The Sadness of Kaziu
September 2019 marks 30 years since the premature death of the Polish great Kazimierz Deyna
Featuring for both sides, Deyna scored in the blue of City, having played the opening half in the white of his former club. He scored for both sides in a 2-1 victory for the hosts.”Sto lat, sto lat, niech żyje, żyje nam...” – “100 years, 100 years, may they live...” sang the home supporters. But he lived only another 10.
The Deyna story is one that begins in Starogard Gdański and ends on a San Diego highway. In between lies a story of one of Poland’s most influential footballers – an immensely gifted attacking midfielder who endured a love-hate relationship with his own nation, despite elevating its football team to unprecedented spikes of success. It’s a journey punctuated by a broken marriage, financial hardship, a career path manipulated by Poland’s communist regime and a big screen cameo alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.
Kazimierz was the fifth of eight Deyna children – nine including the addition of an adopted sister, Wanda, whose parents were killed during the Second World War. He was to become a man of numerous aliases. ‘Kaziu’, ‘Kaz’, ‘Kazak’ and ‘Kaka’ – the latter coined by his Poland teammate Jan Tomaszewski who thought he waddled like a ‘kaczka’ (duck). His devotion to football came early. Speaking in a 2003 documentary, his sister Teresa commented, “We received footballs for our first Holy Communion – we played with bare feet. And we couldn’t get near the ball. He would dribble around us. We stuck Elżbieta in goal... she was terrified because he had such a hard shot.”
ŁKS Łódź were the first club to give Deyna his chance. Making his debut at 19 years old, he was to make just one senior appearance for them. Polish authorities had already noted his elegance and stand-out abilities as a potential elite footballer. It was decided he should move to the army club Legia Warsaw, where he could combine a blossoming footballing career with national service. Although a midfielder, his all-round abilities were already catching the eye. Franz Beckenbauer would later claim Deyna “could occupy any position on the pitch” such was his masterful positional sense and spatial awareness, not to mention his range of distribution. Tomaszewski spoke of Deyna’s “nasty” shots during training sessions. He said, “I was playing for Poland, I was one of the best... but Kaziu would take 10 shots at me and score 11. The way he put rotation on the ball when he struck it was something I’d never seen before. He would make me look silly. I loved him and hated him for that. He was my hero in many respects. As a goalkeeper I’d see him standing there. He’d get the ball surrounded by three or four players. He’d be gone, the ball would be gone... and you wouldn’t know how. It was fantastic to see. He set the algorithm on the pitch. His on-pitch intelligence was incredible... he saw everything like no other footballer.”
It was during his time in Poland’s capital that Deyna would befriend two men who would go on to play big off-field roles in his life. Stefan Szczepłek was a journalist who would one day become Deyna’s biographer and one of his closest confidants. George Bergier was a member of an athletics team in Warsaw. He would later leave Poland to become a waiter at the Midland Hotel in Manchester – earning extra cash as an interpreter when European competitions took north-western clubs behind the Iron Curtain – while also helping Deyna settle into his new surroundings following his move to City.
However, Deyna would be made to wait for his move overseas. Deemed too valuable a commodity to Poland, the government kept him in Warsaw, while the footballer and man grew increasingly cynical and resentful. Riches elsewhere were dangled before him, but the authorities kept him under lock and key. But before those discussions came the small matter of projecting Poland into the global footballing consciousness. In 1972, Deyna led Poland to gold at the Munich Olympics, scoring both in the final in East Germany. It was no fluke. On 17 October 1973, the Poles travelled to England for a deciding World Cup qualifying game at Wembley. Sir Alf Ramsey’s men had already lost in Poland but were expected to get the job done under the Twin Towers and seal qualification. The game remains one of the seminal matches for both nations. England could only draw 1-1. They were knocked out, Poland qualified. Deyna controlled the game, manipulating the intensity of Poland’s approach and, on occasion, humiliating his opponents – several times nutmegging England’s hapless shadow- chasers. Grzegorz Lato would go on to be the top scorer at the 1974 World Cup. He feels the success in West Germany was instigated on that cold night in north London. “1974 was the tournament where the world found out about Poland as a football power,” Lato said. “But we have to go back to Wembley. That was the game that opened the global gate for us and gave many of that side impetus and confidence to do so well in West Germany. Kaziu, especially, was amazing that night.”
