England meet Poland tonight to ensure qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The same encounter 40 years ago was a very different affair; England needing a win to secure their passage to West Germany in 1974.
British Decline and English Football
In the 1960s, despite winning the 1966 World Cup, English people increasingly worried about their nation’s position in the world in relation to others. George Bernstein writes that
it became evident that, despite their unprecedented prosperity, their economy had not performed as well as the economies of other industrialized countries.
That this was felt similarly in West Germany (possibly not to such an extreme extent as in Britain) was largely ignored if it was known at all. However, the decline Britain has experienced has been a relative one as has been established by Bernstein and others, i.e. other countries made a leap to catch up with Britain. In Europe Britain’s main competitor for economic dominance was Germany but this development did not begin after 1945 but at least in the last 20 years of the 19th century. Yet it was after the end of World War II that a sense of decline became ever more apparent with the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the global super powers.
In football, winning the World Cup was seen as testament of a British superiority as English and Scottish club teams also won silverware in Europe. However, since 1968 this trend was limited to English and rarely, Scottish, club teams. The English national team became part of the wider public discourse relating to national decline, Porter wrote. Each defeat for the English national team was therefore seen as a painful reminder that the world order had changed. As a result winning became more important as the imperial frame-work through which sport was formerly expressed has disappeared.
What a crude awakening it must have been in 1972 to be beaten by the best ever German team at Wembley and more over to be beaten in October 1973 by a Poland side that many in England considered to be second best.
On paper, England seemed to have had an easy qualification group with Wales and Poland. It would only be between England and Poland to play out first and second place. Things took a worrying outlook after Wales managed a point at Wembley. It got even worse after Poland beat England in Chorzow, 2-0.
That things weren’t so easy against Poland should have been known in England after the Polish national team won the gold medal at the Munich Olympics. Yes, the Olympics were not held in high regard in the West but the Eastern European teams bypassed the amateur rule and fielded their best XI as almost all players had an employment with state owned companies or held a military rank. This is underlined by the fact that Poland, second placed Hungary and shared third place, the Soviet Union and the GDR finished top in the tournament.
Ahead of the game, England were in second with 3 points from 3 matches behind Poland with 4 points from as many matches. England needed a win, Poland would be through with a draw.
One of those nights
England from the off poured forward in search of a goal but found no way through the massive Polish defence. Jan Tomaszewski got injured early in the game but continued and became man of the match as he prevented England from scoring or saved Poland from conceding, depending on the perspective.
It was one of those nights where England could have played for hours on end and they would not have scored. For The Times, England had no ‘divine right’ to success and the team have been given 4 years to re-examine its methods. If this was possible than the Poland game had the same effect the defeat against Hungary had in 1953.
In 2013 Poland have no chance to qualify, yet beating England today or drawing could prove costly for Roy Hodgson’s team as Ukraine will certainly leap-frog them who are playing away at Saint Marino. Once more, Poland could be decisive when it comes to define the future of English football. The game will have no such connotations as in 1973 when England was thought to go into indeterminable decline.
 George Bernstein: The Myth of Decline. The Rise of Britain since 1945. London: Pimlico, 1945, p. 1
 Dilwyn Porter: English Football and British Decline. London: Routledge, 2004, p.34
 Richard Holt: Sport and the British. A Modern History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 272-3