The second most thankless job in international football is trying to steer England through a mediocre qualifying group. Draws are a humiliation, defeats a disgrace. Wins are either “dreary” or “routine”. If you won narrowly, you were dour and unimpressive; if you won easily, then you can’t read too much into it anyway because of the weakness of the opposition. In a way this is one of those rare scenarios in which neither the process nor the outcome really matters. You are dullards by default; reassessments take place every two years. Next.
So it was here for England, who in succumbing to an injury-time equaliser against Poland neither exceeded expectations nor violated them. The opening strike by Harry Kane was delightful; the patience commendable; the movement and energy impressive enough; the defending for Damian Szymanski’s 92nd-minute header shambolic.
For Robert Lewandowski, meanwhile, the architect of Poland’s goal, a certain redemption after a heroic but largely frustrating night. After all, the most thankless job in international football is the one Lewandowski has now been performing for close to a decade: the one-man nation. This is the sort of phenomenon you really see only in international football. In club football you generally find your level: in national team colours you’re stuck with what you’ve got. And so whether it’s Gareth Bale, Goran Pandev or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there are few more stirring and romantic sights than watching a great player trying to rouse and inspire an entire team, an entire nation on his own.
Trying, and largely failing. This is, after all, the crux of the enterprise: they are 11, you are one. Lewandowski himself is not a man who brooks much doubt, as you might gather from a man whose masters thesis in sports management was entitled “RL9: Path to Glory”.
No, the problem is his teammates, many of whom populate some of the best leagues in the world and are perfectly talented in their own right. Still, there’s a clear centre of gravity in this team, and you can see it not just in Lewandowski’s own play but in the way his teammates defer to him, fan out and watch him from a safe distance, pass the ball to him even when he really doesn’t want it.
There was a moment very early in the game when Lewandowski picked the ball up just over the halfway line, in the No10 position that he most often occupies in international colours. Instinctively he slid the ball towards the right wing, where at Bayern Munich he would normally be used to seeing Kingsley Coman or Leroy Sané or Serge Gnabry racing outside him. Here, however, the man making the run was Kamil Jozwiak of Derby County: a winger with pace to burn, but only when he is actually running.
The circular problem here is that you essentially need Lewandowski to be in two places at once. In order to create chances you need Lewandowski in a slightly withdrawn role to make sure he has as much of the ball as possible. But in order to convert those chances, you need Lewandowski to be getting forward, attacking his own crosses, chasing his own through balls, giving himself the thumbs-up from 40 yards away.
Just occasionally he even managed it. After a frustrating first half-hour Lewandowski chased the ball down on the left, won it with a sliding tackle, sprinted on into the area, perfectly judged the trajectory of the dinked pass from Karol Linetty and hooked the awkwardly bouncing ball at goal with the outside of his right boot. As Jordan Pickford caught the ball with ease, Lewandowski blew out his cheeks and looked to the heavens.
A perfect tackle, a perfect run and an astounding feat of athleticism, and all it had earned him was this fraction of a sliver of a chance. It would be his last touch in the England penalty area until the 92nd minute.
Even more than England, the defining quality of Polish football is probably fatalism. Nothing is as good as it was, and yet somehow things can only get worse. You would hardly have guessed from the prevailing mood ahead of this game that this was a country that had qualified for three consecutive international tournaments for the first time in history, that had held Spain to a draw at Euro 2020, that remains strongly placed to qualify for Qatar 2022, that possesses perhaps the best striker in the world in its ranks.
Perhaps this explains why Poland’s players so instinctively turn to Lewandowski in moments of promise. They believe in him because they still don’t quite believe in themselves.
There was a certain irony in the fact that just a couple of minutes before Kane’s goal from distance Lewandowski had enjoyed an almost identical chance on the break. As he advanced on goal, Karol Swiderski made the run to his left, Szymanski to his right, but neither with the awareness to provide a passing option or drag defenders away. Lewandowski’s shot scuttled through a forest of bodies and was easily saved.
And so it was with a roar, and not a little relief, that as time leaked away Lewandowski finally found a way: powering down the left channel, getting to the byline, standing up a cross for Szymanski to head in. The romance of the one-man nation is that so often, their Herculean efforts are ultimately in vain. The grace comes in the fact that every once in a while they’re not.