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Emigration experiences of Zbigniew Boniek

Zbigniew Boniek.

What do you do?

I’m the President of the Polish Football Association, I operate several private businesses.

What is your current place of residence?

Today – Warsaw, Poland.

Was leaving Poland an opportunity or necessity?

Neither an opportunity, nor a necessity, it was simply progressing in my chosen occupation. I was a football player.

What were the reasons for your leaving Poland for Italy?

Well, my reasons, I would think, were clear enough. I had a job, I was a football player, and I signed the contract with an Italian football club, Juventus.

How did it feel for a young guy from beyond the Iron Curtain place third in the contest for the best European player of 1982?

Honestly? Not that good, because I thought I should’ve been first in that year, ‘cause I think I didn’t have a team at my back like Paolo Rossi did, and we ranked third, I think I’m a better player than Paolo, for the six months I was with Juventus, between June to December, between the three of us: myself, Paolo Rossi and Michel Platini, I’m sure I was in best form, I scored the most goals, and at the same time I realised I didn’t have the backing that Polish sportsmen have today.

How were you accepted by the local community?

The community accepted me well enough, because we played at the best football club in Europe, back then there were maybe two foreigners on the team, Juventus decided to sign me and Michel Platini up, so you could say they aimed very high, so there were absolutely no problems with acclimatisation, it wasn’t hard for a simple reason – we had a defined value as sportsmen and we didn’t have to worry too much about a place on the team. We were like an additional value for the team, so everyone looked at us positively.

What did you encounter in Italy that you wouldn’t in Poland?

Oh God, hard to say, when I went to Italy I had a family, we’re all still together, we’re good, we stick together, this family of ours, so to say, is very close-knit, I don’t know. Life is different in Italy, since climate determines people’s attitudes, right, Poland is cold for five months, everyone’s hunched over and run, don’t want to go outside because it’s cold, because it’s frosty, because it’s snowing, because it’s negative twenty, everyone’s in a hurry. In Italy, particularly where I live, winters are always pleasant, agreeable, people are smiling, the climate is very nice. A little less stress, I don’t know, I need to say that I often see in Poland these stereotypes, I’m seen as a person prone to conflict, in Italy no one ever talks about me like that. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I don’t feel like an emigrant when I’m in Italy, I feel at home, knowing that my little heart and my colours are white and red.

What did you encounter in Italy that you wouldn’t in Poland?

Surely, the difference in the quality of life was there once, and surely for the middle class it’s still there. And I was a man who has played with the National Team for many years, I played in European championships with my club, I went to school, so that I knew about the nuances and principles, and differences between the West and us, i.e. our reality, I have to say that it was surely much more comfortable and easy, since mainly my social standing in Italy was very high, because a Juventus player means a high social standard, but I wasn’t surprised much by anything.

What would you say to young people who want to leave?

Each person is an architect of their own fortune and needs to think about this for themselves.

What did you dream about when you returned to Poland?

I’ve never felt that I’m somewhere far from Poland and neither returning, nor leaving Poland was a dream or suffering.

What Polish tastes, smells did you miss?

Freshly brined cucumbers, dill, many other things, but you can get used to anything.

What barriers did you encounter as an emigrant?

What really agitated me in the beginning, was that every time I had to go for any sort of match with Juventus, or with the National Team, and there was a lot of those, I had to go by myself, in the case of the National Team, get into my car, go to Milan and hang around consulates and get a visa for that match. Poland played somewhere, so I had to get a visa myself. And it took me a lot of time, since that system was different from what we have today. The Internet didn’t exist, no emails, you had to print it out, go there, fill it out by hand, go back in three days, bring a picture, there were a lot of logistical problems, because I thought that having a Polish passport didn’t allow me to do the same things the Italians could, it was very irritating, because I could never understand the reason.

Why did you decide to stay in Rome after finishing your career?

