“Did you hear about Brezhnev calling all the top Soviet scientists together, Terlecki asked, and telling them how disappointed he was that the US had beaten Russia to the moon? He proposed that the USSR land a cosmonaut on the sun. One scientist had to tell Brezhnev that this was impossible because of the sun's great heat. His boyish face beaming, Terlecki looked around the table to make sure everyone was ready for the punchline: 'No problem,' Brezhnev says. 'We will land at night.'”

“Stan the Fran, Free Spirit”, Sports Illustrated, 15 February 1982

Football players and the Polish Communist regime (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL) were, on the whole, good bedfellows. Communist authorities in Poland, like in other countries in the Eastern bloc, used football as a propaganda tool in their battles with the capitalist West. Successes on the football pitch were used to underline the vitality of the socialist political system and party authorities were the first to welcome footballers when they returned to Poland. Because of their importance to the state, footballers received a host of privileges denied to the great majority of Polish citizens. These included: employment on good wages at factories, mines and as army officers while concentrating all their time on football, the ability to regularly travel abroad (even to the West), access to goods that most people could not get and the generally relaxed attitude of the Communist Police (the Milicja Obywatelska, MO) when footballers broke the law – the most common transgression being drink-driving. There were, however, several downsides to these privileges: players and clubs were invigilated during their trips to the West, as the authorities wanted to make sure players did not liaise with 'anti-communist' forces. In addition the handful of players who chose exile in the West were subjected to harsh invectives from the state controlled Communist press.

Under these conditions, the great majority of Polish footballers decided not to rock the boat – and many happily took advantage of the privileges they received from the authorities. As the Polish national team striker Andrzej Iwan recalls in his book Spalony: “Just as the authorities desperately sought footballing success, footballers – and sportspersons on the whole – were desperate to receive praise from the authorities. For sportsmen if you went about it the right way you could get anything. To have a car in the early 1980s was a dream for many people, but to get one you had to wait for years – and even after you waited the allotted time, the cars weren’t often available. For international footballers, though, all you had to do was approach Henryk Loska. ‘Henryk, could I get a car coupon?’ And Henryk opened a drawer which was chock-full of coupons. So if any footballers say they fought against the regime during Martial Law, I say, ‘You hypocrite! Yeah, you fought against the authorities, and as you fought your car coupons fell out of your pocket.’”

Some footballers went further in emphasising their connections to the authorities – Roman Kołtoń for example argues that one of the reasons that Kazimierz Deyna was booed during a crucial World Cup qualifying tie against Portugal at the Stadion Śląski. in Chorzów in October 1977 was a series of interviews Deyna had given in the months leading up to the match. In June 1977 Deyna (officially a lieutenant in the Polish army) told the Polish army newspaper Żolnierz Wolności that he would always be faithful to the army and in October told Stefan Szczepłek in the football magazine Piłka Nożna that his greatest honour was a letter of congratulations from the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, Edward Gierek. Whether Deyna actually held these beliefs can be questioned, but it shows that many footballers found it difficult to distance themselves from the regime. 

In reality, the great majority of footballers lacked strong political views. An example of this is Zbigniew Boniek's attitude towards the famous USSR match at the 1982 World Cup. Poland was under Martial Law and many fans desperately wanted to get one over on the Soviets. In Paweł Czado and Beata Żurek's book Piechniczek: Tego nie wie nikt [Piechniczek: Nobody Knows], Boniek explained his position. “I was always apolitical,” he said. “To be honest I always liked Russian footballers. We played against each other in a number of matches and we always got on with them well.”

There were however several players who broke the mould. Two of the most notable were Stanisław Terlecki and Roman Kosecki.

Stanisław Terlecki: the defiant footballer

Stanisław 'Stan' Terlecki was born in Warsaw in 1955 and is considered one of the most talented players ever to be born in the Polish capital. Blessed with great technique, a turn of pace, the ability to jink past opposing players for fun and an unerring shot, Terlecki would go on to represent the Polish national side 29 times between 1976 and 1980, scoring seven goals. However, his supposedly difficult character prevented him from achieving far greater feats for his country.

