Poland revel in ‘bitter and sweet’ defeat after doing what they needed to survive
As the clock ticked into the final 15 minutes at Stadium 974, Robert Lewandowski had got the word. Mexico were 2-0 up against Saudi Arabia, manager Czeslaw Michniewicz said, but Poland football were going through because they had two fewer yellow cards.
It created an almost absurd situation in their own 2-0 defeat to Argentina, but one that was in its own way incredible theatre. Poland had to try and keep the score as it was, and to waste time, but had to try all of that without risking the bookings against some very inventive players that would put them out. That was all setting aside the even greater risk that Mexico, at that point rampantly chaotic, might score again. Saudi Arabia were giving Luis Chavez enough chances from free-kicks.
Poland, by contrast, apparently weren’t going to show commitment of any kind. This was Michniewicz’s anti-football taken to its extremes, since his team didn’t just refuse to play, but went against the basic principles of the sport.
It was extreme caution that somehow came with extreme risk, a devolution of the dismal football they’d played in the previous two matches where Wojciech Szczesny often just launched the ball to Lewandowski.
Eight previous teams have actually got through to the last 16 by losing since the World Cup went to 32 teams, but nobody has done so as passively as this; as submissively as this. This obviously wasn’t as bad as Austria vs Germany’s passing pact in 1982 but it was worse than Ireland vs Netherlands or Spain vs Costa Rica playing out mutually beneficial results in 1990 and 2010, respectively.
Michniewicz went so far as admitting “it wasn’t the prettiest” and that “some defeats are bittersweet, and some are bitter and sweet”.
There were more pointed questions in a post-match press conference that was almost as odd as the match. One was whether Michniewicz was “satisfied” with how they went through. He was dismissive, asking the journalist whether he’d even watched, or was at dinner.
Well, anyone who watched was left with a bigger question. Was it worth it? Was this how you want to go through? Was this how you want to be remembered?
Some close to the Polish camp admit that it was immensely difficult going through the last 15 minutes, and journalist Pawel Wilkowicz describes it as “one of the worst experiences I’ve had following the team years… knowing that we depend on the mercy of others”. There’s been a growing backlash in Poland, to go with longer-term criticisms of Michniewicz’s catenaccio approach.
There are actually grander elements at play. A World Cup at its best - even with all of the dreadful controversies of Qatar - is about image, glory, shared joy, admiration. The Polish sides of 1974 and 1982, who set the country’s national football identity, fulfilled this. This team did not.
The brutal truth is that not many wished them well, few wanted them through. The international will for Mexico to score could instinctively be sensed, and seen. And yet there are deeper elements to that.
Football, if you want to get into Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sees people go to extremes if they just need to survive. That’s what Poland did: what was necessary.
The players didn’t seem to care in the slightest as they came through the mixed zone. And why would they? They’d willingly followed instructions. They have another game in a World Cup.
That is more than can be said for previous Polish sides who played more noble football, since this is the first qualification out of the group stage since 1986.
Previous teams to get through to the last 16 after losing in 32-team World Cups
USA lost 3-1 to Poland, 2002
Mexico 2-1 to Portugal, 2006
Mexico 1-0 to Uruguay, 2010
Chile 2-1 to Spain, 2010
Nigeria 2-1 to Argentina, 2014
USA 1-0 to Germany, 2014
Mexico 3-0 to Sweden, 2018
Japan 1-0 to Poland, 2018
That’s what it comes down in the end, regardless of high ideals. It’s the World Cup, the ultimate, so about doing what is required to stay in it as long as possible.
Most will criticise it when watching on - but most will take it when involved. That’s the reality. It’s all the more instructive when you consider that figures close to the Polish squad talk of a “curse” being broken. Many would also point to Mexico’s own anti-football in the opening two games. They only played when they had to.
There’s then the list of those sides since 1998 that have actually got through after losing their crunch group game. Of the eight, three are Mexico. And the only side to get through after losing by more than two goals? That was Mexico, in 2018, having lost 3-0 to Sweden. Poland have meanwhile been on the other side twice, inflicting a defeat but still seeing opposition go through.
They naturally now feel it’s a bit of historic justice being done, events eventually evening out after so many years when their national team looked so flighty and unreliable.
It just isn’t one that will be remembered with much admiration.