Tragically cut short, the Insider looks back on the life of Kazimierz Deyna, a cultural icon whose importance to Poland transcended sport…
Pre-dating football’s glossy modern era, one player bossed the domestic spotlight like no other. Hailed as the nation’s first internationally recognized celebrity sportsman, such was Kazimierz Deyna’s stock that even Pele once remarked: “even God would not be able to improve him as a footballer.”
Born on October 23rd, 1947 in Starograd Gdański, Deyna appeared for his hometown club’s youth section before being snapped up by ŁKS Łódź in 1966. Playing just one match for them, he was then swiftly poached by Legia Warszawa – their outmaneuvering of ŁKS is to this day considered one of the greatest masterstrokes in Polish transfer history.
Under the guidance of Czech coach Jaroslav Vejvoda, by 1969 he had won his first domestic league and cup double, an accomplishment that he would repeat the following season. In all, he would score 141 goals for Legia in a 12-season career that saw him play 390 matches for the capital’s premier side.
Working as a club tour guide, longstanding supporter Piotr Wałecki describes him as a football genius: “even on a bad day, he had the ability to transform a game with one killer pass or an unusual shot. There would be times the crowd would get frustrated by him, only for Deyna to then hit some brilliant pass or conjure a goal out of thin air.”
Rated alongside Lucjan Brychczy as Legia’s greatest footballer, he was worshipped on the terraces and played a crucial role in the club’s European Cup run in 1969/70 – however, it wasn’t just his outrageous talent that endeared him to the public. With his snappy dress sense and fashionable haircut, his playboy spirit added a glamorous, cavalier twist to his character.
A regular at on-trend haunts such as Adria, Roxana and bar of the Hotel Europejski, some remember that Deyna would take hours ensuring he looked perfect before going out on the town. Amid the crushing daily reality of life under Communism, he was a dazzling comet.
Having once considered an alternative career as a ping pong player, Deyna’s impact on the game cannot be underestimated. Capped 97 times by Poland, he finished as top scorer at the 1972 Olympics before being part of the team that qualified for the 1974 World Cup after first keeping England to a draw at Wembley. Appearing as rank outsiders, the Poles shocked the global pundits after triumphing over Argentina, massacring Haiti 7-0, and then recording a stunning victory over Italy – in the latter match, Deyna’s goal was hit with such ferocity that he needed to replace his boots straight after.
Meeting West Germany in the semi-finals, Poland lost to the tournament hosts (and eventual winners) in what was to go down in history as ‘the water battle of Frankfurt’. Played in farcical conditions, Franz Beckenbauer later admitted that his side would not have stood a chance had they played Poland in normal weather.
Deyna’s international profile became such that Real Madrid reputedly sent him a shirt with his name on the back. AC Milan and Bayern Munich also hovered in the wings, as did AS Monaco who tracked his progress on the urging of Prince Rainier. However, all prospective moves were blocked by the Communist authorities, thereby depriving him the chance to shine on Europe’s biggest stages.
Considered one of the best players in the world during this era, this was undoubtedly a blow to a man who had rewritten history to become the first Pole to ranked in the Golden Ball Awards (he finished third in 1974 behind Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer).
In keeping with the rules of the time, players were blocked from leaving Poland until the age of 30. Eventually though, a transfer to Manchester City was sealed in 1978. Commanding a fee of GBP 100,000, the move was sweetened by a horde of Adidas tracksuits and an agreement for two friendlies to be played between Legia and City.
“It was a farewell performance,” says Piotr. “In the first half he played in the colors of Legia and scored. In the second, he swapped shirts to represent City – when he scored, I’ve never seen the crowd celebrate an opposition goal in quite the same way!”
Becoming the second Eastern European to play in England, he scored seven goals in City’s last eight games to save them from relegation; his cult status was cemented further when he was alongside Stallone and Caine in Escape To Victory.
Despite the adoration he received from the public, he found himself increasingly marginalized at Maine Road and moved to the San Diego Sockers. Unfortunately, despite enjoying much success on the pitch, by this time his problems with drinking had spiralled and these were further compounded by financial issues.
Ultimately, the player who gave such unbridled joy to millions would have his life tragically cut short after crashing his car into a parked truck on September 1st, 1989. He was just 41-years-old. After first being buried in San Diego, an urn containing Kazik’s ashes was flown back to Poland in 2012 and interred at Powązki’s Military Cemetery at a ceremony held on June 6th. Attended by former teammates and hundreds of fans, his return to Warsaw was made possible after Legia followers raised the required funds.
The passage of time has not softened the emotions he still evokes, and to this day it is impossible to visit Legia on matchday without spotting an array of banners and t-shirts honoring his legacy. Likewise, outside the stadium, the Deyna monument has come to be regarded as an iconic pre-match meeting point.