With the 2018 World Cup well underway and Poland about to play its first game, it’s the perfect time to take a look at some of the lesser-known characteristics of Polish football culture. Read on to find out why Polish fans want ‘Master Turk to end the match’, which Polish player inspired an Italian hip-hop song, and what famous game was much like pond skating.
It’s the little differences…
Football in Poland is, to paraphrase John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction, the same but just a little different. For example, the national squad’s nickname is ‘The Eagles’, which sounds a bit more lofty than the also bird-inspired ‘Little Canaries’ of Brazil's team, who clearly have a contrasting perspective about themselves!
Unlike the biggest European leagues, each year the Polish premiership (the ‘Ekstraklasa’) enforces segregation of the teams partway through the season. After 30 fixtures, matches are divided into a master’s and relegation section, after which the teams continue to compete only against sides from the sections they end up in. As the names would suggest, you can only win the championship if you’ve qualified for the master’s section, whereas a bad performance in the relegation section may result in having to leave the highest league.
Another difference, this time on the other side of the pitch barrier, regards the fans’ deep love for 1970s pop icons Village People: Poland supporters chant ‘Polska, Biało Czerwoni’ (‘Poland, the White-and-Reds’) to the tune of the bands 1979 disco hit Go West at every single game. But whichever language you use to cheer the players on the pitch, you were likely sitting in a Polish chair if you were at a Euro 2016 game in either Nice or Lyon. The chairs in the stands at those stadiums were provided by the Polish company Forum Seating.
Let’s ‘do the Poznań’
Returning swiftly to the topic of singing, the Poland centre back Kamil Glik is so highly valued by the fans of his Italian club Torino that one of them recorded an entire hip-hop song about him. The bouncy number by rapper Willie Peyote is called simply Glik and is in the language of the Squadra Azzurra themselves.
Another central defender on the Polish team also inspiring cultural creation is Michał Pazdan. Much to the relief of the Polish nation, the tense Euro 2016 game against Germany ended with a nil-nil draw, with Pazdan’s defending so spot on that he quickly inspired a series of laudatory memes. Throughout Instagram and Facebook, he was sired the Minister of National Defence and even the Saviour himself.
The Polish fans can be inspirational themselves too as proven by the ‘let’s do the Poznań’ hype, which has its roots in a 2010 Europa League game between Manchester City and Lech Poznań. The fans of the Polish side impressed the City supporters with their traditional form of celebrating –turning their backs to the pitch, putting their arms over their neighbours’ shoulders and jumping up and down. The City fans incorporated this routine into their own cheering repertoire, dubbing it simply ‘the Poznan’ and it soon became an internationally recognisable behaviour. For instance, you can catch a glimpse of supporters doing the Poznań in the official gameplay trailer of hit football video game FIFA 15.
Some of the Polish supporters’ habits that are maybe less spectacular than the Poznań are also meaningful. Among them is for instance the use of coined phrases such as ‘Master Turk, end the game!’ or ‘He’s a headless rider’. The latter expression is used to describe a player that runs around the pitch a lot but doesn’t seem to be doing it sensibly, while the former references radio commentary from a 1990s club match between the Polish side Widzew Łódź and Danish team Brøndby IF. Towards the end, the speaker Tomasz Zimoch was encouraging the referee, who happened to be a Turk, to promptly finish the game because of the score favouring the Poles. The absolutely unique style of this encouragement granted it a place among classic Polish football phrases. Today fans repeat it when they’d like a game they’re watching to end already.
In Poland it’s customary to drop coined phrases and cries while watching football to show company that you have a clue what’s going on, but some of these can actually be gracious. In the unlikely event of Poland losing a match, its supporters typically sing ‘Polacy, nic się nie stało’, which basically means ‘Don’t worry Poles, nothing happened’. Of course, this is sung to the tune of Guantanamera.
The founding myth
In order to understand the present you have to know the past. This wise sentence is applicable, among other things, to the Polish national football team. Among the greatest and most remembered success of the Eagles are two World Cup bronze medals, won in 1974 and 1982. However, every medal has two sides, as they say, and this is especially true in regard to the first trophy.
The big national myth goes that Poland could have gotten to the final of the ‘74 tournament if not for the so-called ‘on-the-water’ game against West Germany. The match was played on a completely rain-drenched pitch which prevented the Polish side from using their greatest advantage at the time – speed. Germany won and Poland was out of the final.
On the other hand, success against Germany is the essential founding myth of the current Polish team. The Eagles beat the reigning world champions 2-0 in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, which was the first time Poland had ever won a football match against Germany. That victory was when the Polish team, which included such world class players as Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski or Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak, really emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The side coached by ex-Eagle Adam Nawałka also featured the young talents of Arkadiusz Milik, the past season’s top scorer for Ajax Amsterdam, and Bartosz Kapustka, whose great performance in one of the Euro games was praised on Twitter by household English TV personality and ex-Barcelona player Gary Lineker. The team as a whole started receiving praising tweets from Hollywood star Russell Crowe, an unexpected but much welcome supporter who has suddenly found himself a new fan base in Poland. But who will be the team's new surprise supporter in 2018?
Let’s hope the 2018 Polish team will have a great World Cup, gathering praise from all sides, and that its supporters won’t need to chant ‘Polacy, nic się nie stało’ at all.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2016; updated by AZ, June 2018