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The boy with the golden heart: Zielinski comes of age at Qatar 2022

With Robert Lewandowski leading the line, Poland was always going to return strong in the highest echelons of football and they have truly rode their luck with Barcelona’s striker in the past decade. However, Lewandowski himself cannot do everything on the pitch for Poland, as every player needs a supporting cast to help.

Enter Piotr Zielinski, a hard-working midfielder, earmarked as a generational talent even when he was a youngster, being snatched when he was only 17 years old by Udinese, a team with a remarkable scouting network. In fact, in his professional career, Zielinski has only played for three teams – Udinese, Empoli and Napoli – all in Italy and became an integrant part of Poland’s success at the national team level.

His career really took off after Napoli paid $16 million in 2016, becoming one of the longest-tenured player for the Napoletans, and one that has piqued the interest of powerhouses like Liverpool. “He will become the best midfielder in the world,” said Maurizio Sarri, Napoli’s coach, when Zielinski signed for the club. His prophecy might have fell on deaf ears back then, but the Polish midfielder is surely an excellent player now.

His last goal for Poland came at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, in a do-or-die match against Saudi Arabia, the win being crucial for the European side’s expectations in the tournament. It was a dream come true for Zielinski, who broke his duck at a major competition, six years removed after playing only 45 minutes for his national team at the UEFA EURO 2016.

However, Zielinski is not adored in Poland only for the work he puts in on the pitch – and he definitely leaves his heart and soul there time and time again – but also off the pitch, where he joined his family’s efforts to help underprivileged children. He runs two orphanages, named “Peter Pan”, after the famous character in the comics, an apt name, as Piotr is Polish for Peter.

His parents, Boguslaw and his wife Beata, opened a foster home, and as well as their own three sons – Piotr, Pawel and Tomek – the couple took in four other children. According to Zielinski himself, he felt a bit threatened and marked his possessions, “Piotr’s bed”, “Piotr’s desk”, “Piotr’s wardrobe”.

Eventually, he warmed up to the idea and even started playing football with the children before moving to Italy, in a life-defining decision that worked out superbly for Zielinski.

But he did not forget about his family and especially the children that were helped in the hardest of times. He bought and renovated two buildings in his hometown of Ząbkowice (Lower Silesia) to turn them into orphanages under his “Peter Pan” foundation.

“We want to provide psychological and organizational support not only to [the children in need] but also to their families, regardless of whether they have been affected by disease, poverty or crisis in their relations with the social environment.”

“We believe that emotional and substantive support will allow them to survive a hard time, take advantage of difficult experiences, and cope better in life. We believe that by building a network of volunteers, we will be able to maintain and multiply the aid provided,” – the foundation further explains.

The foundation’s two homes are run and supervised by Zielinski’s parents, and the player himself visits them whenever he has the time, spending time with the children there.

“He came out with the initiative, he’s a golden boy. If he returns to Poland he visits the kids, plays football with them. He also gives away electronic equipment that he does not use: a laptop, a game console or a tablet. At the holy communion of one of the charges, no one from the family appeared. Piotr came from Italy to please the boy. This is what he is,” Zielinski’s father Boguslaw Zielinski told The Guardian.

Now, at 28 years old, Zielinski is an accomplished man both on and off the pitch. The midfielder needs only five more games at Napoli to enter the top 10 players with the most appearances for the club, after having already featured 302 times.

For Poland, he is a diamond in the rough, a player that nobody believes could be displaced from the starting eleven. And now, after some rough games in major tournaments, Zielinski has his goal at the World Cup.

Qatar 2022 might just be the tournament where Zielinski finally cements the reputation that precedes him.

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