From an early age Terlecki showed that he was not afraid to stand up to authority – something that often got him into trouble. His autobiography Pelè, Boniek i ja [Pelè, Boniek and me] recounts how as a teenager he was thrown out of two secondary schools, the first time because he was unhappy with a grade he'd received. Terlecki responded to this affront by banging a stick against his desk and threatening the teacher: “Watch out! I’ll whack you like a dog!”

Terlecki's footballing talents were very quickly noticed and by the age of 17 he had already made his debut in the Polish top tier for the police club Gwardia Warsaw, taking part in their much lauded home victory over the Dutch side Feyenoord in the 1973-74 Uefa Cup – Gwardia went out 3-2 on aggregate. After Gwardia were relegated to the second tier in 1975, Terlecki moved to ŁKS Łódź, and for five years was the star of the club, making his international debut in 1976. While in Poland's second city Terlecki studied history at the University of Łódź.

Terlecki's rise to the top of the Polish game coincided with the growth of a concerted and successful Polish opposition movement. Since the imposition of Polish Communist rule in 1944 there had been a number of attempts to overthrow or at least challenge the authorities. But each time those who opposed the regime met with either the force of Communist security services (Poznań in 1956) or found themselves isolated – most importantly in the 1968 student protests when workers did not join in and in 1970 when workers organised but did not receive the support of students. With the establishment of the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR1) in 1976, an organisation set up by intellectuals to protect workers sacked unlawfully by the authorities, opposition groups converged. This potent mixture was strengthened by secular intellectuals engaging with the Polish Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly left and right, students and workers, humanists and the Church were all working together.

Terlecki, as a history student and someone with an irascible temperament, couldn't help but be influenced by the political changes that he saw around him. The former Poland striker Andrzej Iwan certainly remembered Terlecki as someone different to the average footballer, but not always in a positive sense: “When I think about it now only one international footballer was an anti-communist – you know a real, outspoken one – Stanisław Terlecki. His father was a historian and oppositionist who had passed these views on to his family. As a result, Staszek got involved in some student movements. In addition to this there was always something a little bit odd about him. It was if he looked at everyone around him and thought, ‘What idiots!’ when actually everyone looked at him and thought, ‘What an idiot!’

Terlecki's autobiography is littered with examples of his criticism or at least disregard for the Polish Communist authorities. When, due to injury, he was unable to play for Poland in the 1978 World Cup, he made a number of appearances on Polish television as a summariser. Before Poland's World Cup opener with West Germany, Terlecki said that it would be a tough match as Poles and Germans have never got on. The presenter said to him, “OK, but our East German brothers play a different way to the West Germans, right?” To which Terlecki replied, “The GDR plays just like the Soviet Union. It’s as if their players were taught to play on a collective farm.” Terlecki expected to be kicked off the television for his controversial views but television executives actually praised him for speaking his mind. He took this as evidence that Polish society was getting braver: “It was right at that time that the period of moral anxiety started, KOR was operating, as was the Movement for the Defence of Human and Civil Rights (ROPCiO2). The authorities were relaxing their grip a bit. Students were allowed to leave on scholarships…”

In the summer of 1980, Polish opposition movements exploded into the overground with the August strikes in the Gdańsk shipyards, which would eventually bring about the birth of Solidarność, the first free trade union in the Eastern bloc. Led by Lech Wałęsa, the agreements signed on 31 August 1980 meant the beginning of 15 months of feverous citizens' initiatives as workers, farmers and students questioned the very basis of the Communist system. Solidarność were, however, clever to stress the “self-limiting” revolution they were initiating. The plan was to create a “moral renewal” in Polish life but to work within the existing Communist system. By mid-September 1980, the trade union had over 10 million members and hope for a better future among Polish society was at its highest since the Second World War. Despite the enthusiasm, the threat of Soviet invasion hung heavily over Poland – the closest the country came to being invaded was in December 1980. 

