- Grzegorz Lato finished adidas Golden Boot in Germany 1974
- He gave Poland two FIFA World Cup third places
- The former winger turns 70 on April 8
Gerd Müller was the favorite to clinch the adidas Golden Boot of the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany ™, ahead of Johan Cruyff. Giorgio Chinaglia, Jairzinho, Jupp Heynckes, Luigi Riva, Mario Kempes, Dušan Bajević, Roberto Boninsegna and Roland Sandberg.
Before the tournament, a large betting company publishes a list of 25 potential winners. Grzegorz Lato isn’t even one of them. After all, Poland have very little chance of breaking out of a Group 4 comprising Argentina and Italy. In addition, Lato is a winger and has only scored three goals in 12 international meetings. Müller has 64 in 54 caps and Riva 35 in 40 matches.
Yet, three weeks after scoring a brace in Poland’s surprise 3-2 win over Argentina in their opener, Lato recovers the ball in his own half, leaves two Brazilians in limbo as his speed does the talking and scored a sublime goal to give Poland an improbable third place. He goes down in history, alongside other top scorers before him such as Sándor Kocsis, Just Fontaine, Eusébio and Müller.
A car, a house, and a scoring instinct
“He was untenable in this tournament,” Kazimierz Górski, Poland coach at Germany 1974 recalled a few years later. “A real machine. We knew what he was capable of, but our opponents had no idea. His speed and runs scared them. Against Argentina, he nabbed the ball on a clearance in the goalkeeper’s hand. A goal out of nowhere. Interceptions were his specialty. And on set pieces, our opponents were always looking to score the players who were tall and the attackers. Lato was not very tall, but he had this scoring instinct, this desire to go and get all the balls that were lying around, to regain his head. “
This is where the world finds out about Lato. So far, he has played only one match, having entered mid-game in Poland’s triumph at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, Munich 1972. But in Poland, he has already forged a good reputation. In 1969, when he was only 19 years old, the club of Stal Mielec, resident of the second division, caused controversy by offering Lato a house and a car so that he signed up with the club.
Faced with criticism from the press, Lato responds on the ground. Stal was promoted to Polish elite Ekstraklasa before winning the championship for the first time in its history in 1972/73. Lato finished top scorer. The club climbed to the podium for four years in a row and was crowned champion for the second time in June 1976.
The hero of a nation
The following month, Poland qualified for their second straight Olympic Tournament final, but fell 3-1 to the GDR despite a goal from Lato. The Malbork-born player shakes the net twice in Argentina 1978, where Poland finished first in their group, which was made up of defending champions Germany, before exiting in the second group stage. At the age of 32, Lato was still impressive at Spain 1982 where Poland again finished third.
It is however for his performances in Germany 1974 that Lato is remembered. It wasn’t until Korea / Japan 2002 that another player scored more than six goals in a World Cup: Ronaldo. In addition, between Chile 1962 and South Africa 2010, Lato was the only non-attacker to receive the adidas Golden Boot.
On his return to Poland in 1974, he was applauded in all stages. Grzegorz Lato is no longer the player of the only Polish club he will know. He is the hero of a whole nation, as evidenced by his nickname: “the Poles’ favorite footballer”.
Did you know ?
- In just over a year from May 1974, the right winger scored 18 goals in 18 caps.
- At the age of 30, then authorized to leave Poland, Lato was invited by Pelé to join him at the New York Cosmos, a team including in its ranks the King himself, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, François Van der Elst and Giorgio Chinaglia. The Pole prefers to pursue his career in Belgium, Mexico and then Canada.
- Against Italy in Spain 1982, Lato became the most capped player in Poland (100), ahead of Kazimierz Deyna. He kept this record for 28 years before being surpassed by Michał Żewłakow, Jakub Błaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski.
- Lato has scored ten World Cup goals. Only seven players did better: Sándor Kocsis, Jürgen Klinsmann (11 each), Pelé (12), Just Fontaine (13), Gerd Müller (14), Ronaldo (15) and Miroslav Klose (16).
- Lato was president of the Polish Football Association (PZPN) for four years from 2008 until Poland co-hosted UEFA EURO 2012.