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Poland's savior falls from favor

Fans fault Coach Leo Beenhakker as the national soccer team's fortunes fall.

Poland's head coach Leo Beenhakker reacts during a friendly soccer match against South Africa at Orlando stadium in Soweto June 6, 2009, ahead of the Confederations Cup. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

WARSAW — Just a couple of years ago, Poland’s national hero was a rumpled Dutchman who had performed the unprecedented feat of getting the lackluster national soccer team into the 2008 European championships for the first time.

But now Leo Beenhakker's popularity is fading fast, along with the team's dimming fortunes.

Beenhakker, who had been the trainer for two leading Dutch teams — Ajax and Feyenoord — as well as national teams including the Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago and Saudi Arabia, was seen as something of a miracle worker when he was unexpectedly made Poland’s head coach in 2006.

Local soccer grandees were hugely put out that a non-Polish outsider had grabbed their country’s top sports job, but the doubts vanished as Beenhakker took a motley collection of players and actually began to win with them.

Although Poland is the sixth largest nation in Europe — a soccer-mad continent — the country’s own soccer league is a shadow of that of other European countries. Poland’s top team, Legia Warsaw, has an annual budget of less than $10 million, while the average team in Western Europe spends three or four times that amount and top teams like Manchester United have annual turnovers of more than $300 million.

Plus, Poland’s official soccer bodies have been plagued by corruption and scandals, and the country’s soccer training programs are also in a shambles. Donald Tusk, the soccer-crazed prime minister, has set up a scheme to build decent soccer fields in every locality in the country. The plan is to build more than 1,200 such complexes, and more than 500 have already been completed, making it one of Tusk’s most popular and successful initiatives.

However, the program — dubbed “eaglets” after the white eagle that is Poland’s symbol — will only help out the next generation of Poland’s soccer players. Beenhakker has to work with the current crop, who are the product of the existing system.

Most of the players on the national squad play on local teams, and the few who have made it into West European leagues are usually benchwarmers. Even with that type of material to work with, Beenhakker’s early successes were astonishing. His team defeated the Portuguese, one of the best squads in the world, and ended up qualifying for the 2008 championships at the top of its group.

The country went mad for him. One of Poland’s largest banks made the leonine Beenhakker its main spokesman. Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, pinned one of the country’s most prestigious medals on his chest (although Kaczynski, who is not a natural soccer fan, had mangled the coach’s name as Beenhauer). One of the country’s leading newsweeklies proclaimed the Dutchman as its man of the year.