Poland finished third at the 1974 World Cup. Theirs was a display not only of collective team spirit and understanding but of individual brilliance. Lato scored seven goals, Andrzej Szarmach five (it’s frequently forgotten Poland were free-scoring despite the absence of Włodzimierz Lubański, whose cartilage was left in pieces following a robust Roy McFarland challenge during the qualifiers). Tomaszewski has no doubt where the success was sourced. “Finishing third in the 1974 World Cup was a great achievement but, really, it was about two people... we owed a lot to Kazimierz Górski [Poland’s head coach] but also Deyna. They were inspirational and we rose to the challenges they set. Kaziu was our conductor – we played to his tune. Everyone knew about Beckenbauer, and Cruyff was growing in the public consciousness. But that World Cup also gave us Deyna. And he deserves to be spoken in the same breath as those two. Górski revitalised Polish football and Kaziu was at the very forefront of that revolution. As a goalkeeper I could see everything. Deyna would often see things 20 seconds before anyone else – myself included – and he was often in the teeth of a match. His immense reading of the game and potential situations was his strength.”
Deyna ended the year named as the third best footballer in the world after Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. By then he had also been appointed as Podporucznik within the Polish Army – effectively occupying a Second Lieutenant officer’s rank.
Off the field, Deyna was a quiet character – at least when it suited him. Teammates spoke of a man who was neither charismatic nor dynamic. “As a person he wasn’t an orator,” said Tomaszewski. “He stayed quiet unless he needed to say something. If you could have transferred his footballing intelligence to his own character and personality you would probably be talking about a professor in astrophysics. He would have been intelligent beyond all imagination.”
Kazimierz Górski managed Deyna at Legia and the national side. He knew exactly what made his player tick: “He saw everything from the middle. His instinct for finding the right pass was the best I’ve seen. He was an individualist – and that applied on and off the field. He was happy on his own. But he had a major weakness: he liked women. If a beautiful woman walked past then all of a sudden he forgot he was an individualist and he would suddenly want company. I’d summon the players for a meeting. And I’d ask, ‘Where’s Kaziu? He’s the only one not here.’ ‘Oh, he’s chatting to the receptionist.’ And he was doing that with women who didn’t speak Polish. He didn’t speak other languages... so God knows how he did it. There were occasions he’d disappear and you wondered what he was up to – then you realised. But everything he did on the pitch he did so with class. And because he did that you sometimes had to turn a blind eye.”
Deyna’s eye for a pass and a woman took on a different dimension when Mariola came on the scene. By then Deyna was training with Legia during the day, jumping on a train to Poznań, before returning to Warsaw for the following morning, only to undertake the same journey the following day and so on. It was a daily round trip of some 400 miles. To those who knew him it appeared utter madness. But the romance blossomed; Kazimierz and Mariola had been married for four years by the time of the 1974 World Cup, and had a one-year-old boy called Norbert.
By the mid-1970s Deyna was a desirable commodity. Inter and AC Milan had expressed an interest. Bayern Munich were keen, as were Saint-Étienne, while Real Madrid were so desperate to sign the Polish playmaker they had even sent a No14 shirt to try to entice him. Where Barcelona had Cruyff, Real wanted Deyna. Prince Rainier of Monaco was also said to be a fan. The footballer was willing, the state less so. To keep his ambitions grounded, an interview was published in the newspaper Żołnierz Wolności (Soldier of Freedom) where it was suggested by Deyna that he would see out his career in Poland. Those closest to him refute the claims. Tomaszewski sayid, “Kaziu insisted that he had never uttered those words... I believe him.” His close friend Szczepłek added, “I asked Kaziu: ‘Did you say this?’ And he told me without hesitation: ‘What do you think? Of course not.’ And I believed him.” Deyna would need to wait for his move, while Robert Gadocha and Włodzimierz Lubański were released to join Nantes and Lokeren respectively. Deyna’s resentment festered.
