Kazimierz Deyna: the tragic but brilliant midfielder who defined a golden Polish era

Kazimierz Deyna: the tragic but brilliant midfielder who defined a golden Polish era

Poland is a proud country with a rich and compelling history, especially when it comes to football, and the 1970s and 80s were its golden period. The names behind it are well known – Grzegorz Lato, Jan Tomaszewski, Andrzej Szarmach, Antoni Szymanowski and Zbigniew Boniek – yet it was Kazimierz Deyna who often defined the nation’s game.

Born on 23 October 1947 in Starograd Gdanski, located in the north-west of Poland, Deyna’s family had a strong football heritage. Kazimierz followed in his family’s footsteps by joining the local club, which bore the same name as the town, at the age of 10. For eight years Deyna harnessed his skills as a midfielder and rewarded in 1965 by making his debut for the youth side. As a result, several teams in Poland’s top flight became interested in this prodigious talent. In the first week of October 1966, just before his 18th birthday, Deyna signed for ŁKS Łódź, who played in the top flight.

After playing a solitary league game, Deyna was snapped up by Legia Warsaw in November. Legia’s new coach, Jaroslav Vejvoda, needed players and was able to use the perks of Legia being the army club to recruit one of the finest young talents in the domestic game. It would be the best decision he ever made.

Deyna ended the season with a flourish by scoring six goals in 12 league games, helping Legia to a fourth-place finish in the league and winning the Polish Cup. But with his talents came flaws – primarily his party antics, which caused him to miss training sessions. Such was Vejvoda’s fury at this, the coach recommended to the army that Deyna be sent to a military jail. The midfielder’s flamboyant lifestyle made him stand out and, in Communist Poland, would put him under the suspicious eye of the secret police. Fortunately for his career, his behaviour improved, and he went from strength to strength in the late 1960s.

Deyna would play a pivotal role in his club winning the league for the first time in 12 years. His statistics during the season were on a par with the best players in Europe: 12 goals in 26 league games, five goals in six Polish Cup games and two goals in six in Europe where Legia competed in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Deyna’s talents knew no bounds and his footballing IQ was of the highest order, which allowed the midfielder to see things others couldn’t. Those talents served him in good stead as Deyna was at the forefront of Legia winning the league again the following season.

Just 18 months after making his debut for Legia, the youngster made his international debut for Poland, at the age of just 20, in 1968. For Deyna, the sky was barely his limit. The man from Starograd Gdanski would rise to new levels during the 1970s, from one of the promising young talents in Poland to one of the most sought-after players in the world.




Deyna’s rapid rise to international stardom became entwined with the appointment of Kazimierz Górski as Poland’s coach in 1971. Górski had certainly paid his dues to get the job. From 1956 to 1970. he’d managed Poland’s youth sides all the way up to the under-23’s. As a result, this gave him intimate knowledge of the players in the national side.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich represented a chance for Górski to see where Poland were at before the 1974 World Cup qualifiers. The Poles were hopeful, as most countries didn’t send their strongest squads to the Olympics, but those in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain did. One way Eastern Bloc countries circumvented the strict amateur rules of the Olympics was to give players jobs in government sectors. Indeed, Deyna was in the army.

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Poland’s squad comprised mostly of players in their early to mid-20s. Along with Deyna, they had a young Grzegorz Lato, free-scoring striker Włodzimierz Lubański, winger Robert Gadocha, industrious midfielder Zygmunt Maszczyk, and Lesław Ćmikiewicz. There was also a promising 21-year-old defender named Antoni Szymanowski, who made his league debut for Wisla Krakow at the age of just 16 – quite the achievement for a defender in the 1960s.

With a squad of such riches, Poland showed their capabilities by blitzing through the group stages, Deyna featuring heavily. In their first game, he scored twice in a routine 5-1 win against Colombia. Ghana were then dismantled 4-0, Deyna scoring the third goal. Poland’s final group game against East Germany would be a stern examination but they passed with flying colours, their 2-1 victory coming from an unexpected source in centre-back Jerzy Gorgoń scoring twice.

If the first group phase posed little difficulty for Poland, the second group phase upped the level of opposition as they faced Morocco, Denmark and the Soviet Union. Whoever topped the group would be in the gold medal match. Step forward Kazimierz Deyna.

In the first game against Denmark, the Poles fell behind on 27 minutes after goalkeeper Hubert Kosta spilt a free-kick, allowing midfielder Heino Hansen to score from the rebound. Deyna would restore parity nine minutes later thanks to some individual brilliance. As the midfielder received a quick pass from the right, he controlled the ball with his left foot and with his right foot curled it into the top corner. Deyna’s moment of quality salvaged an important point for his country.

