When a national football team produces a once-in-a-generation talent, it becomes fashionable to suggest that all hopes rest on the shoulders of that player. But, in truth, football is a team sport, and an individual can rarely do it all by themselves. Perhaps at the 1986 World Cup, when Diego Maradona inspired an otherwise average Argentina team to glory, we could point to a great individual performance leading to the ultimate success. But since then? Even Cristiano Ronaldo was not on the pitch when Portugal won Euro 2016, despite the captain being integral to the triumph.
Poland, of course, boasts a once-in-a-generation talent of its own, Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich striker seems to be getting even better in his 30s, and he will relish the opportunity to add to his current haul of 66 international goals at the European Championships this summer. But while the captain will be under some pressure to deliver, the true pressure will be on the manager, Paulo Sousa.
Poland take “pre-tournament punt” on manager
Sousa was, of course, named Poland National Team Manager in January of this year, replacing Jerzy Brzeczek in a surprise move by Polish Football Association President Zbigniew Boniek. The switch surprised some, given Brzeczek had led Poland to three consecutive major tournaments. Rob Eddy, writing in MansionBet’s betting coverage for Euro 2020 Group E, featuring Poland, Spain, Slovakia and Sweden – called it a “pre-tournament punt”, i.e. a bet that could go horribly wrong for Poland if Sousa does not deliver.
Indeed, it is rarely a good sign to see a team changing a manager before a major tournament, even if Sousa has six months or so to prepare. We saw, for instance, the poor performance of Spain in the 2018 World Cup after sacking then-coach Julen Lopetegui before the tournament. But the move has been made, and Boniek – and Polish fans – will have to live with the consequences.
Sousa has started life as national team boss with a mixed bag of results, winning one (as expected against Andorra), losing one and drawing another in his three games in charge (all World Cup Qualifiers). He will announce his preliminary squad in the coming days and then whittle it down further to 26 players by 1st June. Friendlies against Russia and Iceland in early June will give him some chance to get his team selection right before Poland take on Slovakia in their Group E opening game in St Petersburg on 14th June.
Knockout stages will be minimum requirement for Sousa
The minimum requirement for Sousa will be to get out of Group E. Bookmakers believe that is likely, and so should the fans. Spain will represent formidable opponents, but Poland will be considered favourites against Slovakia and Sweden. Predicting a route through the knockout stages is difficult given the inclusion of four third-placed teams, but finishing second might mean a Last 16 tie with England or Croatia.
Getting beyond that Last 16 would equal Brzeczek’s accomplishment from Euro 2016 – when Poland reached the Quarter-Finals – and getting any further would surely be hailed as a huge success. But, to be frank, it feels like the potential for failure outweighs the slim chance of success for Sousa. It’s not that the job is a poisoned chalice, but it is hard to think of what Boniek expects Sousa to do in areas where Brzeczek could not.
As for Robert Lewandowski, the tournament is a “free hit”. Polish fans do not believe their record goalscorer owes them anything. If he fails to fire the team deep into the knockout rounds, it will be viewed as Sousa’s fault, not his. The Portuguese manager will carry the can for failure in the tournament, and it might mean that Boniek wields his axe again if he does not deliver.