The Polish great discusses Juventus, the modern game and his friendship with Michel Platini
Zbigniew Boniek is probably the greatest player in the history of Polish football. He scored 24 goals in 80 matches for the national side, was the leader of the team that finished third at the World Cup in 1982 and had a successful career with Widzew Łódź, Juventus, with whom he won the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1984 and the European Cup a year later, and Roma. Elected chairman of the Polish Football Federation (PZPN) last year, he now faces his biggest challenge: despite hosting Euro 2012, Polish football has never been lower.
Fans who loved him and those angered by the on-going problems in the Polish game united to support Boniek in his election campaign, abusing the incumbent president Grzegorz Lato with chants at league games and matches of the national team. Boniek's new era involves creating a new system of coaching from the age of six upwards and modernising the management structure of Polish football. At home, he has been described as the man who ended the era of Communism in Polish football after dismissing a number of officials who had served under the old political system.
Boniek has also worked for many years as a pundit on Italian and Polish television, and has always been a great talker. Sat behind a wooden table in his Warsaw office, he showed just why he is loved by many and hated by some, offering a string of clear opinions and brave ideas.
Do you regret the fact that you played in the eighties, without the fame or the money you'd have made today?
Not at all. Those were good times for football and the quality was high. Of course the intensity of the attention from media and fans is much higher now and the money is better, but I don't like to regret anything in my life. If I was a player now, I wouldn't have lived in those fantastic times…
What was so fantastic about living then?
Everything. Communication between people was much better. Despite not having cell phones, or even telephones at all, and the internet — or maybe because of it. If you wanted to play football as a kid, you'd have to be at a certain place, at a certain time. 3pm at the field and that's it. Everybody came. The way of life was much quieter. I don't intend to sound like an old man — the present is great, too. But those times were very different. If you wanted to date a girl, you had to talk to her, take her for a walk and so on. Now you just send an SMS. The world has changed a lot. But it's OK for me. I like my life and if I were young again it might look totally different. In football and in life now, everything needs to be faster and simpler. Some changes have made the game better — like the goalkeeper being unable to handle a ball passed back to him. Other things are tough — my manager listened to me, not the opposite.
You played your best matches in the evening under floodlights. The Juventus president Giovani Agnelli even called you 'Bello di Notte' because you played so well at night. If you played today, you'd play even more games under lights, so would you be rated even more highly?
It's not like I've played my best games in the night. It's just I never played badly then. I've had good games at different times of the day. If you'd been to my home in Rome, you'd see four statues of Top Undi — the prize for best players in Serie A in certain positions. I played six years in Italy and have four statues. Would you like to know what time Serie A matches were played in those days? 3pm. Bello di notte came from my perfect performances in Europe. That's not humble, but take a quick look at the facts: with Juve I played in four finals and we won three of them, scoring five goals. Of those five goals, I scored three and a fourth came when I was fouled in the penalty box.
Now, you'd have a big marketing machine behind you, adding value to your name like Messi and Ronaldo…
Both of them are fine players, out of the top drawer, that's certain. But I tell you something — I haven't seen a single game in which Messi has been marked individually. Somebody comes to him when he gets the ball. It would be the opposite in my time. He would have 50% fewer passes. He wouldn't have the opportunity to play between the lines. [Claudio] Gentile wouldn't even have let him smell the ball.
Maradona or Messi?
You can't compare: the football was too different. But if you were really good in the eighties, life on the pitch was much harder. You were fouled many times and not protected by the referees. A tackle from behind when you were eye-to-eye with the goalkeeper meant… a yellow card. The defenders were brutal. Coming back to this marketing machine, it can produce so-called "great players". Men in green and orange and pink — whatever — shoes. Mine were personalised and always black with a white sole. Some of players are described as giants and they are earning huge money, but they aren't worth it. Why? They didn't win games by themselves, haven't scored goals that gave their club or country the title and yet they are regarded as world-class stars.
No names, let's not make a big noise in Europe, especially not when Poland are playing England this year [laughs]. But I tell you something: the players in the dressing-room know who's good and who's not.
What was it like in the Juventus dressing-room? Who was the boss — Platini or Boniek?
It looked very different to how it looks now. We had eleven players, four used regularly as substitutes and the next four were young and talented. Almost every team was like this. It meant that the team was pretty much the same all year. Try to ask Inter, Juve or Roma fans who played for their clubs in the eighties. They will answer easily. And now? It was also much easier to manage for the coach, there were no problems with big names not playing as happens now. Everybody knows the Juve of 1982, and now nobody knows who's in the attack line — Matri and Vučinić, Quagliarella and Vučinić or Giovinco? Different problem: you can see sometimes that the players are fighting for their place in the team so much that there is a lack of power when the game comes! We pushed against our rivals, not ourselves.
And about your question — of course inside the teams there were groups. Some people were friends and some were not, of course. And with Michel, we are still friends now. We have been connected for 28 years. For me, and I'm pretty sure Michel would say the same, we are real friends. Not because he's Uefa President and I'm PZPN president now. We completed each other in the meaning of character, in football, etc. And our wives like each other very much, which helped a lot [laughs]. Seriously one more thing, Juve could buy only two foreigners, so it was natural for us [as the two foreigners] to be close.
