Football runs in many families, that’s for sure, with children picking up exactly where their fathers left off in a plethora of cases. But what happens when the kid beats the parent and writes a piece of history for his country?
This is certainly true for Wojciech Szczesny, Poland’s goalkeeper, who became only the second goalkeeper in history to stop two non-shootout penalties at one edition of the FIFA World Cup, after USA’s Brad Friedel in 2002.
Born in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, Wojciech is the son of another excellent goalkeeper, Maciej Szczesny, who is the only player to have won the Polish title five times with four different clubs – Legia Warsaw, Widzew Lodz, Polonia Warsaw and Wisla Krakow.
His older brother, Jan, born four years before Wojciech, also became a goalkeeper. Therefore, it was only apt that with all those models in the family, the younger brother was going to take up football. And what position would have been better than the goalkeeping one?
His down to earth attitude irked many, especially as his ascension to greatness and becoming one of the top shot stoppers in the world was not easy. But does Szczesny enjoy football?
“Football is something I enjoy doing, something I’m well-paid to do and obviously that’s a great privilege but I’m just trying to be happy and if there’s an opportunity to do something fun then I’ll just do it. I don’t hold back, I just want to be a regular guy,” said Poland’s goalkeeper in an interview for “The Independent”.
However, he never played for a Polish team in his life. Already earmarked as an excellent prospect since he was a kid, with a family background that really made him the top of the crop, Szczesny only featured for Agrykola Warsaw and Polish giants Legia Warsaw until he was 16 years old.
Arsenal, back then a true powerhouse in England, scouted him and signed him up in 2006, making his full debut three years later, when he was still a teenager. Within months of his signing, Arsene Wenger, the legendary Arsenal manager was touting Szczesny as the future Arsenal goalkeeper.
But then disaster struck. In 2008, in a freak gym accident, Szczesny lost his balance and felt the bar crash down onto his forearms. The verdict? Both were fractured. “You could see my initials … W here and S there. Put it this way, my arms weren’t straight anymore,” said Szczesny for “The Guardian”.
With metal plates inserted in each arm, Szczesny had a five-month rehab period. “I say that one is from the war and the other is from a shark bite. I have always said that to be diving around for two hours every day and to get hit and to be in pain every day, you have to be a little bit mad. That is what we do, so we are crazy,” added the goalkeeper.
However, upon returning, he became the first choice at Arsenal, after a one-year loan spent at Brentford in League One, the third level of the English football pyramid. Yet it was not plain sailing for the Polish goalkeeper. His mistakes cost Arsenal a lot. And between 2015 and 2017, he was loaned to Roma, in the Serie A.
After Wenger left Arsenal, Szczesny did not return and signed for Juventus, where he became Gigi Buffon’s understudy. But with Buffon’s level dropping, Szczesny became the first-choice goalkeeper for the Italian powerhouse, where he has already played 190 times, eyeing the 200-appearance mark this season.
Yet he was always the first choice for Poland, despite fierce competition for Lukasz Fabianski, another great goalkeeper, who features regularly in the Premier League, now for West Ham United.
Since 2009, but especially in the last years, Szczesny has been the go-to goalkeeper for the Poland coaches, amassing 68 games. And he has surely become one of the best penalty specialists in the world, saving 26 penalties in his career from the 87 he faced for club and country.
That means an outstanding 29.8% of saves with players like Lionel Messi, Gerard Moreno, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile, Neymar, or Gonzalo Higuain having penalties stopped by Szczesny.
At Qatar 2022, he stopped two penalties in two consecutive matches, first denying Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al-Dawsari, before handing Poland a lifeline by blocking Lionel Messi’s shot against Argentina.
It proved to be decisive, as Poland progressed to the Round of 16 even with a 0-2 loss against Argentina, boasting a better goal difference than Mexico, whom Poland was tied on points with.
“We goalkeepers can’t score goals, so saving a penalty in a World Cup is the most we can do. At Juventus we have developed a method of analyzing the penalty takers. In the last two years we have saved the same number of penalties as we have conceded,” said Szczesny after his antics.
Surely, he will need more of that in the match against France, which could make or break Poland’s journey at Qatar 2022. Facing Kylian Mbappe will be another huge task, but the French star has missed a penalty against Switzerland at the UEFA EURO 2020. If Szczesny saves another, then he will surely write another page of history at the FIFA World Cup.