don't make it to the tournament. Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard's Norway wasn't quite good enough, Mohamed Salah's Egypt blew a penalty shootout to Senegal, Riyad Mahrez's Algeria lost a playoff to Cameroon, Luis Díaz's Colombia won just five of their 18 qualifying games, and the entire Italian national team, fresh off a Euro 2021 victory, initiated North Macedonia protocols somehow and will have to stay home. The World Cup is the biggest deal in international soccer, but half the teams who even scrape through and qualify will go home after three games. This scarcity makes every moment stand out, though it also makes me feel a twinge of regret at never getting to see the very best players get a chance to make moments of their own.
Poland's Robert Lewandowski was such a player for years. After making two semifinals in the 1974 and 1982 tournaments and winning both third-place games, the Poles have had a protracted, 40-year run of bad World Cup fortune. They've won only four games since 1982, progressed past the group stage once, and have only qualified for four out of the past nine World Cups (including 2022). They achieved much of this latter-day futility despite having one of the best strikers in the world at the front of their attack, which speaks not so much to Poland's middling quality—they'd absolutely romp in a lesser confederation like CONCACAF—as the difficulty of qualifying through Europe if you aren't one of the big boys. You have to finish top of a six-team group to make it through, and even if you finish second, you have to survive a four-team playoff round.
Those failures hang around the necks of this team as much as their glorious pair of runs in '74 and '82 do. As Lewandowski himself has said, there is real pressure to return Poland to its glory days, noting in that same interview that there are structural barriers in the way now, and that basically the rest of the world is too good to dream that big. But Poland can afford to dream a little here. Their group is not tricky as Group B, the other CONCACAF-UEFA-UEFA-AFC group, and all they have to do is outdo a bad Mexico team. It's possible. They had a pretty rotten Euro 2021, so it's not like they should expect to win a knockout round game, but there is potential, because of their stars.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
This is the easiest answer you will find in any of these sections among all of Defector's World Cup previews: It is clearly Lewandowski. Poland is his team, and if they make any kind of real run it will because Lewandowski balls out. The star striker has run away with the all-time records for most goals and appearances for the national team, and has a truly shocking goalscoring record at the club level. He was the man at Dortmund, a sort of proto-Haaland in his dominance, and he helped bring them all the way to the Champions League final against Bayern Munich before eventually leaving for FC Hollywood itself. At Bayern, he scored 344 goals in 375 games in all competitions, and he already has a baker's dozen in 12 games for Barcelona. Though he is 34 years old, Lewandowski has not shown any serious signs of slowing down, and he is more or less a perfect striker. He scores in the air, he can pass the rock, he will hit outrageous shots from miles away, he will dribble through and past the speediest of fullbacks then do combat with muscle-bound center backs seconds later. His 41 goals in the 2020-21 Bundesliga season are the most ever in that league, and they showcase his range and ruthlessness in front of goal quite well.
You will notice that the majority of his goals are unspectacular. That most of the time, Lewandowski just shows up in the right place at the right time and executes a fairly simple kick. To me, this is not a criticism of his game but an endorsement. Showing up at the right place at the right time is the most important part of attacking in soccer, and his ability to slam the door shut in situations where many strikers overthink it or contort themselves into unresolvable physical positions is a rare gift.
Out of Lewandowski's 636 goals for club and country, zero of those have been scored at the World Cup. Poland failed to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and they turned in a disappointing performance in 2018. Though Lewandowski has been one of the world's best five or so strikers for nearly a decade, Poland is not a powerhouse. Qualifying through UEFA is a gauntlet, one they struggled through twice before and narrowly emerged from this time after beating Sweden in a playoff. Poland is going to be overmatched in Qatar most of the time, across most of the field, but one place they will never, ever be at a comparative disadvantage is striker. This is also probably Lewandowski's last World Cup, so if he is ever going to engineer a moment for his country on the biggest stage, it will have to be this year.
Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?
Piotr Zielinski is the man. He has emerged as an A-tier member of the coolest strata of soccer player in the world: emerging hot-shit cool guy for an emerging hot-shit cool team (think, like, Ilkay Gündogan when he was coming up at Dortmund, or Kylian Mbappé at Monaco in 2017). Zieliński plays for Napoli, who rock, and he is at the heart of everything they want to do. He's a true midfielder's midfielder, a player who can score cool goals, progress the ball, make killer passes, and generally keep a team ticking along and asking the right questions. I think of him as a flashier Odegaard.
