Polonia Warsaw and World War II – the war fought on the footballing pitch

Polonia Warsaw, formed in pre-independent Poland, reached the pinnacle of their glory post-independence, was shattered in the Communist rule that followed World War II and then tried to resurrect again in the last few decades. Kanad Basu here at Goalden Times walks down the memory lane of the historic club in their fight for survival and glory during the World War II era.


Let me be honest. I had no idea about Warsaw Uprising before visiting the city. We all know that Poland was the worst affected country in World War II. However, my knowledge was more or less restricted there, except some excerpts about Auschwitz and Katyn. When I was browsing through wikitravel for places to see in Warsaw, I was informed of “Warsaw Uprising Museum”; which is supposedly one of the must-visit places in Warsaw. I started digging up about what this “Uprising” was.

Warsaw Uprising

The Warsaw Uprising was the largest single military effort made by any European resistance movement during World War II. It was an endeavor by the Polish home army to liberate the nation coinciding with the advancement of Soviet Red Army on the Eastern front. The Uprising started on August 1st, 1944, exactly at 5 pm. For the first few days, the Polish army was able to liberate Warsaw and the city started operating a peaceful, free life, devoid of any Nazi intervention. However, the Soviets did not establish radio contact with the Polish home army and did not advance beyond the city suburbs, allowing the Germans to reinforce and defeat the Polish home army. There has been a plethora of theories why the Soviets did not help the Poles. Some historians believe that the Red Army was tired and exhausted, and hence, could not proceed to fight the Germans. However, a popular belief remains that Joseph Stalin, the then existing head of state of USSR, did not want to help the Polish home army, who were composed of anti-communist members, as their victory would stop him from establishing a communist regime over Poland in the post-war era. This theory gains more support because of the fact that a lot of home army soldiers were prosecuted after the war, and some of them were deported or executed.

Inside Uprising Museum
Inside Uprising Museum

While I was visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum, I met an old man who gave me details about the events of uprising. It was quite interesting to hear them from someone, who, perhaps experienced them first hand (He refused to admit that). One of his statements shocked me — “There were footballers who fought in the Uprising”. That was something which I found really interesting. Once back home, I started digging up and found out about Polonia Warsaw.

Polonia Warsaw

Polonia Warsaw was formed in 1911, seven years before Poland’s independence. Polonia Warsaw, the oldest Polish sports club, with football, basketball, track and field, and swimming teams, has a history that closely resembles the Polish political scenario over the last century. In fact, Warsaw was under the Russian Tzar rule at that time. It was a result of unification of three schools, Korona, Stella and Merkury. The club was officially registered in 1915. The players donned a jersey of black shirts and white pants; the black shirts symbolically mourning the state of pre-independent and divided Poland. This patriotic devotion earned them their popular name “The Black Shirts”. The players wore white shorts and red socks, signifying the colours of the Polish flag. Post-independence, Polonia emerged as the strongest club of Warsaw, finishing as joint-champions in 1926. According to Jonathan Wilson, in his book, “Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe”, Polonia was a romantic club formed by the Warsaw intelligentsia. In the first derby with city rivals Legia Warsaw, Polonia secured an emphatic 8-0 win on 10th June 1921 (Legia took revenge with a 8-1 win in 1932). Before the establishment of the Polish top league in 1927, Polonia defeated Legia seven times,  and Legia won only two derbies. In spite of all the hardships that Polonia suffered, as we will see later, the Warsaw derby stands at 29 victories each, thereby putting Polonia on a par with Legia. In the late 1930s, a lot of Polonia players were representing the national team — the most prominent being Wladyslaw Szczepaniak, who played 34 matches for Poland. Wladyslaw captained Poland against Brazil in the 1938 World Cup, when Poland lost 5-6. He represented Polonia in 700 games. Another important player from Polonia who played in the Polish national team was Jerzy Bulanow, who also captained Poland in 17 games. Apart from these, Erwin Nyc and Henryk Jaznicki also represented both Polonia Warsaw and the national team. However, the scenario changed in 1939, when Germany and Soviet Union occupied Poland to start World War II.