The emergence of Solidarność was seen as an overwhelmingly positive sign by Terlecki – although with this hope came worries about the future. As chance would have it, Terlecki's ŁKS Łódź side played on the Baltic coast at the end of August 1980 when negotiations between the government and Solidarność were ongoing. Terlecki remembered his feelings at the time: “I listened to the discussions, because after all I was a history student and it really interested me. However even for me there were a lot of new issues. As I listened to the demands of the workers, I didn’t believe that all of them could be fulfilled. I was worried that these radical stipulations, most of which I supported, could prevent an understanding from being reached. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if the talks fell apart.”

Terlecki even attempted to make his way to the shipyards that day, only to be stopped by a Solidarność ‘Workers' Guard’. These were exciting times for Terlecki and when he made it home to Łódź he took a policeman who lived in the same block of flats as him to task. The MO man was known for treating members of the community with disrespect. Terlecki decided to make fun of him: “‘Did you hear? The agreements were signed in Gdańsk. Isn’t it great? Are you happy about it?’

“He barked back at me, ‘It’s going to be great when it all falls apart, you’ll see.’”

The Solidarność period turned out to be incredibly turbulent for Terlecki, although he could not have foreseen to quite what extent this would be the case. Solidarność's urge for moral renewal in other areas also placed the spotlight on footballers as they criticised the practice by which players received fictitious salaries for work they did not carry out.

During this discussion, at the end of November 1980, Terlecki and other high-profile Polish footballers were involved in the famous Okęcie Airport Incident. The events are well-known in Poland: Terlecki, Boniek, Władysław Żmuda and Włodzimierz Smolarek spoke up for the goalkeeper Józef Młynarczyk who had returned to the team hotel drunk the morning of a flight to Italy in preparation for Poland's first World Cup qualifier, against Malta. Terlecki played a key role in the scandal as he decided to drive Młynarczyk to the airport in his own car when the goalkeeper had been refused access to the team coach. In addition it was Terlecki, along with Boniek, who caused the biggest problems at the airport itself. While Boniek behaved aggressively, Terlecki supposedly pulled the cables of waiting TV journalists out of plug sockets.

The Polish football federation (the PZPN3) decided to punish the so-called 'Band of Four' for their misdemeanours. Terlecki and Boniek were suspended from all competitive football for a year, Żmuda for eight months and Smolarek received a two-month suspended ban. Before the suspensions were handed out, the PZPN organised a public interrogation of the players, held in front of 500 people, including the written and television press. 

Why were Terlecki and the other players treated so harshly? There were two main reasons. Firstly Solidarność had specifically targeted football players in the build-up to Okęcie – so the PZPN and government took the opportunity to deflect public attention from tense negotiations between Solidarność and the Polish Communist authorities. Smolarek recalled how footballers were regarded by their interlocutors: “Reading the reports of the trial proceedings, it’s immediately obvious that the prosecution’s case was based on underlining how easy we had it. How we lived a life of luxury, with our own cars, flats – and that we were able to travel abroad. Their argument was that due to these idlers and loafers the working class and the whole society suffered. That’s what they told people. Someone had to be guilty.”

The second reason was the attitude of the players, which can be compared on a micro-level to what was happening in the rest of society at the time. The night before the flight to Italy, the team council – made up of Terlecki, Boniek, Żmuda and others – had complained to senior PZPN officials about a number of contentious issues. The most controversial of all was the desire of the players – led by Terlecki – to organise a meeting with Pope John Paul II while the team was in Italy. The players can thus be seen as a mini version of Solidarność, something the PZPN could not accept. This point was expressed subtly in the journalist Krzystof Wągrodzki's article about the show-trial in the Polish sports magazine Sportowiec: “Let the team council actually represent the interests of the players, let the players be full members of the football association… Players shouldn’t be just be supplements to the ball, to the goal, to victories but rather partners in achieving mutual aims.”