Juventus from the eighties would today win against…
Everybody. And that's not just talk. In four years, we only lost to Hamburg, by chance. I see no team capable of beating us in the modern era. If we were at the same physical level, of course.
How did it happen that a young player from Poland came to sign for Juventus?
I knew how to play football. I wasn't just fast, I was also technically advanced and skilful. You can't play for four years for the best team in the world and not be really good. Deyna, Lato, Tomaszewski, Łubanski were allowed to leave Poland at 30 years old for free, as a reward. I started talking about going abroad when I was 22, so by the time I was 26 the Communist authorities knew they had to do something about it and let me go earlier. When I was 23 I had people from great clubs trying to convince me I should go on holiday and never come back, be disqualified and leave Poland illegally... I wanted somebody to pay for me, to make it official. I could have gone earlier to England or Spain. Don't ask the names of these clubs; I won't tell. It doesn't matter now.
Swapping Communist Poland for Italy must have been like going to the moon?
Not at all. I'd played for my country, a couple of times for a World representative team in exhibition matches, European matches with Widzew. That prepared me. I always liked to have a strategy, but I couldn't have thought 10 years ago that I would become PZPN chairman. I matured into this function.
Retiring from football was part of the plan?
When I said finito I had 25 clubs at home talking about contracts worth $500,000. But I didn't want to play only for the money. It was better to start a new life. I stayed in Rome. My kids were going to school there and we had a Polish Pope. And thanks to that decision I have Italian citizenship now. I see life this way: try to be comfortable, take care of yourself and your family and make it as easy as possible. The church has chosen Rome as its capital city, and so did Boniek, because he knew the church knows what is right [laughs].
Looking at your life, it's like you had the Midas touch — playing days, business later and now you're head of Polish football. Yet you failed as Poland national team coach…
Everything I did I always tried to do as well as possible. I thought that the coach determines whether the team believes in him. No. The players decide whether the coach is good or not. Players win the matches; the coach can only sometimes lose the match. I did not resign from coaching Poland after five matches for professional reasons. It was 10 years ago. End of story.
Speaking about tough experiences, what should have been your greatest night, the Heysel final, became the worst.
It wasn't only a horrible tragedy for these people [who died] and their families, it was also terrible for us. Yes, we had to go out and play. But the world wants to forget that night. I want to forget it somehow… it was definitely the worst moment of my career. I thought taking the winner's money would be inappropriate, so I donated it all to the families of the victims. I must tell you one thing. If that game had been played at 20:30 we would have won two- or three-nil, three-one maybe... We won after the penalty, that probably wasn't a penalty because Whelan and I were so fast, the referee couldn't follow us and saw me down in the box. These memories are hard for the players also, the dogs all around, the atmosphere. What happened that night around the pitch was a nightmare. It shouldn't have happened…
An investigation by Europol said over 380 matches might have been fixed in Europe. What do you think of that?
380? Not much.
I read that article to analyse it. If this were true, these players would have had to sell the match for around €1500. Can anybody believe that? I'm not saying it didn't happen; I'm saying it looks weird. But dishonest people are everywhere and corruption is like doping. You have to fight it, knowing that you won't probably win this fight. The danger is elsewhere. First of all, doping is done by private money and is always a step ahead of anti-doping, financed by public money. The way I see it, the main threat is different. Nobody wants to buy matches now. But you can go on the internet, put some money on a certain result and be dishonest this way. Take four of the team, they bet their money and lose the match… The opponent cannot know about it. The referee can bet also and the effects can be horrible.
You are the face of one of the betting companies in their commercials…
Yes, but they are on the good side. Why? It's easy. It's the betting company can see if too much money is put on a certain match. And they'll inform the police that something seems not to be right because it's them who'll lose their money.
Has anybody ever tried to bribe you?
Speaking about it after 30 years makes no sense for me, but I must tell you something. I never wanted to play unfairly. Once at Juve we played the last match of the season in Cagliari and if they lost they were relegated. We won 2-1. That tells everything. I played football to win.
And now you try to change Polish football for the better.
We've changed a lot. Really a lot and will keep on working so the basics and organisation of Polish football are much better than in the past.
Have the problems at the National Stadium in Warsaw been solved, or might it lose the battle with rain again?
If you lay a carpet on cement and start crying it will also be very wet. Somebody didn't prepare the pitch and that's it.
Michel Platini could stand against Sepp Blatter in the elections for Fifa President. Would you vote for him?
Michel Platini is my friend. No matter what the vote would concern, he always starts with one vote from Boniek.
Will he try to be football's most powerful person?
If I were Uefa president, I'd be totally satisfied with it. Fifa is a different world, different people, different continents… But I think Michel doesn't support my point of view. I don't know what his plans are at the moment but I can assure you that wherever in the world of football Platini comes up for a vote, I'm sure he will get the credit for everything that he has achieved so far. He knows and understands football and that's absolutely what's needed.