World War II and Communist Rule

Polonia was a club renowned for its patriotism. Throughout the period of Polish occupation by Germany, players of Polonia were involved in attempts to liberate their homeland. Henryk Jaźnicki, Polonia forward, fought actively in the Polish September campaign. He was subsequently caught by the Germans, and imprisoned in the infamous Pawiak prison, in Warsaw. He even served in the Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Polonia was also a part of the underground Warsaw football championship, which was the only football tournament in German-occupied Poland, winning the trophy in 1942 and 1943.

Wilson, in his book, mentions that during the Warsaw Uprising, footballers from the club fought along with the home army against the Germans. This made the communist government regard the club as “dangerously independent”. During the war, Polonia’s stadium, which was close to the Jewish ghetto, was destroyed. Polonia won their first Polish championship in 1946, defeating AKS Chorzów in the final match of the two-way round robin league, played between four teams (the other two being Warta Poznań and ŁKS Łódź). The match was played at the Polish army ground, since Polonia’s own stadium (located near the Jewish ghetto) was destroyed in the war. Polonia’s honeymoon period was over before it even began. As Wilson says, the Communist government, fearing the rise of Polonia as a nationalist club, ensured their budget was always limited so that they never rose above the second division. The communists reorganised Polish football, by implementing the same system that existed in Soviet Union at that time — each club will have a state-body as a ‘benefactor’. While local rivals Legia Warsaw received the blessings of the rich Polish army, Polonia’s sponsors were the poor Polish railways. The club name was changed to Kolejarz (which means “Railroad worker“) and the Black Shirts were banned, since the new Stalinist government wanted to eradicate everything associated with pre-war Poland. Polonia, after winning their first Polish Cup in 1952, were relegated in the same year. It would take them 40 years to get back to the First Division. The rise of Legia, accompanied by the misfortune of Polonia, is also attributed to the compulsory army training that existed in Poland during the communist rule. All youth academy players had to go through five or more years of military service, completing which, they would get an offer to join Legia. Clearly explains why young talented footballers would not want to join Polonia.

The communists reorganised Polish football, by implementing the same system that existed in Soviet Union at that time — each club will have a state-body as a ‘benefactor’

End of Communist rule and beyond

Polonia returned to the First Division in 1992 — a time when the communist rule has ceased to exist in Poland. However, the ride was bumpy, as they were relegated after only a season. Polonia fought back and were promoted again in the next season. Polonia went on to complete an unprecedented treble in 2000, winning the Polish championship, along with the League Cup and Super Cup. In the championship, Polonia defeated local rivals Legia by a margin of 3-0. Polonia’s bumpy ride continued as they were relegated again in 2006 as they finished last in the Polish First division. In July 2008, Polonia merged with Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski, thus occupying the latter’s place in the First Division. In 2013, due to a huge debt of 8 million Polish złoty  owing to extreme mismanagement, Polonia was declared bankrupt. Despite finishing sixth in the league, they were automatically relegated five levels, to the lowest level of Polish football. This was really shameful for a club with a rich hundred year old history. There are constant efforts by some dedicated supporters and former players/managers to alleviate the club’s situation.

Polonia fans demonstrating anti-communism banner
Polonia fans demonstrating anti-communism banner

Polonia Warsaw is probably the most romantic club of Poland. Their supporters still blame the communist government for the club’s poor performance. Often they are seen holding anti-communist banners in the center of “Kammienna” sector in every game. It’s really disheartening to see a club like Polonia biting the dust and we can only hope they regain their lost glory someday. As Jerzy Engel, the manager who took Poland to the World Cup finals in 2002 says, “Polonia was not only football. You could meet scientists or artists or painters here. There was a very good atmosphere within the club, because when you don’t have a lot of money what you have to have is spirit.

2003 ASEAN CUP Glory

When was the last time Kolkata, considered the Mecca of Indian Football, witnessed eminent state leaders from a communist party, a nationalist party and a right-wing party joining hands, in the absence of a natural or human-induced disaster?

Let us go eight years back to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, Kolkata, where thousands had flocked to welcome the East Bengal team, while rest of the city slept.

Was this victory significant enough to garner such attention? Well, if you consider the history of Indian football, it is.

This was perhaps the first time an Indian club won a major international tournament outside India, defeating teams which are ranked way higher. East Bengal had previously lifted the Wai-Wai Cup in Nepal in 1993, but it would be unwise to compare the clubs from Nepal against the Thai team BEC Tero Sasana, the finalist of 2003 AFC Champions League.