Terlecki's life was made very difficult by the events at Okęcie. While the other suspended players – all at ŁKS's rivals Widzew – continued to be kept on the club payroll, Terlecki was cut off by his employers. He taught at local schools to earn money to support his wife and children. While in this state of limbo, Terlecki undertook his most political action to date. At the end of January 1981, Łódź university students staged a sit-in to convince the government to register the student version of Solidarnośćthe NZS4. Terlecki, as a Master's student at the university, became a member of the NZS and assisted the students by providing them with food using his local connections: “I didn’t agree with all of their demands. I wasn’t as radical, mainly because I didn’t think the government would give in to their stipulations. During the strike the students didn’t have enough food. And because I could get access to shops due to my footballing contacts and my own car, I told my friends that I could act as a… purser. So my job was to get food to the strikers. I travelled around the neighbouring villages, buying meat, cold cuts and eggs. I went into the shops via the back entrance – sometimes I overpaid to get more products. I felt a little stupid because there were really long queues at the shops at that time…

“Despite these mixed feelings, the work made me happy, because the strikers were at their wit’s end. I remember one time I was watching the strikers after they’d finished a meal and someone asked me what kind of sausage I’d bought for them. Before I had the chance to say what it was, I heard, ‘What do you mean, what kind of sausage it is?! It’s a Terlecki sausage.’ It felt really nice that I was appreciated in that way. The name of the sausage was adopted until the end of the strikes.”

Despite that, Terlecki searched for an escape route as he couldn't perform the job he loved. Using his connections once more, he managed to leave Poland for the United States in June 1981 to play professional football there. After several months of tribulation in the States he eventually began a successful stint at the Pittsburgh Spirit indoor soccer side. It was while playing for the Spirit that General Wojciech Jaruzelski introduced Martial Law and outlawed Solidarność in December 1981. Known for being an independent soul and someone who spoke his mind, Terlecki was often approached by the American press for his views on the situation back in Poland. For example, in an interview for Sports Illustrated in February 1982 Terlecki cracked Brezhnev jokes and expressed admiration for the US citizens who stood in support of Solidarność at Super Bowl XVI. He also criticised the Communist system: “Many points of Communism say everybody must be the same. Smart, gifted men work hard and only get small money, the same as a guy who didn't work so hard. In my mind, I am really good. I should get more than another guy who is not as good as I am.”

Roman Kosecki – Reggae and Moral Renewal

Roman Kosecki burst onto the scene in early 1988 when he made his debut for the national side while still playing his club football in the Polish second tier. Like Terlecki he made his breakthrough at Gwardia Warsaw, but whereas Terlecki made his Ekstraklasa bow when he was just 17, Kosecki's first start in the top flight didn’t come until he was 23 years old. There were several reasons for his late rise. As a teenager Kosecki had serious back problems and for a time it seemed that he wouldn't have any football career whatsoever. There was also tension between Gwardia – the club of the militia – and Legia, the club of the army, who desperately wanted to sign Kosecki. The resulting tug-of-war meant that Gwardia only allowed Kosecki to move to Legia in early 1989.

Kosecki stood out in the somewhat monotone world of late 1980s Poland. On the pitch he emanated energy in attack, he fought for every ball, was in constant movement and could set up goals as well as scoring them. Kosecki, like Telecki before him, was an uncompromising character who was not afraid to say what he thought, but he also cut an impressive figure with his long, flowing locks, expressed love for reggae music and radiated a general joie de vivre. Like Terlecki, Kosecki broke the mould by talking about politics but his style was distinct to his predecessor, partly due to a generational shift.

Poland in the late 1980s was very different from that of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The imposition of Martial Law in December 1981 meant the end for legal Solidarność as it was forced underground. Although opposition groups initially attempted to counter the Polish state, Jaruzelski's reaction was remarkably successful in defeating outward signs of rebellion. 

Martial law had a debilitating effect on the young – a societal group that had been particularly enthused and had participated in mass numbers in Solidarność. To young adults the future looked extremely bleak. Not only did real hope of change seem to be gone, but Poland's economy was in dire straits and prospects of employment were poor. In the mid-1980s this stasis forced many young people to turn their backs on not just the regime, which had lost credibility during the legal period of Solidarność, but also Solidarność itself, which did not seem to offer answers to Poland's burning questions.

