- 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 at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany ™, devant 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 the Poland’s surprise 3-2 victory over Argentina in his first match, Lato recovers the ball in his own half of the field, leaves two Brazilians in the background by making his speed speak and scores a sublime goal to give Poland a third place unlikely. 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, after entering during the game, in the triumph for Poland 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 bows 3-1 to the GDR despite a goal from Lato. The Malbork-born player shakes the nets twice at Argentine 1978, where Poland finished first in their group made up of defending champions FRG, before exiting in the second group stage. At the age of 32, Lato still shows himself impressive at Spain 1982 where Poland again finished third.
It is however for his performances in Germany 1974 that Lato is remembered. It was necessary to wait Korea / Japan 2002 to see another player score more than six goals in a World Cup: Ronaldo. Moreover, between Chili 1962 and South Africa 2010, Lato was the only non-forward 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”.