Where's The Beef?
Which teams or players does Poland not like? Do Poland's players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
Germany (see below) and Russia are the big two, on account of their historical record of invading Poland and ending its sovereignty. That tends to stoke resentment, and Poland were actually supposed to play Russia in the first tie of the qualification playoff only for UEFA to kick Russia out. If they meet Germany at the 2022 World Cup, it can't be until the semifinal at the earliest.
Russia is obviously barred from this World Cup because of their invasion of Ukraine, an invasion that Poland is quite adjacent to. Poland has accommodated the bulk of refugees fleeing the war, and has willingly served as a staging ground for counter-operations against the invading forces. Ukraine lost a playoff round match of their own against Wales, ending their World Cup dreams in the most heartbreaking way possible, though Poland has done a ton to help stabilize the Ukrainian soccer world as much as possible. National and club teams play their home games there, and Lewandowski will wear a captain's armband in Qatar that bears the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Poland's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia's James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia's David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
Nicola Zalewski was born in Italy (first name) to Polish parents (last name) 20 years ago, and he has established himself as the regular left back/wingback for José Mourinho's Roma. His age and position should make him quite appealing to bigger clubs, especially since he's shown an impressive level of versatility and achieved enough in his breakout season to make the Golden Boy shortlist this year (he won the web vote, if that means anything.) As the soccer meta-game advances towards three-man backlines buttressed by wingbacks, the hybrid winger/fullback has never been more in demand than it is now. Every team seems like it could use another true hooper out on the flank who can shorten the field, and Zalewski is just such a guy. He has started most of Poland's recent games and looked like a pretty seamless fit out on the left. Look at this nasty pass.
Fun Geographical Fact
Poland's southern third is mountainous and topographically complex, while it's northern two-thirds are flatlands. The most interesting geographical quirk within Poland is the Bledow Desert, one of the few deserts in mainland Europe. As is the case in many deserts across the world, the sand was deposited by glaciers, the most efficient drivers of erosion on the planet. After humans lowered the water table thousands of years ago when they started going agriculture mode, the desert, all 12 square miles of it, revealed itself. The legend goes that the devil wanted to punish the locals by covering their silver mine with sand, which seems like a funny way to fuck with people. Hilariously enough, the forest is slowly reclaiming the desert, and locals are actively fighting the reforestation so they can preserve the "Polish Sahara."
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
Even if you are queasy about the concept of nationalism, uncertain about the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, or confused about the Italian campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars and the role of the Polish legion within said campaign of said wars, you have to admit: the Polish national anthem goes so hard. Written as a pick-me-up for Polish troops fighting alongside Napoleon Bonaparte in Piedmont and Tuscany in the late 1700s (before he took over France), the national anthem hits on many of the critical themes of Polish nationhood. The Russians and Germans—then in more Prussian/Hapsburgian formations—had always tried to crush the Polish people, but we will fight and win, with sabers. This anthem was written five or so years after the Kosciuszko Uprising failed to unseat Poland's foreign military occupants, and about 115 years before Poland would eventually receive (sadly, short-lived) independence in the wake of World War I.
Notable Moment In World Cup History
In an interview with FIFA, Lewandowski noted that the 1974 Poland team was the best in the world and would have been favored in the final if they advanced, which they would have done "if they hadn’t had that game in the rain." He might be right. Poland knocked England out of qualification that year to the '78 tournament, their first real try at the World Cup (they qualified in 1938 but played one game), then defeated strong Swedish and Yugoslavian teams en route to a semifinal with the West German hosts. That West German team, led by legends Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, would go on to win the tournament, though their semifinal against Poland was the hardest game they played. Poland played a technical style, characterized by sophisticated movement and silky passing.
Which is to say, the worst possible style for a game that would go down in history as either die Wasserschlacht, "the water battle" in German, and mecz na wodzie, "the water game," in Polish. The game was played in horrifically muddy conditions, and Poland would lose on a Müller game-winner in the 76th minute. As you can see, the ball is thudding along so slowly.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
Robert Lewandowski scores five goals per game and Poland wins every knockout round match either 5-4, or 5-5 after penalties.