Saturday, March 16, 2013

1977 took the bulk of qualifying stage for the incoming World Cup. Two countries did not have to worry – West Germany and Argentina automatically qualified, as current world champion and host. For everybody else it was the usual struggle to reach coveted spot. The formula was the same as for 1974 – Europe had 8 spots, South America – 2, Africa, Asia, and Central-North America – one each, the odd fifth continent, Oceania – nothing. The last spot was to be contested between the winner of the 9th European group and the third placed of the final South American phase. In Europe Lady Luck played her jokes, creating certain sense of deja vu: Holland and Belgium once again were in one group. So were Spain and Yugoslavia – third time in a row! USSR ended in 8th group and had the same fate as in the qualifications for the 1974 World Cup: if winning, they were to play one more play-off against South American team, and if fate decided to repeat entirely itself, it could have been Chile again. When matches started, other repetitions happened too. In the simple days of small Europe and uncomplicated football countries were quite free to make the games schedules, which involved some negotiations and compromises, naturally begrudged by the 'victims'. Qualifying matches started in 1976, but the bulk was in 1977 – almost everybody thought it was wiser to have matches near the World Cup final, thus, preserving good form. Theoretically. The Soviets made their schedule as if playing a mini-championship – all matches in a single month, presumably, aiming to benefit from a team stable, confident, and 'warm'. As ever, there were 'easy' groups and tough ones, but more or less favourites were clear. The toughest group was the 8th – Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. What is 'fair' and 'unfair' in football is entirely arbitrary and depending on opinion: the rules place former finalists in one urn to make sure they are not going to end playing against each other. Past and current squads and form are two entirely different things, though and when the actual competition starts, the picture is quite different. Based on past ranking, Bulgaria was above England. Group 9 consisted only from countries which did not play at 1974 World Cup – and the winner may not play at the incoming World Cup either, if losing to the third South American candidate. Anyway, fair, unfair, to business at hand, for whining changes nothing.

Group 1: Poland, Portugal, Denmark, and Cyprus. The order they came out of the urns was dublicated in the final table, as to confirm the objectivity of mere draw. Poland and Portugal were the favourites, the rest were good only as additional arbiters: results against them may decide who ends first and who – second. Simple philosophy: get the maximum points from and score as much as possible against the outsiders, win the home fixture against the direct rival, and try for a tie at the reciprocal visit. Sometimes it even worked.

Portugal was practically in decline since 1966, at first slowly, but very clear during the 1970s – Portugal failed to qualify for any major championship. It was beatable team, yet, traditionally considered serious opponent. Poland depended largely on the players from the great 1974 campaign, but suffering from the limited pool of talent. Replacing a starter, getting old or moving to play abroad was a problem. But the basic squad was still at hand. Poland got a strong start: winning the away game with Portugal, their first match. 2-0 at Porto pretty much decided the final standings in October 1976. It was important win in one aspect: Portugal had 'better' schedule, playing the last three matches of the campaign, when Poland had only one – the home leg against the direct competitor. So, the strategy was not to lose a single point before the final sprint. Which both rivals managed well, and Portugal paid the price for losing the opening game of the campaign: by the end of October 1977 Poland had 5 straight victories and excellent goal difference. Portugal with 3 wins and 1 loss needed to win both last matches and with significant results too – but Poland had the edge, playing at home. In Chorzow the match was tied at 1-1, enough for Poland to stay out of reach. The last match was meaningless.

1.POLAND 6 5 1 0 17- 4 11

2.Portugal 6 4 1 1 12- 6 9

3.Denmark 6 2 0 4 14-12 4

4.Cyprus 6 0 0 6 3-24 0
At a glance, Poland won easily, but a look at this squad from 1977 shows the relative strength and limitations of 'Druzina Polska': the heroes of 1974 provided the back bone of the team, with the exception of Robert Gadocha, playing abroad by now. It was clear that the 1974 stars were everything Poland had: new players were introduced, but failed to establish themselves – who remembers Maculewicz today, let alone Sustek? The pool of talent was small enough to call for extraordinary measures – Vlodzimierz Lubanski was recalled, the very first professional Polish player included in the national team. True, he was a legend, he recovered his form, and he deserved, at least as a symbolic gesture, to go to the World Cup finals, but it was clear that there were not enough strong players in Poland. Communist countries as a firm rule did not include foreign based professionals – to change that meant desperate situation. Experienced, yet inevitably 4-years older squad and no replacements of worth. Lucky in a way to have Portugal was opponent.