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Poland revel in ‘bitter and sweet’ defeat after doing what they had to to survive

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When the clock marked the last 15 minutes in Stadium 974, Robert Lewandowski had received the word. Mexico was up 2-0 against Saudi Arabia, coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said, but Poland’s soccer was passing because they had two fewer yellow cards.

They created an almost absurd situation in their own 2-0 loss to Argentina, but that was incredible theater in its own way. Poland had to try to keep the score as it was and waste time, but they had to try all of that without risking yellow cards against some very resourceful players who would take them out. All of that left out the even greater risk that Mexico, at that wildly chaotic moment, could score again. Saudi Arabia was giving Luis Chávez plenty of free throw opportunities.

Poland, by contrast, was apparently not going to show any kind of commitment. It was Michniewicz’s anti-soccer taken to the extreme, since his team not only refused to play, but also went against the basic principles of this sport.

It was extreme caution that was somehow accompanied by extreme risk, a return of the lousy football they had played in the previous two games, where Wojciech Szczesny often just lobbed the ball at Lewandowski.

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In fact, eight previous teams have reached the knockout stages losing since the World Cup was for 32 teams, but no one has done it as passively as this one; submissively like this. Obviously, this wasn’t as bad as the transfer pact between Austria and Germany in 1982, but it was worse than Ireland vs. the Netherlands or Spain vs. Costa Rica, which had mutually beneficial results in 1990 and 2010, respectively.

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Michniewicz went so far as to admit that “it wasn’t the prettiest” and that “some defeats are bittersweet and others are bittersweet.”

There were more pointed questions at a post-match press conference that was almost as bizarre as the match. One was whether Michniewicz was “satisfied” with the way they did it. He was dismissive and asked the journalist if he had seen or if he was having dinner.

Well, anyone who has seen is left with a bigger question. It was worth it? Was this how you wanted to spend? Is this how you want to be remembered?

Some close to the Polish camp admit that it was immensely difficult to get through the last 15 minutes, with journalist Pawel Wilkowicz describing it as “one of the worst experiences I’ve had after the team years… knowing that we depend on the mercy of others . ”. There has been a growing backlash in Poland, along with long-term criticism of Michniewicz’s catenaccio approach.

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Actually, there are grander elements at play. A World Cup at its best, even with all the terrible Qatar controversies, is about image, glory, shared joy, admiration. The Polish teams of 1974 and 1982, which established the country’s national football identity, delivered on this. This team did not.

The brutal truth is that not many wished them the best, few wanted them to end. The international desire for Mexico to score could be instinctively felt and seen. And yet there are deeper elements to that.

Football, if you want to get into Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sees people go to extremes if they just need to survive. That is what Poland did: what was necessary.

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The players didn’t seem to care in the least as they passed through the mixed zone. And why would they? They had willingly followed the instructions. They have another game in a World Cup.

That’s more than can be said for previous Polish teams that played nobler football, as this is the first qualification out of the group stage since 1986.

Previous teams to reach the round of 16 after losing in 32-team World Cups

United States lost 3-1 to Poland, 2002

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Mexico 2-1 to Portugal, 2006

Mexico 1-0 to Uruguay, 2010

Chile 2-1 to Spain, 2010

Nigeria 2-1 to Argentina, 2014

United States 1-0 to Germany, 2014

Mexico 3-0 to Sweden, 2018

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Japan 1-0 to Poland, 2018

That’s what happens in the end, regardless of high ideals. It’s the World Cup, the maximum, so do what is necessary to stay in it as long as possible.

Most will criticize it while watching, but most will take it when it’s involved. Thats the reality. It’s even more instructive when you consider that figures close to the Polish squad speak of a “curse” being broken. Many would also point to Mexico’s own anti-soccer in the first two games. They only played when they had to.

Then there’s the list of teams since 1998 that actually went through after losing their crucial group game. Of the eight, three are from Mexico. And the only team that went through after losing by more than two goals? This was Mexico, in 2018, having lost 3-0 to Sweden. Poland, meanwhile, have been on the other side twice, inflicting a defeat but still seeing the opposition through.

Naturally they now feel some historical justice is being done, events finally leveling after so many years when their national team seemed so fickle and unreliable.

It’s just not one that will be remembered with much admiration.

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