Deyna cut an increasingly frustrated, blistered figure, heroic to some, hateful to others. His association with Legia Warsaw drew contempt and anger from other supporters in his homeland. The nadir arrived on 29 October 1977 when Poland drew with Portugal to secure qualification for the World Cup. Deyna was to score Poland’s only goal in a 1-1 draw in front of 80,000 fans. His goal was remarkable – a brilliantly weighted cross-shot direct from a corner. Not that it made any difference: Deyna’s every touch was booed, whistled and jeered. The anger and incredulity of the Polish commentator is clear by his tone and delivery. The Poland captain was replaced by Jan Erlich for the final minutes. Whistled as he walked off, Deyna climbed wearily over the hoarding and watched the remainder of the game – his facial expression one of anguish. Szczepłek, some 42 years on, can still barely hide his contempt. “These weren’t fans... they were some kind of devils, idiots. It was ridiculous. I suspect many of them were drunk. Whistling not only your best player but the man who had just scored a brilliant goal. Kaziu wouldn’t talk about it publicly. Privately he would ask me, ‘Why?’”
Poland were knocked out in the second-round group stage of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Polish TV journalists interviewed Deyna before the tournament. The presenter made it clear that Poland would be expected to repeat the semi-final placing from four years earlier. Grzegorz Lato summed it up succinctly: “In 1974 we were expected to lose every game. In 1978 we were expected to win every game.” Poland fell to the hosts and Brazil in the second stage of the competition, with Deyna missing a crucial penalty against Argentina.
Mariola Deyna claims her husband was finished in Poland. “He wanted out,” she said. “He’d had enough. We both had. They kept us back after the World Cup in West Germany... but we knew we had to go this time. The abuse Kaziu got was unbearable. They would damage his car, they wanted to hit him, they would throw missiles at him – but this wasn’t fans from other countries, this was Poland fans. All because he played for Legia. He got abuse and hate. Kaziu scored a wonderful goal against Portugal in the qualifiers and all he got was hate and whistles. A person can only take that for so long.”
Deyna had played 97 games for Poland, scoring 41 goals – plus appearances and goals for the notional amateur Poland side in the Olympics. For Legia he had scored 93 times in 304 appearances. Both were worthy records for an attack- minded midfielder. Mariola expressed her despondency: “He would ask me: ‘Why can’t I leave?’ or ‘Why are players going for less money, but why not me?’ In the end, when we did go, he said to me: ‘Even if I have 50 cents in my pocket, I’ll be relieved to be leaving this country.’”
In autumn 1978 Deyna was finally granted his move from Poland. The Deynas headed west – but not to Italy, nor Spain, nor France. Their destination was Manchester City. And yet even then it was a quirk of circumstance. A delegation from Maine Road preferred the younger Zbigniew Boniek. It was made clear Boniek would not be released from his contract with Widzew Łódź due to his age. (The young forward’s time would come later in his career with Juventus, but not before a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers was halted due to the imposition of Martial Law in 1981). Instead, Deyna was suggested. Around the same time New York Cosmos, led by a delegation including Pelé, tried to change his mind. Deyna had already decided on England.
And so began one of the strangest transfer sagas of all time. Bernard Halford was Manchester City’s secretary from 1972 to 2010. Speaking on the ITV documentary Football’s Foreign Legion, he recalled the quirky nature of Deyna’s switch from the Polish capital to Manchester. “Legia Warsaw made it clear they didn’t want money, they wanted commodities,” said Halford. “They decided they would like medical equipment and photocopiers so the £110,000 was made up of those. There were a few laughs in the Board Room... we’d never done a deal like that before.” The initial meetings were held in Poland involving bemused City officials, who had been led into Legia’s army facilities to meet senior Warsaw commanders. Deyna was escorted into the room, wearing full military garb. City chairman Peter Swales was impressed with Deyna’s discipline, commenting, “This is exactly what we need at City.”
By the time Deyna arrived at Maine Road in November 1978 he was 31. City were fast heading towards transition. Within 18 months the entire spine of the team would be sold, with Tony Book replaced as manager by Malcolm Allison, who was subsequently moved on in favour of John Bond.
Deyna arrived in Manchester as the Winter of Discontent wrapped its jaws around Britain. As the country collapsed politically, that week’s Manchester Evening News featured a front page of a mountain of rubbish, perfectly capturing the depths of the societal landscape in a very broken Britain. If it didn’t scream “Welcome Kaziu”, it certainly set a tone for his stint in England. Few of Deyna’s friends or teammates were convinced he’d made the right call.
