For 45 minutes, Poland looked like a potential European champion. Its performance over the next 45 causes many to wonder if it will even advance out of Group A of the 2012 UEFA European Championships.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in its 1-1 draw against Greece undoubtedly disappointed its fans. Many tipped Poland, a co-host of Euro 2012, to make a cinderella run in the tournament. But it faltered in its opening game, and its status as a host nation is partly to blame.
Poland took a well-deserved 1-0 lead into the halftime break. The roaring crowd at the National Stadium in Warsaw was delighted by the top-class soccer its heroes played. The referee also helped the cause, sending off Greece defender Sokratis in the 44th minute.
All was going according to plan until Greece substitute Dimitrios Salpingidis tied the game in the 51st minute. It was unexpected, as the Greeks had barely mustered an attack in the first half. Those expecting a furious response from the home team were let down. Poland hasn’t played a competitive game since October 2009, and it showed in the second half.
As a host nation, Poland automatically qualified for Euro 2012. Rather than participating in a grueling qualifying campaign, the Poles played friendlies around the world. In the 2009-10 season, it played 10 of them. In 2010-11 it played 13. In 2011-12, it played 11 games. Not one result of the 34 games truly mattered.
Sure, national pride is at stake whenever countries meet on the field. But a team cannot be at its sharpest when the result of the game has no bearing on a competition.
When Greece started growing into the game, Poland wasn’t sure how to react. In fact, it could have easily lost the game. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny gave away a penalty (and was sent off) 16 minutes after Salpingidis’ goal. His backup, Przemyslaw Tyton bailed Poland out by saving Georgios Karagounis‘ penalty kick. Despite receiveing a momentary boost from Tyton’s save, 10-man Poland never looked like it was going to beat 10-man Greece.
When the going got rough, none of the Polish players stepped forward to lead his team through the difficult patch of the game. Had Poland played some meaningful games, it would know to whom it should look for a goal, key pass, crunching tackle or calming influence.
Collective identity and progress is forged through struggle, as players learn to depend on (and believe in) their teammates during qualifying campaigns. Poland showed a lack of character in the second half. It had better find it soon, as it meets rampant Russia on Tuesday.