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Poland Clinches Berth to World Cup Finals - 2002-05-08

Poland's football team took experts and fans by surprise when it became the first European team to clinch a berth in the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan. Now the team will be hungry for success in its first World Cup appearance in 16 years.

Poland is in Group D for first round play with Portugal, the United States and co-host South Korea. The team's excellent showing in qualifying has triggered talk about the renaissance of Polish soccer. Poland placed third at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups but has not been a contender since the mid-1980s.

International football commentator Derek Rae says Polish coach Jerzy Engle has put together a team that seems to know its strengths very well.

"They are very solid at the back. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek," he noted. " And then they made a discovery just ahead of the World Cup qualifiers by finding Emmanuel Olisadebe, a Nigerian who had a Polish passport. He managed to become a Polish citizen. And he gave them the pace and the daring up front that they have perhaps lacked in the past."

Olisadebe, the first-ever African-born player on the team, scored eight of Poland's 19 goals in World Cup qualifying, tying for third best in the European Football Union (UEFA). Rae adds that Poland has other experienced players, many of whom have played in Germany's Bundesliga.

The Polish team sometimes suffers from a lack of concentration in games against weaker opponents. That is not likely to be the case with first-round games against Portugal, South Korea and the USA. Jacek Gmoch, who coached Poland in the 1978 World Cup, says Group D is difficult, and it will be a success if the team advances.