Football: Matysek blocks out history

Poland's keeper has no time for past heroes as he prepares to bar England's path to Euro 2000 qualification.
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The Independent Online
JUST AS two plus two equals four, everyone knows that Poland plus goalkeeper equals Jan Tomaszewski - the man Brian Clough dubbed a "clown" but who nonetheless practically single-handedly denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup.

Everyone, that is, unless you are Adam Matysek, the present incumbent of the Polish No 1 spot who, tomorrow, will also be trying to deny England once again, though this time a Euro 2000 play-off place.

Matysek, when asked about the second most famous Polish goalkeeper - just behind Pope John Paul II, of course - suddenly clams up. "Can you ask me another question, please? Tomaszewski had great success with the national team but we are almost in the year 2000 and it's time to look to the future. What was then doesn't interest anyone."

Matysek, who plays his football in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, is definitely one for talking about the future. Perhaps that is not altogether surprising - Poland have never qualified for the European Championship and the last major tournament the country participated in was the 1986 World Cup. Matysek agrees that it is no coincidence that those football wilderness years coincided with the political upheaval that Poland endured both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Then everything was grey and dark and now things are much brighter," says the goalkeeper of the changes Poland has undergone. "Obviously a lot of people struggle for money. But things are much better. The government is more stable and given time I think everything will fall into place."

The nation's fragile state is reflected by the Polish football team. "Our problem is psychological. We sometimes don't believe that we can succeed," says Matysek. "Polish players who play in good leagues abroad, and who do well week-in and week-out, don't fulfil their full potential when they play for the national team.

"As a player I need to believe that we can be successful. The team and I need to believe that we can come second in the group. If we beat England then we will have taken a large step forward, not just for us as a group of players, but also for Polish football."

If Poland are potentially on the brink of a long overdue footballing revival, Matysek is less convinced about Kevin Keegan's England.

"England are in the middle of a massive crisis," he insists. "It's interesting to look at the success of Manchester United and the Premiership, but it seems to me that that success isn't reflected in the English national team. I think England have a lot of problems and that Poland have a great opportunity to come second in the group."

Matysek, more than most, has particular reason to relish tomorrow's encounter. Paul Scholes' sleight of hand, along with his hat-trick, meant that the Pole was at the sharp end of things during England's 3-1 demolition of Poland at Wembley back in March.

That defeat was a rare black spot in a season when the 31-year-old goalkeeper finally came of age after a decade-long struggle to establish himself both at club and international level. He began his career with Slask Wroclaw before he crossed the border to join the German Second Division club Fortuna Cologne in 1993. "When I was a child," he said, "I always wanted to be a footballer but I never dreamed of playing in England or Germany"

Matysek has endured his fair share of injuries and he missed a whole year after damaging his knee ligaments, which partly explains why he only regained his place in the national side last season after a five- year absence. He signed for another German second division team, Gutersloh, where, as he puts it: "I made my name throughout Germany. Gutersloh's plans to build the team didn't come to fruition and they're now in the Third Division and have huge problems. I hope that the team recovers."

Two summers ago negotiations broke down regarding potential moves to Borussia Dortmund and then Schalke 04. At the last minute he signed for Leverkusen, who were desperate to secure cover for the injured Dirk Heinen.

In the Bundesliga the biggest difference for Matysek has been that he has had to use his feet as much as his hands. "Players in the Second Division rarely pass to you, whereas that frequently happens with the Leverkusen players. It's something that I've had to work on in the last 12 months."

Matysek's good form, with the help of Leverkusen's goalkeeping coach, Werner Friese, has meant that Heinen has been left on the sidelines. While the Pole has prospered, so have Leverkusen, who under their coach Christoph Daum are in the Champions' League and this season they have already beaten Bayern Munich, last season's domestic title winners.

"Previously Leverkusen were looked down on," says Matysek. "It was referred to as the `plastic' team because it was sponsored by the chemical company. Now they're a top team."

Daum, who over the summer walked over broken glass as a way of showing the players how to overcome difficult challenges, is very different to the Polish coach Janusz Wojcik, the man who guided his country to the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics.

"Those two are worlds apart," says Matysek. "Wojcik is very impulsive and when things aren't going his way he can be really angry. He's mad about football."

Despite Matysek's success, which he attributes to the way he was brought up by his parents - "I was taught never to give up even in difficult times" - his mind constantly wanders back to Poland.

"I've got used to Germany after six years, but I think that people in Poland are friendlier and less complaining. I sometimes feel that I must always be in a good mood and watch what I say. In Poland I'm free to speak my mind."

If Poland manage to deny England tomorrow, Matysek will not be worrying about his mood, nor about Jan Tomaszewski.