The man they call Kuba is on brink of becoming national hero for Poland
PARIS -- A historic 2-0 win over Germany in September 2014, courtesy of strikes from Arkadiusz Milik and Sebastian Mila, laid the groundwork for Poland's successful Euro qualifier campaign. But the most important goal of the Bialo-Czerwoni (Red and Whites) in the run-up to the tournament was arguably scored in a friendly three months ago, even if few people could have realised it at the time. Jakub Blaszczykowski's 16-metre volley against Serbia in March didn't just decide the game in Poznan in favour of the home side, but it also won its scorer a place in the squad for France.
"He's really taken his chance," said Poland national team manager Adam Nawalka. "We are banking on his experience and class."
Truth be told, until that game it had looked as if Poland might well bank on somebody else on the right side of midfield at the Euros. Liverpool FC target Piotr Zielinski (FC Empoli) and Karol Linetty of Lech Poznan were ahead of Blaszczykowski in the pecking order; a dismal, injury-plagued campaign at Fiorentina had reduced the 30-year-old "Kuba," as everybody calls him, to the status of a fringe player.
In 2014, he had already lost his captaincy to former BVB teammate Robert Lewandowski. Two years later, his time in the national side seemed to have come to an end altogether.
Nawalka's decision to include the veteran has since been vindicated in spectacular fashion, however. Blaszczykowski has unexpectedly emerged as his country's most effective player at the competition, scoring a goal each to help Poland to wins over Ukraine and Switzerland, while the acclaimed goal machine Lewandowski (51 for Bayern Munich and Poland in 2015-16) has so far toiled unsuccessfully up front.
"Some had already declared his career in the national team over. Kuba showed them all," Poland and Dortmund right-back Lukasz Piszczek told Kicker magazine.
For the deposed captain Blaszczykowski, it must feel like sweet revenge: his exploits in France have largely been overshadowed by those of his successor, a player he has long considered a rival rather than a friend.
"It's no secret that we are not on the same wavelength," Kuba wrote about Lewandowski in his autobiography last year. "There is no contact; each of us goes their own way."
Blaszczykowski undoubtedly enjoys his change of fortune, but he is not the type to hog the limelight. "I'm not the star of the team," he told reporters with characteristic modesty ahead of the quarterfinal against Portugal on Thursday. "I [only] fight for my dreams."
Thanks to his sharpness in the box -- he's been responsible for two out of the three goals the not exactly prolific Poles have netted at the Euros -- the whole nation can allow itself to dream big. The Portugal matchup amounts to a "historic chance," Blaszczykowski pointed out, an opportunity to reach the semifinals of a major competition for the first time since 1982, the dusk of the golden age of Polish football.
A place in the record books is not the only thing at stake for him, however. Fiorentina have decided they won't take up an €6m option to make his one-year loan from Dortmund permanent this summer. "He doesn't have a future there," his agent, Wolfgang Voge, confirmed. Kuba scored as many goals this June as he did for a whole underwhelming campaign for the Viola with only nine starts.
Whether Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel will welcome the player's return -- he's still under contract at the Signal Iduna Park until 2018 -- is far from certain, too. In an interview with spox.com after his departure to Serie A, Blaszczykowski refused to expand on the exact reasons Tuchel decided to let him go ("these things happen in football") and hinted that he felt he hadn't been given a proper opportunity to prove himself after recovering from muscle complaints in preseason.
"We will evaluate the situation and discuss things with the player after this campaign is over," Tuchel told reporters in Germany in May.
BVB scouts have apparently watched him in Italy, in anticipation of a possible return. The signing of teenage talents Ousmane Dembele (Rennes) and Emre Mor (Nordsjaelland) suggests the Bundesliga runners-up might well have other plans.
Whereas Kuba's outlook beyond France is clouded, the Thursday night sky in Marseille sparkles with opportunity. One more winning goal will elevate Blaszczykowski to national hero status. And maybe Lewandowski might even celebrate with him this time.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.