I mean, the reasons were very, very normal, objective, I was in Italy for almost six years, got married very early, we had... Karolina gave birth when we were both twenty one, me and my wife, so when I was finishing playing, she was in her fifth year of high school. It’s hard to deny that I earned quite a bit of money, and I have to say that coming to Poland was risky for me back then, that I had to secure my family’s livelihood, these weren’t the most important times. We agreed that for two, three years I’ll have a look, and we’ll decide later.
M: What did you miss when you were abroad? Did you miss Poland?

Zbigniew Boniek: I mean, It’s hard to say. I think that I was mentally prepared to play football for the best club or want it to be the best club, because I had a part in that, and sometimes to these Polish things... sometimes a good dinner at home, well I visited my mom every Sunday, and we had duck, blood soup, chicken soup and so on. Abandoning all that was my every day.

Was your road to success a result of hard work, fortitude, or luck?

Only those with enough fortitude and an affinity for hard work are lucky, because when you see luck, why someone’s lucky. Because luck is always, so to say, a sum of something, it’s not an accident, but... of course you can have nothing and suddenly win the lottery, sure, but it’s something more than luck, because there is this beautiful word for it, I won’t say it, if we translate it, it won’t be suitable for publication, and I think that if a person achieved something in their life it’s always a sum of parts, preparation, fortitude, stubbornness, skills, talents, intelligence, thoughts and so on. It’s not... luck helps those who earned it. Especially in sports.

How did you contact your family and friends who stayed back in Poland?

You could write a book about it, since sometimes it was like I wanted to talk with my parents, so I ordered the call and the operator lady says that the call will go through in two [translator’s note: missing word, most probably “days”] at 4:25 am. And that’s how it was. Same thing happened with the Polish Football Association, it was usually that someone from the association would call me, often it was the Secretary General who told me “Zbyszek, we have a match in Moscow in three weeks”. And I had to worry how to get to Moscow, to get transportation, visa, and so on. At the beginning it was... very difficult to make contact, but as they say, I was prepared for that, later, oftentimes, once a year, my parents and other family members visited me for summer holidays.

Do you remember any anecdotes connected with emigration?

One time I went, after my first year with Juventus, to... I went to, where was that... to Mauritius to have a vacation with my wife, to a very beautiful, cool town, very good hotel, and so, after five, six days, I got the urge to train a bit, and I started to run for like twenty or thirty minutes a day, but found a stadium close by, three kilometres, of course deep poverty, someone played football there, I don’t know if it was their league or not, and one time, I was running, I walked up to them and asked “Puis-je jouer avec vous?”, could I play with them, and so on. With my crappy French. Although I did learn it at school. They watched me with disapproval, no, there is no possibility. And so I kept running and then they had this internal game, two times for 15 minutes and they were one guy short, so they told me “Oi, come here and play with us”. I began to play with them and after 15 minutes a white Mercedes pulled up and it was the owner of the team who wanted to sign me up on the spot. I told him that I was a cook at this resort where we were staying, he bought it, it was funny, and in the evening, he learned the truth of who I was. It ended with good champagne and good fun, I have to say, great fun.

What should the people emigrating from the country remember?

That they are representing their country of origin in the West, that’s most important.

Emigration experiences of Zbigniew Boniek
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Zbigniew Boniek, fot. Andrzej Iwańczuk/Reporter
Zbigniew Boniek photography by Andrzej Iwańczuk/Reporter

Zbigniew Boniek was born on 3rd March 1956 in Bydgoszcz.

He began his football career at the Zawisza Bydgoszcz club. After that he played with Widzew Łódź. With Boniek the team won the Polish Football Championships twice. He was also the captain of the Polish national team.

Due to great successes at the Polish Cup, the World Cup and excellent technique, in 1982 Boniek joined Juventus Turin and emigrated to Italy. With Juventus he won the Europe Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. In 1985 he was transferred to AC Roma. He was chosen the best athlete in many plebiscites. After retirement as a footballer he worked as a coach.

In 2002 he was the selector of the Polish national team. According to a ranking made by FIFA he is one of the top 100 footballers in the history of world football.
For his efforts he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta and the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Today Zbigniew Boniek lives in Warsaw and since 2012 he has been the chairman of the Polish Football Association.