In many ways the story of Polish football begins and ends with Grzegorz Lato.

It was he who traversed the entire Golden Era that led to two World Cup semi-finals in ’74 and ’82, the first as a Golden Boot-winning rampaging winger, the latter in Spain as a bald veteran mentoring the exciting new talents that once again so nearly shook the globe.

In ’74 they began the tournament as Olympic champions and with a maelstrom of style and creativity immediately bewildered Argentina who found themselves two down inside the opening ten minutes. If the 3-2 victory over Kempes and co issued a statement of intent the 7-0 crushing of Haiti provided an exhibition of their sensational football. While Lato offered devastating pace and potency down the right their midfield was staffed with ingenuity and imagination with Deyna (later of Manchester City) in particular delighting all. They were a joy to watch.

A further big-name scalp in Italy followed until these relative unknowns – who only months earlier had denied England making the finals, with Clough displaying typical small islander ignorance by referring to their keeper Tomaszewski as a ‘clown’ – encountered cruel misfortune just one game from immortality. Facing the hosts West Germany in Frankfurt a heavily flooded pitch deprived them of their impish passing and movement. The record books state that the arch-poacher Gerd Muller finished off their dreams that July evening. In reality it was the German heavens opening.

The ’82 side contained a new jewel, Zbigniew Boniek – arguably the finest Pole to ever lace up a pair of boots – and in tandem with the aging but still dynamic Lato the Juventus maestro scintillated and dazzled destroying Belgium single-handedly in the second round with a hat-trick of glorious diversity. His opener was a screamer, his second a looping header, the third came from rounding the keeper following an artful throughball from Lato himself. If that was a demonstration of individual genius the 5-1 demolition of Peru in the preceding qualifying group fully illustrated how complete this Polish side was. Five different scorers from a team sprinkled with old stagers from eight years hence – Szarmach, Kusto, Zmuda – perfectly blended with the new crop of adventurous youth.

Ultimately they succumbed to eventual champions Italy and though it was cruel to again depart just 90 minutes from potential glory and though Poland have never since been blessed with such abundance of magical talents in the much greater scheme of things this proved not to matter. For a beleaguered and impoverished nation football had already played its part. Now it was the time for social change.

The power football holds upon the masses and its ability to influence genuine sociocultural development should never be under-estimated. It has inspired revolutions and toppled regimes, given hope and pride to those in desperate need of both and symbolised a new-found identity in nations without.

Whilst Poland’s Golden Era did not directly ignite the Solidarity movement that brought an end to repression and misery as a post-Soviet state the contrast between life for the Polish people throughout the 1970s – an eternal flux of economic crisis, strikes and riots – and possessing a national team marvelled at by the wider world cannot be ignored. Deyna, Lato, Szarmach and Boniek offered the country hope and esteem and most importantly illustrated fully that it was capable of achieving almost anything.

The anything in question occurred at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in the summer of 1980 as political activist Lech Walesa instigated a strike following yet another hike in food prices. It soon prompted further industrial action, first in Gdansk and then across the country. There had been many similar protests before and all had been brutally suppressed. This one grew. It spread to such numbers and scale that eventually the Communist government had little choice but to – very reluctantly – sign an accord granting the shipyard workers the right to form their own independent trade union.

However, things got an awful lot worse before it got an awful lot better.

On October 1982 the Solidarity Free Trade Union was outlawed and Walesa and many other leading figures were imprisoned, Walesa for eleven months. In an attempt to crush all opposition martial law was imposed by the authoritarian regime drastically restricting normal life for the countries’ citizens.

Zbigniew 'Zibi' 'Bello di notte' Boniek

While Poland’s most influential and inspiring figure brooded in a cramped cell it’s second had moved from Widzew Lodz to the Old Lady of Turin. There Boniek lit up Europe with his independence of mind and vision, gaining the nickname ‘Bello di notte’ (‘Beauty at night’) for his habit of turning on the magic during evening games and forming a phenomenal three-pronged attack with Platini and Rossi. The triumvirate were unstoppable and quickly stacked up plaudits and silverware.

So far, so polarised; football contrasting starkly with the harsh realities of real life. But there is a coincidental parallel to be found in Zibi’s birth. Boniek was born in March 1956, a week before the death of Boleslaw Beirut the hard-line Communist leader whose death beckoned in a sea-change in the Polish public who had quite simply had enough. That summer came the Poznan 1956 protest as workers demanded better conditions – a photograph from the time has a man angrily holding aloft a placard simply stating ‘We demand bread’. The protests were met with violent repression which set the tone for the decades to come. As Zibi no doubt screamed in his cot voices around him were, for the first time, also being raised.

In 1988 after seven years of underground activism, waves of worker’s strikes, street demonstrations and political manoeuvring during which Welesa was bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize (he was unable to attend the ceremony fearing that he wouldn’t be allowed back into Poland) the communist government were finally forced to cede to ‘semi-free’ elections to the Polish parliament. The following June the Solidarity Citizen’s Committee was voted en masse into power.

Welesa, who was an electrician not a politician, who just happened to also be an extraordinary man who became a figurehead for change, formed a coalition government, the first non-communist government in the Eastern Bloc.

Six months later the Eastern Bloc, as the world knew it, was no more. The Berlin Wall crumbled and the German heavens opened. The rest, as they say, is history.

So what of Lato, the magnificently gifted, lightning quick winger who had given Poland such self-worth through this turbulent era? After seeing out his career in Canada he too entered the political arena becoming a senator for the Democratic Left Alliance. The parties’ ideologies promote social liberalism and democracy. They fight for worker’s rights.

In 2008 the man who won 104 caps for his country was elected President of the Polish FA and I would love to end this piece here. It would be fitting and rather beautiful for the footballer who represented freedom to millions without it to reach such a symbolic position.

But alas power has the nasty habit of corrupting and his reign as head of the PZPN has been stained with controversy and accusations of bribery and corruption.

His once great legacy has been forever besmirched with some dissenters even comparing him to the communist dictators that for so long ruled with an iron fist. Poland have seen enough tyranny to last several lifetimes and deserve infinitely better.

In many ways the story of Polish football begins and ends with Grzegorz Lato. In other ways let us hope not.