Poland's savior falls from favor

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.

That was the high point. The national team proved to be an embarrassment at the championships last year, which were jointly held by Austria and Switzerland. The Poles lost their first game against Germany — a much better team but an ancient enemy — and in the end pulled out only one tie from the tournament before being knocked out in the first round.

The team has since struggled to qualify for next summer’s World Cup being held in South Africa, and Beenhakker is getting a lot of the blame.

In March, Northern Ireland unexpectedly defeated Poland after Poland’s goalie, Artur Boruc, made a hash of defending the goal. Now Poland is in third place in its qualifying group.

In a further humiliation, Poland tied Iraq 1-1 in a friendly game in South Africa last month.

A disgusted Beenhakker told Polish reporters to “F--- off!” (he has also learned how to curse in Polish) and then dumped the team during a transfer in Amsterdam. “It bothers me that all those people who are criticizing me have done nothing to move Polish football forward,” Beenhakker said in a recent interview with the Dziennik newspaper. “They’re just talking, blah, blah, blah, but nothing changes. And they’re only blaming me.”

As the team has stumbled, so Beenhakker’s Polish star has dimmed.

Artur Wichniarek, a Polish striker who plays for Berlin but is not part of the national squad, told the Dziennik: “I will play for the Polish football team at any time of day or night, but I will not play for Leo Beenhakker who mocks Polish people and my country.”

When he put out feelers about working part time for Feyenoord a few months ago, Polish soccer authorities quickly moved to see if that would allow them to fire Beenhakker. Before a recent meeting of the Polish Football Association, an official said he was “disenchanted and disgusted” by Beenhakker’s behavior.

The Polish press has also been calling on Beenhakker to go — even rooting recently for him to take a job with a South African team.

The problem for Poland is that, although the country has qualified coaches of its own, Beenhakker has still racked up more successes than any trainer in the last three decades, and replacing him now could endanger the national team’s chances of entering the World Cup.

“We have to act rationally. There is no guarantee that another coach will be able to make up the lost distance,” said Kazimierz Grenia, a member of Polish soccer’s governing body, in a recent interview. He added that if the team makes it to South Africa, it would be time to get rid of Beenhakker and replace him with a Polish coach.

If that view prevails then Beenhakker’s chances of coaching the national team in 2012, when Poland and Ukraine jointly host the European soccer championships, look remote.

It is obvious that the love between Beenhakker and his adopted country is gone.

“Find someone better and be done with it,” Beenhakker said in his recent interview.