BY CHRIS LASH
My first memories of football stretch back to the 1986 World Cup. I recall having a lovely wall-chart with all the games laid out on it and, as only a six year old could do, dutifully filling in the results with a trusty black pen. Apart from the wall-chart the other thing I remember from the tournament was my dad telling me stories about the beautiful game. He told me about the prowess of the Brazilian side and the supremely gifted but inherently shady Maradona. But my father was, and still is, a stout Francophile. Therefore most of his tales revolved around the graceful Michel Platini and the exciting French side he led. By extension my dad also waxed lyrical about Platini’s former partner-in-crime at Juventus, the Polish attacking midfield dynamo, Zbigniew Boniek.
Boniek is quite possibly the most talented Polish player ever, along with Górnik Zabrze’s Włodzimierz Lubański and Legia Warsaw’s Kazimierz Deyna. Indeed in 2004, he was the only Polish player included in Pele’s FIFA 100 list. Starting out at Zawisza Bydgoszcz, ‘Zibi’ moved on to Widzew Łódź in 1975 leading the small club to Polish and European success and famous victories over Manchester United, Juventus and Liverpool. In 1982 Juventus paid $1.8 million for his services, at that time a colossal fee. In Turin, Zibi teamed up excellently with Platini and led Juventus to European Cup glory in 1985. He was a fan’s favourite at Juve, earning the somewhat ambiguous nickname ‘Bello di notte’ – ‘Beautiful by night’ for his wonderful performances in evening fixtures. Boniek spent the last three years of his professional career in Italy with Roma.
Zibi was almost as successful on the international stage. Boniek’s playing career spanned most of Poland’s remarkable period at the top of the world game. Over 14 years the country won the Olympic Games and finished third in two World Cups. Boniek was most influential in the 1982 World Cup where a Polish side also containing Grzegorz Lato and Włodzimierz Smolarek won a bronze medal. In a wonderful second round game against Belgium, Boniek scored a superb hat-trick. His first was a smashing shot after a cross by Lato, his second a clever headed goal. His hat-trick was the result of a wonderful team move which ended with Boniek rounding the goalkeeper, Theo Custers, and finishing with aplomb.
Zibi may have been wonderfully talented but he was also a deeply controversial figure; something highlighted in an excellent new book by Polish journalist Marek Wawrzynowski. The book Wielki Widzew’ ‘The Great Widzew’ is, amongst other things, a character study of Boniek during his time at the Łódź club. Here, Boniek is shown to be a magician on the pitch, someone blessed with supreme belief allowing him to make the absolute most of his technical ability. Boniek set out to be the best and his steely determination made sure this was the case.
If this cock-sureness made sure he was a leader on the pitch, it also got him into some rather undignified scrapes. Wawrzynowski shows how his antics in a UEFA cup game at Manchester City provoked the Manchester side’s left back, Willie Donachie, into striking out and getting sent off. We also see how Boniek got involved in one of the most famous scandals in Polish football history ‘The Okęcie affair.’ Here amongst chaotic scenes, Boniek defended goalkeeper Józef Młynarczyk who had turned up to a flight with the national team heavily hungover. As a result of his behaviour, Boniek was suspended by the Polish Football Association (PZPN) for half a season. Wawrzynowski also relates how Zibi fought with members of his own Widzew side after he was accused of purposely missing a penalty. Boniek seemingly could not avoid being the centre of attention.
Boniek’s influence on the Polish game has not diminished since finishing playing in 1988. He was Vice-President of the PZPN for several years at the turn of the millennium and the national team manager briefly in 2002. Boniek was also the President of the company which brokered broadcasting rights with Canal + for the Polish top division in 2000. Finally, in December 2012, Boniek once more found all eyes on him as he became the new President of the PZPN.
Polish football in 2013 is in a mess. There are some lovely new stadiums but the game is still plagued with poor facilities at a grass root level, a lack of openness in the way business is done and poor results on the international stage. Boniek’s appointment to the highest position in the Polish game was to usher in a new age of transparency. And what better way to enter the modern age than to join Twitter? Indeed this is just what Zibi has done.
Here’s where I come back in. As a child, Boniek was an exotic foreign name brought into my life by my father’s stories. But no longer. Years of twisting my tongue around various unpronounceable Polish words has given me a decent level of fluency in the language. Suddenly, Boniek has become an important feature of my day. Every evening just before bed, up pop Zibi’s tweets on a variety of football related subjects. Boniek, of course, took time to get used to the medium. Evidence of this were his regular tweets addressed to himself and a barrage of empty tweets. Often it seemed that the great man might actually be slightly tipsy when he sat down to connect with people. Perhaps my favourite occasion was when Zibi informed the Twitter-sphere that it was his wedding anniversary and that his wife was dutifully awaiting his trip to the marital bed. We’ve also seen pictures aplenty of Zibi with figures such as Mike Tyson and Alex Ferguson.
But it’s not all been fun and games. Zibi has also got involved in some heated exchanges with Polish football journalists who have criticised some of his methods as PZPN president. These include Zibi’s defence of misfiring striker Robert Lewandowski and the under-performing Polish national team coach Waldemar Fornalik. The frisson of tension has been especially high with Boniek’s Twitter discussions with Marek Wawrzynowski and Piotr Żelazny, the producers of the book ‘Wielki Widzew.’ Indeed the journalists are to be praised for showing Zibi in his heyday warts and all. This comes across when they interact on Twitter. It’s almost as if Boniek is saying ‘Beware. I’m watching you.’
Boniek is quite possibly the greatest enigma in the Polish game. A superb player yet a rabble-rouser, the man now in charge of setting Polish football on a better path, yet someone famous for being infuriatingly inconsistent. Zibi’s been the centre of attention for nigh-on forty years and it doesn’t look like this will end any time soon. Zbigniew Boniek I salute you.
If your Polish is decent or if you’re a fan of google translate you can follow Zibi here:
Here are the handles of Wawrzynowski and Żelazny:
I drew on ‘Wielki Widzew’ by Marek Wawrzynowski and ‘Behind the Curtain’ by Jonathan Wilson
YOU CAN FOLLOW CHRIS ON TWITTER @rightbankwarsaw