An audience with Lech Walesa

IT WAS the greatest fairy-story in Polish football history. Lechia Gdansk were a third-division club but they beat Widzew Lodz, Slask Wroclaw and Ruch Chorzow on their way to the 1983 Polish Cup final.

There they beat Piast Gliwice 2-1 to complete a remarkable triumph. In any environment such a shock success would have been extraordinary, but it was particularly so for Gdansk at that time. Solidarity, the pro-democracy movement based in the shipyards and led by the union boss Lech Walesa was at its height, with martial law imposed by the Communist authorities to try to maintain order.

I met Walesa at his office in Gdansk last year. He is 68 now, his hair white and his face creased. The moustache remains, though, bushy and white and bristling with intensity. Although he was going into hospital for a minor operation the day after our interview, he still buzzed with charisma and vitality. He admits he is no great football fan, but equally he has no doubt about the importance of football to his country’s development. “We had to do our best to get the revolution going,” he explained. “We had to build up the foundations to get the fight on. Sport was just one of the ways we met each other and found out how much we had in common. We became much closer thanks to football and we relied on these relationships. Football was very important.”

Matches became rallying points for dissent, the terraces an arena where the secret police no longer had control. So paranoid did the authorities become that all matches from the 1982 World Cup, in which Poland finished third, were broadcast with a few minutes delay so that any pro-Solidarity banners could be blacked out. “We needed to show the Communist Party that they were not the only power in Poland at that time,” Wales said. “They always tried to keep us down and marginalise us. So we had to unite. They felt really paralysed by seeing how united we were during football matches.”

I asked him whether Lechia’s Cup success had had a symbolic quality, that it proved that an inspired underdog could win. “There is something in your words,” he said. “You could interpret it in this way. For us it was a victory achieved by a great club, but others saw us as David fighting and winning against Goliath.”

The Cup success also meant Lechia qualified for the Cup-Winners Cup. They drew Juventus in the first round and lost 7-0 in Turin in the first leg. In terms of football, that meant the second leg was a formality, but for Gdansk, Solidarity and Walesa it was an opportunity. The game, which Juve won 3-2, was screened live in Italy and that meant the censors couldn’t silence the dissent. Walesa, who had been released from jail a few months earlier, escaped his secret-police minders and was smuggled into the stadium. Midway through the first half, he emerged on the terrace to near delirious applause. “I was at the game,” he said. “The stadium was packed. The crowd shouted the name of Solidarity. It sounded really perfect.”

A month later, Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Walesa sees hosting the Euros as an important stage in Poland’s development. For years Poland’s narrative has been one of resistance: against the Russians, against the Germans and then, for many, against the Communist authorities. According to Marcin Stefanski, the head of logistics at the Polish football league, that bred a culture of cynicism and negativity. When I spoke to him in 2005, he was sceptical even as to how many Poles wanted the bid to host the European Championship to succeed. It did, though and, as by far the biggest international event Poland has staged since the fall of Communism, Euro 2012 represents an opportunity to change that, a first chance truly to create something positive rather than fighting against what is already there. He is now far more positive: as well as offering a chance for Poland to show itself off to visiting fans from across the continent, he believes, Euro 2012, if done well, could provide a much-needed boost to Polish self-esteem.

“The problem is that we have no choice,” Walesa said. “We must thread Europe together. We must learn from each other. Poland could not afford to organise the Olympic Games so we must do everything we can to get to know each other in the best possible way.”

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