As a result of this, the mid-1980s saw a host of youth movements rise to fill the gap vacated by the state and Solidarność. The more serious movements focused on issues which Solidarność had not discussed but which young people cared about – the hated military draft and protests against the construction of nuclear power plants on Polish soil. Other, more light-hearted youth movements also existed – including the Orange Alternative – which used anarchic, surrealist 'happenings' to show the ridiculousness of the Communist system of government. Finally Poland's thriving alternative music scene in the 1980s, filled with punks, Rastafarians, skinheads and metal-heads showed that Poland's youth desired individual freedoms and a space separate from the pollution of Poland's public realm.

The Roman Kosecki who played for Gwardia and Legia in the late 1980s was in some respects a mixture of the two types of Polish youth revolt – the Solidarność inspired 'moral renewal' and the late 1980s search for individual freedoms. Kosecki was a huge fan of reggae, the music having been something that he had turned to when his back problems nearly forced him to retire from the game. Kosecki and his friends set up their own reggae band as he explained in an interview with the journalist Stefan Szczepłek: “We played reggae music, mainly covers of Lady Pank and Perfect5 songs, all with subversive lyrics. We practised in a garage and we played gigs in schools, churches and in a children’s hospital – basically anywhere we could. We even played one gig at a club.”

The historian Tom Junes explains the importance of Polish reggae culture in an article about youth counter-cultures in the PRL: “Another subculture to emerge from the late 1970s onwards were the Rastafarians, who dressed in colourful wear − usually with the typical green-yellow-red combinations of the Ethiopian flag − and the characteristic dreadlock hairstyle in imitation of the movement's global icon, Bob Marley. Moreover, the Rastafarian religion provided much of the symbolism for the slang of the subculture – with the use of the term ‘Babylon’ for the detested social reality. The Rastafarian subculture promoted ideas of freedom, equality, and drug use in a way that was similar to the hippie movement a decade earlier. The latter conversely saw a revival in the 1980s, and the Polish neo-hippies would often be seen mingling with their Rasta peers. Musically, the Rastafarians preferred reggae, the main proponents of which were bands like Izrael, Daab, or Kultura.”

Reggae was thus a form of non-political protest against the prevailing social reality – but Kosecki didn't just seek an independent space for himself via music. In the summer of 1988 a new wave of strikes spread around Poland – taking the government by surprise and eventually leading to negotiations with a re-nascent Solidarność. From February to April 1989 the government and Solidarność negotiated a deal which would bring about the first semi-free elections in the Eastern bloc on 4 June 1989. Kosecki, newly ensconced at Legia, made no secret of his support for Solidarność – something that the club authorities did not particularly appreciate. He explained his rebellious attitude to Szczepłek: “I had shoulder-length hair at the time, I wore a resistor in my cap6 so the Communist Secret Security Services and the Police stopped me a number of times on the street. Sometimes the same people came to Legia matches and cheered me on.”

In addition, several days before the elections Kosecki openly announced his support for Solidarność in the their election newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza: “When a man reaches a certain level of maturity, he notices more and more clearly the evil of the world that surrounds him and seeks to change it for the better. Today I hope we’re about to experience real reforms in Poland and that Solidarność led by Lech Wałęsa will lead us to real democracy. Of course I will vote for the candidates supported by Wałęsa. I have complete faith in them.”

Solidarność would go on to win all the seats open to it in the elections – and Poland tentatively entered a post-communist reality. These months were exhilarating for Kosecki – his two goals helped Legia to win the Polish Cup final against Jagiellonia Białystok in June 1989 and, several weeks later, he was the star man as Legia beat Ruch Chorzów to win the Polish Super Cup. In a Jerzy Chromik article in Sportowiec about the latter match entitled “The Gospel of Football” [“Ewangelia Futbolu”] Chromik took up the Solidarność theme of moral renewal. Kosecki had been the first to bring in the priest Mariusz Zapolski to carry out pre-match masses at Legia and the article brims with hope about the future of Poland and Polish football. Chromik ends the article by saying, “Currently Polish football is ill and many are prepared to read it its last rites. However some people like Father Zapolski believe in the moral revival of the sport. Roman Kosecki can be very useful in achieving this aim.”