Mohun Bagan’s victory over East Yorkshire in 1911 may be of huge significance to the Indian Independence movement, but neither was the tournament played on an alien soil, nor was East Yorkshire a professional football team. The fanaticism of the red and gold supporters, therefore, is completely justified. Let’s look back and recollect East Bengal’s path to glory.

It all started since East Bengal won the National Football League in 2002. This qualified East Bengal for an invitation from the organisers of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) football federation to participate in the LG ASEAN Cup. Note that since India is not a part of ASEAN group of nations, East Bengal could participate only on such an invite.

I doubt anyone ever dreamt that invitation could be the ticket to becoming international champions. Except perhaps the East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick, who had tremendous faith in his team. In fact, if the ASEAN Cup journey is a fairy tale, Mr. Bhowmick is the protagonist who transforms not only himself into a superhero, but his entire team.

He had retained the foreign recruits from 2002 – Suleh Musah (Ghana), Mike Okoro (Nigeria) and Douglas D’Silva (Brazil) – and signed up Indian football legend, Baichung Bhutia to strengthen the attack. Mahesh Gaoli and Debajit Ghosh were also recruited to reinforce the defence and midfield respectively.

What Bhowmick successfully induced in the team was what was lacking in the Indian football clubs in general – professionalism. Physiotherapist trainer Kevin Jackson was brought in from South Africa. Hyatt Regency, Kolkata, hosted the footballers throughout their ASEAN Cup practice session. The team underwent rigorous physical exercises including parachute training as they practised together. Although Bhowmick was criticised in the local media for his expensive endeavours, he responded with a three goal-win over arch rivals Mohun Bagan in the Kolkata derby. The critics were of course totally silenced when East Bengal went on to winning the ASEAN Cup and then a national league title.

The venue for LG ASEAN cup 2003 was originally Vietnam, but the organisers moved it to Jakarta, Indonesia. The games were scheduled to be played at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. This is the same stadium from where India claimed her last gold in Asian Games Football, in 1962, defeating South Korea. Indian legends, including P.K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh were part of that victorious team. 12 teams from 11 different countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia were participating in the tournament. It was perhaps the biggest football tournament among the clubs in South East Asia.

East Bengal’s first game was against Thai team BEC Tero Sasana. BEC Tero had already reached the finals of AFC Champions League that year (which they would eventually lose to Al Ain of UAE, a couple of months after playing ASEAN Cup). Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before BEC Tero wins this tournament. Mr. Bhowmick, in his press conference, used the biblical reference of David and Goliath to compare between the two teams and boost the morale of his squad.

Luck did not favour East Bengal initially. They played on the field with zeal and skill that left even the BEC Tero defence unexpectedly shaken. Tulunga, one of East Bengal forwards, received a ball and was moving alone towards the goal with no BEC Tero player in the vicinity. The Thai goalkeeper had no option but to push Tulunga outside the box. Rules of the game demand it be a red card, but the referee thought otherwise. This incident disturbed the red-and-gold boy’s concentration. BEC Tero star Dusit Chaiman scored in the 86th minute, the only goal of the game to bring home their victory. However, this game instilled the much needed confidence in team East Bengal’s spirit. Even the Thai coach was amazed to see an Indian team play such a standard of football, as seen among the teams in J-league.

East Bengal’s next game was against Philippine’s Army XI. This game can be called “Baichung massacre”, considering the man alone scored 6 goals! Oh yes, you are reading right! The first goal was a penalty. The next one was via a corner, after deflection from East Bengal’s Brazilian recruit, Douglas De Silva. Baichung’s impeccable penetration skill across the Philippine defence resulted in four more. This match paved East Bengal’s way towards the quarter final. East Bengal’s owner Vijay Mallya flew to Jakarta to watch his team play. He was ecstatic and felt his team had truly attained international standards.

East Bengal’s opponent in the Quarter Final was Persita, the runner up of Indonesian league 2002. It was a daunting task for East Bengal to play an Indonesian team in their home ground, at a time when Indonesia was placed about 10 steps ahead of India in the FIFA rankings.