Poland’s next match was against the mighty Soviet Union. Within the squad was a young Ukrainian named Oleh Blokhin who was about to have a breakout season with Dynamo Kyiv. The striker demonstrated why he would go on to become one of the best strikers of all-time by scoring the opener in the first half. Poland rallied in the last 10 minutes, with Deyna converting a spot-kick on 79 minutes before they struck again with three minutes remaining.

Defeating the USSR proved vital, as it meant Poland’s 5-0 win against Morocco – during which Deyna scored twice – sealed top spot and a place in the final. Hungary stood in the way of a historic gold medal, but it would not be easy, and their opponents had a superb record in the Olympics. The Hungarians won gold in 1952 at Helsinki, in 1964 at Tokyo, and four years later in Mexico City. A third gold medal in a row would be a historic milestone and rival the exploits of the Magyars side of the 1950s.

The final was played at Munich’s Olympiastadion on 10 September, with 80,000 spectators in attendance. For most of the first half, both defences were on top, until 19-year-old striker Bela Várady scored at the near post. Conceding a goal before half-time can rock a team’s confidence, but Deyna made sure that wouldn’t be the case. Just two minutes into the second half, he received the ball 30 yards out from goal. He cut inside to avoid one challenge, dragging the ball forward with his right foot before controlling it with his left to bamboozle another Hungarian. Now outside the box, he took another touch before rifling a shot into the bottom corner. It was a goal of individualistic beauty, and it typified Deyna.

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Twenty minutes later, Lubański drew in two Hungarian defenders to contest a long ball put into the box, which the defenders were unable to clear, and Deyna took advantage, giving Poland the lead. Górski’s players held on to win the gold medal, which was energetically celebrated by the nation, but also the state authorities who saw it as a propaganda boost. Deyna’s reputation as a player was enhanced by winning the Golden Boot.

However, while winning gold at Munich was a confidence boost for Polish football, Górski was well aware what really mattered was qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. The only appearance was in 1938 where they played one elimination match, losing 6-5 to Brazil after extra time.

But the qualifiers also presented an opportunity. The Poles were placed in a three-team group – some groups in the European zone had four – but tough opposition in Wales and England. Only one would qualify for the World Cup in West Germany. It all came down to the final game against England at Wembley, where a point would be enough for Poland to qualify.

England raced out of the blocks in the first half, putting their opponents under heavy pressure, the crowd bewildered it was still 0-0 at half-time. Bewilderment turned into shock when Poland took the lead in the second half courtesy of a rare Ray Clemence error.

As captain, Deyna tried to lift his teammates’ spirits in the face of relenting dominance from England, but it would be goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski who was the real inspiration. Labelled a “circus clown in gloves” by Brian Clough, the 26-year-old performed heroics throughout the game, making several brilliant saves. England would equalise deep into the second half but Poland held off England’s frantic attacks, desperate to score the winning goal.

In the end, they held on to qualify for the World Cup at England’s expense, leading to the resignation of Alf Ramsey as England manager. As Górski exulted to his players before the game, they had a chance to put their names in the history books, which they had now done. Making the World Cup after 36 years was historic. For Deyna, it would be his finest hour.




Poland’s opponents in the first group stage of the World Cup looked daunting. Haiti were relative unknowns, but Argentina and Italy were considered as two of the pre-tournament favourites. Despite this, Poland had reason to be confident, their squad consisting of several players who featured in the Olympics two years earlier. Their first game was against Argentina in Stuttgart and the Poles stamped their credentials in the first 10 minutes.

Argentina goalkeeper Daniel Carnevali failed to hold onto the ball from a corner, which led to Grzegorz Lato reacting quickest to score. Argentina barely had time to recover as, just over a minute later, Andrzej Szarmach doubled Poland’s lead on the counter. Deyna was the brains of the side, providing creativity, skill and control from midfield. In turn, it gave Gadocha, Szarmach and Lato licence to wreak havoc. In the end, Poland’s 3-2 victory flattered Argentina.

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Poland would destroy Haiti 7-0 in their next game, Deyna scoring their second goal with a flicked header at the near post. Their final group game was against Italy. The Azzurri had an abundance of world-class stars, including Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti and Sandro Mazzola. In addition, veterans Gianni Rivera and Gigi Riva were in the squad, but substandard performances led to manager Ferruccio Valcareggi dropping the pair from the starting line-up. It didn’t do much good as the Azzurri were ripped to pieces in the space of seven minutes.

Szarmach opening the scoring on 38 minutes with a fantastic header from Henryk Kasperczak’s cross, nipping ahead of an Italian captain Facchetti so rarely left flat-footed by a forward. As half time approached, Deyna once again displayed his mesmerising talents. Kasperczak was provider from the right, squaring the ball off to Deyna. The captain sprinted to the ball like a runaway train and hit a first time shot towards goal from just outside the box. Such was the ferocity that Zoff wasn’t able to keep it out. It would’ve beaten any goalkeeper.

