Team profile: Poland aiming for lucky 13

Poland will be hoping for a case of lucky 13 when they head to their first ever European championships next month. Despite a powerhouse reputation three decades ago, the Poles failed to qualify for the tournament a dozen times before finally securing a berth at Euro 2008.

Hopes are high, with a new generation of players seeking to prove they deserve the mantle of their forebears, who won third place in the World Cup in 1974 and 1982 and took Olympic gold and then silver in 1972 and 1976. They are also desperate to avoid a repeat of the humiliating World Cup exits of 2002 and 2006.

They are under extra pressure for a good showing this time because Poland is to host Euro 2012, along with neighbouring Ukraine.

Poland are in Group B of the 16-nation championships. They play Germany in their first game on June 8, then Austria on June 12 and Croatia on June 16. Facing the Germans adds spice, and not only because of centuries of bad blood beyond the sporting arena. Poland have never beaten their ill-loved neighbours on the pitch, so a victory would be a huge psychological boost.

Dutchman Leo Beenhakker’s preliminary 26-man side is drawn from 12 different leagues, meaning a mismatch of post-season fatigue levels. He has mixed seasoned internationals such as Austria Vienna defender Jacek Bak, who has 92 caps, and untested talent like Brazilian-born midfielder Roger Guereirro of Legia Warsaw.

After a poor start to their Euro 2008 qualifying run, the Poles bounced back in a six-match winning streak and topped their group, with Euzebiusz Smolarek of Racing Santander notching up nine goals. Poland topped their group for the 2002 World Cup, but crashed out of the tournament in the first round, losing 2-0 to co-hosts South Korea and 4-0 to Portugal, before a consolation 3-1 win against the United States.

In 2006, they qualified second behind England, only to exit from the first round after losing 2-0 to Ecuador and 1-0 to Germany, and beating Costa Rica 2-1. In an ominous sign, recent friendlies show how inconsistent Poland’s form can be: after beating the Czech Republic 2-0, they were thrashed 3-0 by the US.