December 18th marks the 100th anniversary of Poland’s first ever international game. Having gained independence and reappearing on the map of Europe in 1918, the Polish football association, PZPN, was formed the following year. With the Polish-Soviet War still ongoing in 1920, the first attempt at a national league championship was abandoned. The country had been divided into five regional tournaments, and the winner of each would compete for the Polish league title. That first year, only the Kraków region would manage to finish their group games, with Cracovia coming out on top, and the following year they would repeat that success and go on to become the first league champions of Poland in 1921.
At the beginning of October of that year, Cracovia travelled to Hungary to take on two of the country’s top clubs in Budapest. They suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat to Ferencváros, and the next day played out a scoreless draw with Hungarian league champions MTK. This was seen as a great success back in Poland and was a huge confidence boost, with the national side set to travel to Budapest in December for that first historical international match. Earlier in the year, the Hungarian association had proposed Christmas Day as a possible date for the game, and although their Polish counterparts had tried to change this to either November or the following spring, December 18th, 1921, was the date that was finally confirmed.
In November, the people of Kraków were able to witness the best Polish players in action. In the space of two weeks, two trial matches were organised to select the team which would make the trip to Hungary. The man chosen to lead the team was a Hungarian himself, the Cracovia manager, Imre Pozsonyi. He had won his only international cap back in 1902, in what was, coincidentally, Hungary’s first-ever match. His club Cracovia were understandably, as champions, the most represented at those trials, but there were players involved from plenty of other sides too. It was a mixture of from clubs which had won their regional groups, such as Polonia Warszawa, Warta Poznań and Pogoń Lwów, together with those of local teams, Wisła Kraków along with two Jewish clubs Jutrzenka and Makkabi Kraków.
After two games, the selection committee decided on a final squad of 13 players. The first eleven was made up of seven Cracovia players, Ludwik Gintel, Zdzisław Styczeń, Stanisław Cikowski, Tadeusz Synowiec, who would captain the team, Józef Kałuża, top scorer that season, StanisławMielech, and Leon Sperling. Polonia were represented by goalkeeper, Jan Loth, and Artur Marczewski, while Loth’s brother Stefan was one of the two reserve players. Warta had Marian Einbacher in the side, with Pogoń’s WacławKuchar completing the team, and Mieczysław Batsch, also of Pogoń, the second reserve.
Two days before the game, on December 16th, at 10:40am, the squad departed from Kraków train station. Together with the players and manager, the President and Secretary of the PZPN also made the trip, along with three journalists, Edmund Szyc, who was one of the founders of the Warta club, and Edward Kleinadel, who had just won the first ever Polish tennis championship and was a big football fan, were also members of the travelling party. It proved to be a long, eventful trip, as border checks, frozen wheels, delays and missed trains all combined to hamper their journey. They eventually arrived in Budapest at midnight the night before the game, having spent over 36 hours travelling. To their surprise, members of the Hungarian football association were still there to meet them at the station, with transport to take them to their hotel.
It would be one o’clock in the morning by the time they had eaten and freshened up at the Astoria Hotel, and it was a tired and weary team which rose the next morning. Kałużais was reported to have had a cold and fever, while Gintel suffered with stomach pains. After lunch, cars took them to the MTK stadium, where the game would kick-off at 2pm. Conditions weren’t great, as the rain turned the pitch to mud, and probably hampered the crowd numbers too, with less than 10,000 turning out to watch the action. Before the game, the Polish association presented a gold signet ring to Imre Schlosser, who was about to make his 65th appearance for Hungary, a European record at the time.
The only goal of the game came in the 18th minute when Jenő Wiener’s pass found Jenő Szabó, and the forward went past Marczewski before shooting from close range with his shot too strong for Loth to keep out. Poland improved in the second half, but it was still the home side who looked the more dangerous. Loth impressed in the goal while Marczewski cleared one shot off the line. After a good-tempered game which gave the Czech referee little to do, the crowd warmly applauded the Polish team off the pitch.
The main Polish sports newspaper, Przegląd Sportowy, blamed the performance on nerves. They reported that except for the ‘keeper who had showed his class, the rest of the team played below their usual standard. Even in the second half, apart from Loth, it was only Einbacher who acquitted himself well. They excused the nervousness of the players, due to the pressure of representing their country, and unlike the Hungarians, this was a situation they found themselves in for the first time.
Things improved the following year, although they suffereda 3-0 defeat in the rematch with Hungary in Kraków. After that, Poland defeated both Sweden and Yugoslavia and drew with Romania, but what happened to those players who lined out in Budapest?
The goalkeeper Jan Loth died aged 32, succumbing to tuberculosis. His brother Stefan, a reserve that day, lost his life aged 40, in a plane crash along with two other army officers. The other reserve player, Mieczysław Batsch, went on to score eight goals in his eleven games for his country. Stanisław Cikowski represented Poland at the 1924 Olympics. Wacław Kuchar, went on to become a manager, taking charge of the Polish national team, and Legia Warszawa.
Tadeusz Synowiec was another who went on to manage the national side, while Stanisław Mielech became vice-president of the Polish football association, as well as writing several books on football. Zdzisław Styczeń was a Cracovia player at the time, but after falling out with the club, he later joined city rivals Wisła.
For others, the Second World War would bring turmoil and tragedy.
Ludwik Gintel, had started out playing with the Jewish club Jutrzenka before spending his whole senior career at Cracovia. The term ‘Holy War’ is now associated with the Kraków derby between Cracovia and Wisła, and Gintel is the man accredited with coming up with the title. Previously it had been used to describe games between the two Jewish clubs in the city, Jutrzenka and Makkabi. Although a defender, in 1928, with his club needing a player up front, Gintel stepped up and proved himself by ending the season as the league’s top scorer. During the Second World War, he first moved to Romania, and later to Palestine. In 1973, suffering with a terminal illness, Gintel committed suicide.
Józef Kałuża is a legend of Polish football, and after playing his whole career with Cracovia he later became a successful manager of the national side. He took them to fourth place at the 1936 Olympics and in 1938 they qualified for the World Cup. There they lost out 5-6 to Brazil in a legendary match. Having played in that first game of the Poland national team, he would then be the manager in what became known as ‘The Last Game’. Poland beat Hungary this time, in August 1939, and just a few days later Germany invaded Poland. Kałuża was one of the few members of the PZPN to remain in the country when war broke out, and he died in Kraków in 1944 from meningitis, with medicine unavailable to help him. Cracovia’s stadium is on the street which bears his name, and there is also a statue of Józef Kałuża outside the ground.
Artur Marczewski finished his career in his hometown of Łódź. It was here that his life ended in 1945 when the Russian army entered the city.
Leon Sperling, like Gintel, had started playing football with Jutrzenka, before going on to become a Cracovia legend. He spent his whole career at the club, winning three league titles. After he quit playing, he got married and moved to Lwów (now Lviv). When the war came, he found himself, like so many, confined to the Jewish ghetto. He was shot dead there in December 1941.
Marian Einbacher was yet another Jewish player whose life came to an end with the Second World War. His playing career finished in 1925 due to injury, and he then went into a banking career. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, sent on a train from Radom on March 28, 1942. Marian was registered under the number 27428. He had a couple of spells in the sick bay and died there on January 12th, 1943.
Unlike Poland’s recent defeat to Hungary, which ultimately cost them a seeded place in the play-offs for the World Cup, the team which lost in Budapest 100 years ago will always be a part of Polish history. Some went on to manage the Poland national team, while others died during another dark period in the country’s troubled history, but they are all names which deserve to be remembered and honoured.