There were 136 players at the 2022 World Cup who represented nations other than the one they were born in, with international football increasingly mirroring the scattered populations that exist across the world.
Morocco, who unexpectedly reached the semi-finals in Qatar, had the most foreign-born players in their squad with 14.
Historically, major football nations may have felt less need to broaden their horizons in search of players, while other countries could be wary of players only making use of their eligibility due to not being chosen by their country of birth.
Poland fit into the latter category, having traditionally chosen its players from a pool of Polish-born citizens. However, times are changing and the introduction of Aston Villa’s Berkshire-born Matty Cash in 2021 is unlikely to be the last example of them looking further afield.
This is because they have expanded their UK scouting team, hiring two new scouts in Scotland.
This begs the question of what a national team scout working in a foreign country will do all day?
Jakub Szewczyk, 20, one of the scouts hired (the other being Antoni Masny), moved from Poland to Scotland in 2006 and speaks eight languages, but even he was a little surprised when he received a LinkedIn message from a man saying he worked for the Polish FA and had been tipped off about the scouting work Szewczyk had been publishing online.
“My conversation came out of the blue and, initially, I wasn’t sure what it would entail, but it’s only when you look at the number of Poles living in Scotland you realise how big an opportunity it is,” says Szewczyk.
A report by the National Records of Scotland in 2021 estimated that there are 62,000 Poles living in Scotland, which makes them the largest population of non-British nationals in the country.
“The FA has quite a localised scouting system in Poland and in Germany so I’ve been speaking to clubs and coaches in recent weeks and there are some promising players in the academies,” he says.
“I’m in the midst of creating a database and we’re beginning to scout them this month. We’re probably talking around 20 to 30 kids in the academies from the conversations I’ve had so far.
“There was the high-profile story of Matty Cash choosing Poland and he’s the first player I remember who is not Polish-born to represent the national team. For a long time you had to be born in the country and have a Polish passport, but if there are players in Germany or the UK who are good enough to play for us then we will call them up early.
“Poland’s population is around 40 million but the diaspora is massive and is around 20 million outside the borders too. That is a population that has been historically underutilised so I’m really happy to be able to help the national team find these talents.”
Szewczyk grew up in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy after his mum, Justyna, was headhunted by Lloyds Pharmacy and he is in his fourth year of studying Spanish and French translation at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
The 20-year-old knows what it is like to have a sense of dual-national identity given he has spent the vast majority of his life in Scotland after his family moved from Boleslawiec in the east of Poland, an area that has recently taken in a huge number of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion.
His footballing ability admittedly leaves a lot to be desired but if he were in these boys’ shoes, he would feel compelled to represent Poland rather than Scotland, despite the sense of connection he has with the latter.
“It is a very personal decision for people. If I am at a game and there is a talented player tearing it up then I will look to have a chat with him and his parents to see whether he would consider playing for Poland.
“But if he says he feels Scottish because he grew up here, then there will be no forcing them on my part. They’ve got to play for the country they feel they are (from) otherwise it is pointless,” he says.
Despite the size of the Polish community, there is not as rich a history of Polish players in Scotland. The first contingent were members of the Polish Army team who ended up playing in the northeast after staying beyond the conclusion of the Second World War.
In 1971, Hamilton’s Polish chairman Jan Stepek brought in three internationals (Alfred Olek, Witold Szygula and Roman Strazalkowski) during the Cold War period — all of whom had played against Brazil at the time of Pele, Garrincha and Jairzinho — and offered to ship washing machines and electrical goods from his company in exchange for the players.
Dariusz Wdowczyk played almost 200 games for Celtic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dariusz Adamczuk signed for Dundee and Rangers in the 1990s, and Maciej Zurawski and Artur Boruc both did well at Celtic after joining in 2005. Dundee United have had three Polish goalkeepers including Lukasz Zaluska and Livingston kept up the tradition of Polish shot-stoppers with Max Stryjek serving as their No 1 for two years before joining Wycombe Wanderers in the summer.
This it is though, really. And all of these players were imported as established professionals. Examples of players of Polish descent who have grown up in Scotland and made it into professional football are few and far between.
Kevin Rutkiewicz, whose grandfather emigrated to Scotland during the Second World War, played for St Johnstone and a number of other Scottish clubs before going into management, with the 42-year-old currently in charge of East Kilbride FC.
Meanwhile, former Hamilton defender Ziggy Gordon was born in Glasgow but had Polish heritage.
Currently, the only Polish player in the SPFL is Hibernian back-up goalkeeper Kevin Dabrowski.
Are there underlying reasons for the lack of Polish representation? Has there been a failure to help young Poles assimilate into Scotland’s footballing culture?
“I don’t think the cultures are too different,” he says.
“But most people who have emigrated to Scotland from Poland have done that so their children can have better lives. In the opinion of some Polish adults, the way they improve their lives is by studying hard, going to university and getting a good job that they can earn money from.
“It is fairly risk-free, quite normal and universities are more prestigious than any in Poland so they’ve got that stability. Football may not strike them as a stable career option but I don’t know the answer, that’s just a theory.
“Perhaps it is a lack of role models too. It would be great for a Polish kid to break through at an SPFL academy (so youngsters can look at him) like the way Scottish kids look at Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Calvin Ramsay.
“Robert Lewandowski is the new benchmark and should probably have won the Ballon d’Or in 2020 (the award was not handed out due to COVID), but if one player did well it could change a lot.
“I’m not sure there is much I can do personally, but if I see a player who is playing below his level I can speak to some elite academies and see if I can get them into the better academies.”
This is Jakub’s first step into the football industry. His original ambition had been to utilise his exceptional language skills and go down the international relations and diplomacy route — he speaks Polish, English, Spanish, French and German fluently, as well as some Russian, Portuguese and Italian — but football has always been his passion.
He decided in early 2020, during lockdown, that he was going to set his mind on making it in football starting with a dissertation on the impact of language on recruitment in football.
“If a player doesn’t speak the language that is extra cost and may take extra time to adapt. I find my language skills have been massively beneficial to gain people’s trust and to network as there are loads of transferrable skills that come with that and mean I could work in most countries.”
Jakub has ambitions of working in South America or elsewhere in Europe and one day becoming a sporting director. That’s his dream but his immediate task is to be Poland’s man on the inside in the battle between national teams wary of being blindsided by the next big talent or, worse, late to the party.
(Top photo: Poland players celebrating at the World Cup in Qatar; Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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