On 7 November 2016, the Polish Permanent Representation to the EU hosted a debate with retired footballer Wlodzimierz Lubanski and former player and coach of handball, MEP Bogdan Wenta about sport as a tool for social integration, moderated by famous commentator Dariusz Szpakowski.
Nostalgic about his glorious stint at Gornik Zabrze between 1963 and 1975, Wlodzimierz Lubanski spoke of the thrill of scoring a last minute goal, especially his famous left-footed strike in the 90th minute against AS Roma. A player of great stature, Lubanski was unable to complete a 1 million dollar transfer to Real Madrid due to iron curtain politics restricting the movement of individuals across Europe and the Polish authorities therefore refusing to allow the move to occur. Lubanski is still the top goal scorer of Polish football history, two goals ahead of today’s superstar Robert Lewandowski.
Lubanski recalled the ease with which he was able to integrate the Polish national team at the age of just 16 years old. He explained that the age barrier between him and older players was easily overcome because of how football provides a platform where abilities count first and foremost, and are therefore the only criteria that matter when playing. Lubanski then went on to score in his very first game for Poland, proving this point and obliterating any barrier that would prevent him from feeling at ease in a social environment dominated by footballers much older than him.
Referring to his transfer to Belgian team Lokeren in 1975, Lubanski detailed his struggled to integrate within the Belgian club. He suffered from the language and culture barriers in Belgium. Four months after joining, the Polish striker even decided that he had had enough and wanted to go back to Poland, but the praise he received after scoring a goal against Beweren was the catalyst in him finally refusing to leave. Thanks to this achievement, Lubanski gained respect from – and thus made friends with – the local population. Learning the language was also effective in making him feel more integrated.
‘In a way I was a migrant: in the morning I was on the court, but in the afternoon I felt shut out, living as a Pole in a Spanish neighbourhood’ – B. Wenta
Bodgan Wenta’s adventures abroad and experience with integration were less successful than Lubanski’s. The former handball player and coach was faced with problems when he moved to Spain to play handball for FC Barcelona between 1992 and 1995. In his opinion, ‘in a way [he] was a migrant: in the morning he was on the court, but in the afternoon [he] felt shut out, living as a Pole in a Spanish neighbourhood.’
Examining examples of players who faced challenges to integrate within a football team – whether this was due to the median age of the team being far above that of the player’s or whether this ensued from a player’s transfer to a team abroad – opens an interesting discussion on sport’s potential to overcome these issues. Using sport as a common ground where age and language do not matter is a powerful tool. However, integrating a sportsman – such as Bogdan Wenta – suffering from exclusion within a homogeneous local neighbourhood is a more complex issue, unless admirable achievements on the pitch lead to admiration from the locals, as in Lubanski’s case.