“Kaziu couldn’t have chosen a worse place to go,” Tomaszewski said. “England was all run, run, run. It was very different to more technical football played in Europe. I recall going to Manchester in the late 70s to do some kind of TV programme. Kaziu came to see me and he said, ‘Jan, all we do is run from the dressing room, run some more and then run back to the dressing room. All we do is run. This isn’t football.’ And he was right. He wasn’t suited to that at 31. Had he gone there at 18 he’d have got used to it and he would have been one of the best ever footballers in England... but he went as an older player.”
His former coach Górski believed England was the wrong destination for his captain. “England was the last place he should have gone to,” he said. “There was interest from Inter, from Milan. Yes, that would have suited Kaziu. But England is a dynamic, aggressive league so I don’t know why he chose to go there. With the attributes he had at his disposal, I felt he’d made the wrong decision. And of course he didn’t speak the language – he was effectively deaf and dumb.”
Most tellingly, Stefan Szczepłek, perhaps the man closest to him at the time, foresaw many of the problems that blighted Deyna’s latter years. He said, “He shouldn’t have gone there but he regarded England as the utopia of football – he still had the memories of ’73 and that cannot be underestimated. He wanted to show people what he could do. But the problem is they put him up front as a centre-forward. They wanted him to get on the end of crosses from the wing. Kazimierz was a No10, he was a technician who would support strikers and provide service, he wasn’t some kind of footballer who ran around looking for crosses. It was a waste. He scored maybe five goals throughout his career with his head. Off the field Kaziu gravitated towards the Polish community. They invited them to homes and to functions. And of course, even though he had his family, he was lonely, sought company and he wasn’t one for saying no to a drink...”
Deyna scored 12 goals in 38 games for City over a three-year period. The journalist Patrick Barclay was outspoken in his criticism of City’s use of Deyna during the 1979-80 season while working as a TV analyst. Forty years on he hasn’t changed his mind. “It was a bad move for Deyna,” he recalls. “He was a great footballer. Elegant, with incredible ability to read what was around him. But the trouble is that City wanted to play him through the middle – which didn’t suit him. Deyna excelled in a brilliant Poland team where he had midfielders and wingers doing the running, with him releasing those players with passes. That never happened at City.”
That City were in flux certainly didn’t help matters. The midfielder Gary Owen was to leave within six months of Deyna arriving. His observation about Deyna was of a person getting to grips with a new culture. “Everything about him was grey. I don’t mean that in a nasty way – that’s the way he was,” said Owen. “We were in the West, he was from the Eastern Bloc. It was a novelty for all of us, including him. Here was a bloke who only seemed to have grey and dark clothes. It’s like he felt he still had to adhere to a military regime. And maybe that was the problem. Maybe when he realised he no longer had to, he started being a bit more rebellious and ‘free’ in how he was. As a footballer you could only admire his ability and technique but I’m not sure he was ever truly happy here.”
Swiftly joining Owen out of the Maine Road exit were Peter Barnes, Mick Channon, Asa Hartford and Dave Watson, pretty much the entire spine of the City team. Signing for a record £1.4million from Wolves was Steve Daley, who went onto play with Deyna at San Diego Sockers. “I was lucky,” he said. “I got to play with him at City and then we both played for San Diego in the NASL outdoor league and the indoor MISL [Major Indoor Soccer League],” he recalled. “In the indoor competition he more or less won it on his own. He was the best footballer by an absolute mile. Kaz was just a different level. Both as a person and a footballer he was wonderful. I couldn’t believe how good he was. He was a very quiet guy as you can expect but on the pitch you could just give him the ball and tell him to play. And he would. If you found yourself in trouble, you gave him the ball. If you wanted someone to take the sting out of the game, give it to Kaz because you knew he’d bring the ball under control. He wasn’t quick physically. He had no pace. But the speed of his mind was something else. He’d be two passes ahead of everyone else. He knew exactly where he’d want the ball played, where to thread it in. And what he lacked in actual pace, he made up for in speed of passing. He’d start a quick passage of play just with his pace and excellent distribution. As a person – I loved him. He was a lovely guy who did his best to blend in with us.”
Off the field, respite arrived in an unusual form. Deyna was handed a cameo role in Escape to Victory, which was released in 1981, playing the minor role of Paul Wolchek. The filming helped restore some of Deyna’s increasingly fragile confidence, if nothing else, as he starred alongside Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Ossie Ardiles and Bobby Moore. Speaking on a 2003 documentary about his father, Norbert Deyna admitted the Hollywood appearance was a cherished moment – despite his fleeting and non- speaking contributions. “My friends didn’t believe me when I told them my dad had been in a film. They’re asking me, what was Stallone like? My dad was a good footballer... but to say he was a movie star for me, as a child, was a big thing.”
