History beckons for Beenhakker
Wherever he coaches, Leo Beenhakker cannot help but get caught up in the excitement of the moment. He thrilled a nation by taking Trinidad and Tobago to their first FIFA World Cup in 2006, and two years on Poland are benefiting from the Dutchman's magic touch as they prepare for a first UEFA European Championship. The emergence of Beenhakker's side has captured the nation's attention and triggered a fresh wave of optimism, reflecting the feel-good factor resulting from Poland joining the European Union.
"Life in Poland is changing very quickly," Beenhakker told uefa.com. "The atmosphere surrounding football is incredible at the moment. For me, the job isn't only about being here and playing football. [Through the national team's exploits] Polish people are gaining a lot of self-confidence and self-respect. Once again, I find it amazing to see just how important football is in daily life and society. Everybody in Poland is excited we are representing the country at EURO 2008."
The present mood contrasts starkly with the negativity that surrounded the squad when Beenhakker took charge two years ago. After a disappointing World Cup in Germany, expectations had hit rock bottom ahead of the EURO qualifiers. "It was a big challenge," Beenhakker recalled. "The whole atmosphere around the national team was pretty bleak after the World Cup. The media were horrible and the fans had lost confidence. It was not easy trying to build something in those conditions."
Defeat at home by Finland in their opening match worsened Beenhakker's predicament. "Losing the first game wasn't good for morale or belief but we worked on it. The turning point came in November 2006 when we beat Portugal at home. It wasn't just that we'd beaten Portugal, but it was also the way we performed, playing at a very high level. From that moment people started to believe in the national team again."
At 65, Beenhakker is the third-oldest coach at this summer's finals, junior to both Luis Aragonés and Karel Brückner. He remembers well the exciting Poland sides of the 1970s and 1980s, when the likes of Wlódzimierz Lubanski and Zbigniew Boniek thrilled the country's fans. "Poland have a great history," said the former AFC Ajax boss. "We are working very hard to get back to that level. Given our results in qualification against strong nations like Serbia, Portugal and Finland, we have every right to go into the tournament with the same ambitions as the 15 other finalists."
Poland kick off with a daunting Group B fixture against Germany in Klagenfurt on 8 June before turning their attentions to Austria and Croatia, yet Beenhakker remains quietly confident. "We know we're in a tough group but we'll be looking to surprise our opponents," he said. "The opening match is always special and we're up against one of the best teams in the world, although Germany also know we'll be hard to beat. That's why football is so great – there are no guarantees. Being favourites doesn't mean you'll win all your games. We don't have star players but, as a team, we're very strong. We're mentally tough and well-organised, with everybody knowing their roles. We play as a real team and that's our strength."
Creating that bond between players has been Beenhakker's strength throughout a remarkable coaching career entering its fifth decade. "The main challenge for me is to bring together 20 to 23 players with different personalities and characteristics, to introduce them to a certain football culture and get them playing, living and working together in harmony. I'm talking about people management, about having the same goal and going for it. It always gives me a lot of satisfaction when we achieve this, and that's one of the main things we have done with the Poland team."
Beenhakker's life as a trainer began with Dutch club Go Ahead Eagles in 1967 and has taken him all over the world from Spain to Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago and now Poland. He has never outstayed his welcome, however, insisting that three years in one position should be the maximum. Yet he is prepared to make an exception for Poland. Having extended his contract until 2010, the possibility of Beenhakker remaining in the dugout when Poland co-host UEFA EURO 2012™ cannot be ruled out. "I hope I will still be here," he said. "Everybody is excited about EURO 2008, but this is not the end. It has to be the start of a new era in Polish football. This summer must be the first step. Then we will turn our focus to 2012. If we keep working, the future of Polish football could resemble the great times of the 1970s and 1980s."