Tuesday, May 23, 2006

#21: Bialo-Czerwoni


Where? East of Germany, West of Ukraine and Belarus, Northeast Europe.

How Big? Slightly smaller than Cote d'Ivoire, about the size of New Mexico. Population is bigger than California, around the same size as Argentina.

Something I learned in the CIA Factbook entry... Not much, actually. Poland is kind of an average country - not as undeveloped as many of the other Warsaw Pact nations, but nowhere near as productive as any of the Western European nations. It's more literate than the USA - 99.8%.

Geopolitical importance? It's a growing economy, but they've suffered growing pains of late. It's one of the poorer countries in the EU, and the current government has taken some positions that counter prevailing EU thoughts, such as instituting the death penalty. Poland has always been an important buffer between European powers Russia and Germany.

Anything fun about Poland? Maybe not. I spent way longer than I should've trying to find something fun there. Apparently it is a cold place, and the things to see include Nazi concentration camps and nobody seems to write about other things. I'm depressed just doing searches. I would link to a site of Polish jokes, but even they aren't really funny.

Is there anything good about the soccer?

Sort of. It's good they qualified for the World Cup, but Poland isn't really considered one of the premier teams in Europe. In actuality, Poland has a pretty good history in the World Cup. They've finished in third place on two occasions (1974 and 1982), including the last time the Cup was in Germany. On two other occasions, Poland has advanced past the group round. Oddly, they've never even qualified for the European Cup. Poland has had even better success in the Olympics, taking Silver Medals twice and winning Gold in Munich in 1972. One oddity: Poland is probably home to the maybe the most famous soccer player in history. No, not Pele. It's Pope John Paul II, who grew up playing goalkeeper in his hometown of Wadowice.

Qualifying for this year's Cup went well for Poland, in that they absolutely dominated everyone in their group except England. True enough, England was the only good team in their preliminary group and they lost home and away. Austria has had decent teams in the past and Poland beat them twice (including a big 3-1 win in Vienna). Poland actually qualified for the cup going into their last match against England, because even with a loss the Poles had one of the best records for non-group-winners.

The Polish team might not be big on names, but there's definitely talent on the team. One advantage they have is their size up front, and they'll use their height advantage by whipping crosses in. The player to watch is striker Maciej Zurawski, who plays for Celtic. Keen nose for the goal there, scoring 20 times for the Bhoys.

Poland is probably a good bet to advance, since they'll have a crowd advantage in 2 of their three prelim games and it's a favorable group, with no clear second-best team. I'm going a little against the grain here, thinking they won't advance.

The opener in Gelsenkirchen proves to be a loud place, and the height advantage works for the Poles, who get by Ecuador 1-0.

The second match doesn't prove as fruitful, as the home team Germans clinch advancement by winning 2-1. Poland's strengths match up with Germany's, but Germany's just better.

Finally, with everything on the line, Poland will line up against Costa Rica. Poland scores first, with a strong Zurawski header. But the Ticos spirit isn't broken, and they use speed and counterattacks to level just before half. Both teams get nervous because of similar qualification standings. The Poles falter though, allowing a slick long pass and goal by Costa Rica. Poland loses 2-1 again and fails to advance.

A successful opener leads to a disappointing finish. But I'm not very confident about this prediction. Poland could very well advance, or even top the group.

If this were March Madness, Poland would be a major conference team that should be better than they are, but also aren't as bad as you think they are, and a team that makes the occasional long run. Maybe Wisconsin?

JPII was an honorary member of Schalke 04, in whose stadium the Poles play their first game in this Cup.