Deyna left City to move to San Diego Sockers in January 1981, competing in the Major Soccer League. The US soccer landscape of the late 1970s had been a curious fusion of journeymen footballers and genuine superstars.
Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff were among those bringing football to a new audience. By the time Deyna pitched up in the 1980s US soccer was on the slide – and he had rejected the chance to make his money at New York Cosmos. Once again, Deyna, a man of impeccable timing on the pitch, was behind the game off the field. The US, by then, wasn’t the place to be for any footballer of his talent. Worse followed. His agent was Ted Miodoński, a California-based Pole. He would go onto defraud Deyna and others of their earnings. The fall-out for Deyna was financially cataclysmic – he lost an estimated fortune in excess of $1million, meaning he essentially had little to show for his career.
As Deyna’s anxiety grew over his lost fortune, lack of savings and diminishing potential for earnings, so his calm exterior changed. The mild-mannered family man became reckless in interviews and with those around him. In February 1986, the LA Times ran a savage interview with Deyna criticising his coach Rob Newman. By June 1987 Deyna was not only without a club but would lose the house he had acquired through Miodoński with a marriage that was all but over. Drink prevailed. Deyna, who was already spending too long in casinos and bars, was arrested three times for drink-driving between 1984 and 1987.
Deyna had one final hurrah, offering a lasting snapshot into his increasingly troubled life. Playing in an exhibition match in Denmark in summer 1989, he joined Tomaszewski, Lato and others in an old-boys game. His erstwhile teammates noted their former captain’s distance. “I spoke to him in Denmark and he wasn’t himself,” Tomaszewski said. “I found him emotional and troubled. I knew he was missing Poland and I suggested he move back. ‘We shall see... maybe in a year or so,’ he said. It was clear his marriage wasn’t in a good place and he was mindful that his son was growing up and would soon be wanting to do his own thing. He went on to say, ‘A couple of years and I think I’ll come home.’ I didn’t see him again.”
“He cried,” Lato said. “He didn’t want to go back. That was the last time I saw him, at the airport. He wanted to come back to Poland, but with what?”
In the early hours of 1 September 1989, Deyna’s Dodge Colt drove at speed into a parked truck on a San Diego highway. Deyna was found to be twice the legal alcohol limit. There were no traces of braking, no skid marks. Deyna had to be identified through his documents and a signet ring. He was buried with his head bandaged. In his pockets were 50 cents. In his car were 22 footballs. News of his death created a ripple of mourning. Poland was in the final embers of communist rule with communication between the country and the West still lagging, meaning Deyna’s brothers and sisters only found out about their sibling’s death on Polish TV news bulletins. His friends and teammates found out in similarly sobering circumstances. His wife Mariola, from whom he had been separated a few weeks before, arranged for him to be buried in San Diego. None of his former teammates were able to make the funeral.
And so it was that his final time on Polish soil was that exhibition match between Legia and Manchester City a full decade before his passing. His ashes were eventually interned at the Polish army cemetery in Powązki in 2012, near to his one-time mentor Kazimierz Górski who died in 2006. Legia Warsaw have since retired the No10 shirt in Deyna’s honour.
Thirty years on, Deyna’s legacy remains strong. “When I released my book,” Szczepłek said, “I had fans coming up saying they were Polonia (Warsaw) fans or supporters of other clubs. They wanted to know more about this player. Since his death there has become a cult of Deyna – we’ve got statues in his honour, stands named after him, murals and graffiti on walls. People who never saw him play worship everything about him. It’s like Poland and many football fans feel a duty to serve his memory. He was often treated badly by fans by other clubs or by his own countrymen – but we’ve gone full circle. There is now this big affection for him. I often wonder how his life would have unfolded had he lived. I doubt he’d have worked in the media like so many. That wasn’t for him. But I do know that he had a dream and a plan to open a football school for children in Warsaw. I’d like to think he’d have fulfilled that. He certainly had so much more to offer.”
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to Deyna’s life can be found within Starogard Gdański, his birthplace. The town’s motto is: “Tu rodzą się gwiazdy” – “This is where stars are born.” 30 years on that still resonates.