In the first half, Baichung’s header found the back of the net to give East Bengal the lead. But soon after disaster struck as Debajit Ghosh had a head-on collision with Persita’s Joynal Arif and was severely injured. Debajit lay senseless on the ground. Douglas De Silva tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Debajit while Dr. Shantiranjan Dasgupta, a member of East Bengal’s administrative unit, administered the immunosuppressant, Decadron. Debajit was subsequently carried to a nearby hospital.

To add insult to injury, a foul committed outside the East Bengal box was awarded a penalty for Persita. The Indonesian team didn’t make any mistake scoring from the spot. However, Bijen Singh’s goal in the second half secured East Bengal’s place in the semi-final of the tournament. But the team had no time to celebrate after the game. They rushed to the hospital to enquire after Debajit. The young midfielder had regained consciousness and looked fit by then. Team East Bengal would now concentrate on the semi-final where they had to compete against Petrokimia Putra, the Champions of Indonesian League 2002.

East Bengal got permission to play three foreigners in the semi-finals, as per the tournament rules. Along with Mussah and Douglas, the Nigerian striker Mike Okoro joined the team. Things were not looking good for the Indian team as Petrokimia scored via a free-kick just outside the box in the 23rd minute of the game. Baichung’s close range shot found the back of the net in the 58th minute to level the scores. However, Mahesh Gaoli’s kick of the ball to protest against one of the referee’s decisions earned him a red card, and East Bengal was reduced to 10 men. The score remained the same for the entire duration of the game, forcing a tiebreak. East Bengal goalkeeper Sandeep Nandy’s brilliant save earned the team a berth in the final, with the final score line being 7-6 for East Bengal. A team, whom perhaps, none expected to even win a single game, would now play the finals of the ASEAN Cup.

East Bengal was once again pitted against BEC Tero after their first game in the tournament. Not only owner Vijay Mallya, but a number of Indians residing in Jakarta had come to cheer East Bengal. The Indian national flag was being waved next to the red-and-gold team flag. Coach Subhas Bhowmick had to re-organize his team as he would be missing the services of his trusted men, Mahesh and Debajit. But he told the players: “Enjoy the game, enjoy the moment”, and believe me, they did!

East Bengal was playing an-out-of-this-world football. The BEC Tero players hardly got possession of the ball. Mike Okoro scored for East Bengal from an Alvito D’Cunha assist in the first half. He ran with the ball for a few yards, carrying three Thai defenders with him and then took a shot just inside the box and bang on!The East Bengal players then celebrated in a style similar to Bebeto’s celebration in the FIFA World Cup 1994, dedicating this goal to Okoro’s newborn girl, Juliet.

The start of the second half witnessed a brilliant goal from Baichung Bhutia. He received the ball just outside the box, but had none to support him. On the other hand, there were a couple of Thai defenders on both sides and the goalkeeper was almost at his feet. Baichung dodged passed the goalkeeper by lowering his body, resting on his left hand, and then quickly getting up for a perfect shooting from his left foot to double East Bengal’s lead. BEC Tero scored after about 12 minutes into the game to reduce the lead. However, the red-and-gold magic was not over yet. The Thai goalkeeper had no answer to Alvito D’Cunha’s shot from outside the box in the 69th minute.

[watch the goals – please note: goals 2 and 3 are in reverse order]

The next 20 minutes passed by without any significant change in the result of the game. East Bengal emerged champions of LG ASEAN Cup. Baichung Bhutia was awarded the golden boot for being the highest scorer while Sandip Nandy was awarded the best goalkeeper of the tournament.

East Bengal maintained their tremendous form, when back home they went on to win the national league back-to-back. However, the unfortunate bribery scandal that tainted coach Subhas Bhowmick forcing him to leave, hampered the team’s progress later.

The ASEAN victory inspired Indian football clubs to participate and perform well at international tournaments. It brought back the much needed and long lost confidence. This is evident from the fact that another Indian club from Goa, Dempo SC went on to reach the semifinals of AFC Cup in 2008. The inspiration has not only been limited to the local football clubs. The Indian National team went on to qualify for the Asian Cup 2011, after a long hiatus of 27 years.

East Bengal’s glorious achievement set the tone for the future of Indian football. We hope to ride on such glory to finally become a part of the elite Football Universe.

Team East Bengal after winning the 2003 ASEAN Cup