Though a 28-year-old midfielder named Fabio Capello pulled a goal back for Italy, it was mere consolation, and Poland held on for a priceless victory. As a result, they topped the group, while Italy were knocked out due to Argentina’s superior goal difference. Under Górski’s stewardship and Deyna’s leadership, Poland had upset the odds to progress to the second group stage.

Drawn in Group B, it was an all-European affair, Poland facing hosts West Germany, Sweden and Yugoslavia. Topping the group meant a place in the World Cup final against the winners of Group A. Poland used their recent experience in the Olympics to good use as they edged Sweden 1-0, Lato with the winning goal. Against Yugoslavia, Deyna opened the scoring with a penalty but they went in at half-time level. Once again, Lato was the difference, heading in at the near post from Gadocha’s corner.

Two wins from two games meant Poland were just one step away from reaching their first World Cup final. Only West Germany stood in their way, mimicking Poland by defeating Yugoslavia and Sweden. It was a tight contest in Düsseldorf but luck was not with the Poles. Gerd Müller scored the only goal of the game as Poland were consigned to the third-place playoff. To their credit, Górski’s players showed great character to beat Brazil 1-0, Lato scoring his seventh goal of the competition, thereby winning the Golden Boot.

Despite falling short, Deyna’s leadership from the centre of midfield provided a base for his country to embark on their attacking football. His influential performances did not go unnoticed. In the 1974 Ballon d’Or – back then known as European Footballer of the Year – Deyna came third behind Franz Beckenbauer and winner Johan Cruyff.

The 26-year-old was now one of the hottest properties in football. Clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Internazionale sought his signature, however the Communist party in Poland would not let Deyna leave, their policy restricting players to wait until they’re 30 before embarking on adventures abroad.




Apart from winning the Polish Cup in 1973, Deyna failed to win any further trophies at Legia. Meanwhile, on the international stage, the playmaker was part of the national team selected to defend their Olympic title at Montreal in 1976, but lost 3-1 to East Germany in the final.

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After winning silver in Montreal, Górski soon resigned as manager. Replacement Jacek Gmoch continued his sterling work to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Deyna was still captain but represented the old guard, while new talents like Zbigniew Boniek, Adam Nawałka and Roman Wójcicki embodied the future.

Although Poland reached the second group stage, they were unable to advance after defeats to hosts Argentina and Brazil. Only a few months away from turning 32, Deyna retired from international football, amassing 84 caps along with 13 appearances in two Olympics. It was time for his next step.

Now in his early 30s, Deyna could move west, heading to Manchester City in November 1978. The First Division side paid £100,000 for the midfielder, as well as agreeing to two friendlies with Legia. However, the English top flight wasn’t a fit for Deyna – it was a physical league and not ideally suited to a technical player of his calibre.

Despite these obstacles, his first season was a respectful one, scoring seven times. Most of those goals came near the end of the season, embarking on a run of six goals in seven games, crucially helping City avoid relegation. Sadly, his next two seasons were injury hit as he failed to find the required form for the level he was at. Soon, Deyna’s flaws came back and he began drinking, losing his licence after being caught well over the limit.It also resulted in his expulsion from the first team.

Though Deyna’s spell in England lasted just three years, he still left a positive impact on fans, as well as ex-players to this very day. Brian Kidd, now an assistant coach at Manchester City, said of Deyna: “What a player he was. The lad was iconic. He was sublime. So elegant. Such an excellent manipulator of the ball. He had so much guile and sophistication. People talk about the technique of the influx of foreign players these days. Kazi was way up there.”

In spring 1981, an injury-plagued Deyna left Manchester, heading to America to play in the North American Soccer League. Deyna played for the San Diego Sockers for six years and made over a hundred appearances. Unfortunately, his manager swindled him out of most of the money Deyna made while playing in America. Things would get worse, with the Pole’s addictions getting the better of him. Sadly, Deyna tried to hide his problems, not even going back to a Poland going through enormous changes thanks to the Solidarity movement.

On 1 September 1989, Kazimierz Deyna was killed in a traffic accident in San Diego, just six weeks away from his 42nd birthday. It was a tragedy to see a player who graced world football die so prematurely. Such was his impact, Legia Warsaw retired the number 10 shirt, while in 2012, his grave was moved from San Diego to Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw. A hero for Legia and Poland, a statue was erected in his honour, in respect for what he did as captain of his country during the golden age of Polish football.

He may be forgotten by so many today but Deyna’s legacy lives on through his success and leadership on the football pitch.

By Yousef Teclab @yousefteclab

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