The received wisdom is that the Netherlands should have won the 1974 World Cup. The great side of Cruyff, Krol and Neeskens would undoubtedly have been worthy champions, but scant thought is given to the nation that finished third in that tournament: Poland.
They were little fancied prior to the start of the competition, but the clues were there for those who wanted to look carefully enough. In 1971, the Poles held the West Germans to a 0-0 draw in a European Championship qualifier in Hamburg and returned to the same country a year later to win the gold medal in the Olympics.
Then, in 1973, they reached their first World Cup since 1938, qualifying at the expense of England following a 1-1 draw at Wembley. Brian Clough famously dismissed their goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, as a ‘clown’ prior to the game, but his superlative performance to keep the English out left Clough looking as if he were the one playing the fool.
Tomaszewski was the base of a decent enough defence, but the genius of Poland’s team lay in a quartet of offensive players who were at the peak of their powers. At its heart was the elegant midfield playmaker Kazimierz Deyna, who was ably supported by two quick wingers in Grzegorz Lato and Robert Gadocha, as well as a sole striker, the luxuriantly moustachioed Andrzej Szarmach. Between them they scored fifteen goals at the 1974 World Cup; a figure exceeding that notched by the entire West German team and double that of the fourth-placed Brazilians.
The draw for the first round hadn’t appeared to have done the Poles many favours. They were pitched against Italy, who had finished as runners up four years earlier and hadn’t conceded a goal in twelve consecutive matches prior to the start of the tournament, as well as Argentina, who scarcely failed to send a strong team to a World Cup.
The Poles, however, soon made their presence felt; scoring twice within the opening ten minutes in their match against Argentina, putting seven past Haiti without reply and then beating Italy by two goals to one; a result that ended the Italian’s participation in the competition. Poland thus ended the first round as the only team to win all three of their opening matches, a feat that not even the much lauded Dutch side managed.
Elsewhere, however, circumstances were starting to conspire against Poland. The West German hosts surprisingly lost to their East German brothers in their final group game, a result which meant that they ended up in the same second round group as the Poles and avoided the Dutch.
Unlike modern World Cup tournaments, the qualifiers from the first round did not play knockout matches but were placed into two further groups of four instead, the winners of which contested the final. The Poles continued their winning ways in the second round, beating Sweden and Yugoslavia but, ominously, the West Germans finally started to find some form. They also defeated the same two sides but, crucially, garnered a superior goal difference in doing so. That meant that they went into their remaining group game needing only a draw to reach the final.
If the Poles were to get there they would have to beat the Germans; something they had never managed to do before. They would also have to do so without their first choice striker, Szarmach; sadly, out with injury.
If all that wasn’t bad enough for the Poles, the heavens opened with ferocity on the day of the match, turning the pitch into a quagmire and the outcome into a lottery. The conditions may have been the same for both sides, but they would hinder the visitors more; stymying the impact that their two pacey wingers could have.
The German ground staff worked hard to clear the pitch but, despite their valiant efforts and a delayed kick-off, the game commenced on a surface that was barely playable in parts. Ideally the game should never have started at all, but the pressures of a World Cup schedule meant that postponement was almost an impossibility.
To their credit, the Poles did their best to make light of the swampy conditions, taking the game to the hosts and forcing some fine saves out of Sepp Maier. First, he palmed a blistering free kick from Gadocha around the post and then denied both Lato and Gadocha in quick succession after Beckenbauer had kicked air when he had surely intended to strike the ball. Deyna also went close with a shot, but the first-half ended with the game still delicately poised at 0-0.
Poland may have been the stronger team in the first period, but the second-half belonged to the Germans. The rain continued to fall, and they soon had an excellent opportunity to take the lead; Hölzenbein winning a penalty that Tomaszewski saved rather easily from Hoeness. Maier saved another shot from Deyna but then, with only fourteen minutes remaining, the ruthless Gerd Müller pounced to score the game’s only goal. There was still time for Maier to make one more excellent save, this time from Kmiecik, but time was soon up for the Poles. Perhaps, on a drier day and with Szarmach in their side, they would have put the Germans to the sword. But it wasn’t to be.
Instead, Poland’s ‘golden generation’ went on to secure third place in the tournament with a 1-0 victory over Brazil, an achievement that they would repeat in Spain eight years later, with Lato and Szarmach still in the side. Deyna didn’t play in that World Cup, though he did have the dubious consolation prize of appearing in the 1981 feature film ‘Escape to Victory’ as one of the Allied prisoners of war team. Poland, meanwhile, had to endure a long, long wait to finally beat the Germans at football, their first victory over them not coming until 2014 in a European Championships qualifier.
The outcomes of countless military campaigns have turned on the vagaries of the weather, from Napolean’s and Hitler’s attempts to conquer Russia to the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps it’s not so different for football. The Germans may have gone on to beat the Netherlands in the final, but maybe when it rains Franz Beckenbauer looks thoughtfully to the skies and counts his blessings. Possibly, if the rain gods hadn’t intervened on that fateful day in Frankfurt, he and his teammates could well have fallen on the field of battle.
Simon Turner is the author of ‘If Only: An Alternative History of the Beautiful Game’ published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonaturner100.