For many students of the world game the emergence of Poland as a major international and significant club force was a 1970s phenomena.
The generation of Lubanski, Lato, Gadocha, Deyna et al which made such an impression at successive World Cups between 1974 and 1982 is deserving of all the attention heaped upon it, but this does have the consequence of what went before in the Polish game – decades of fantastically rich history – being somewhat overlooked.
For as long as the game was played within the country’s ever fluctuating borders, many fine footballers wore its colours and impressed with their talent. One such player was a left-sided forward named Ernst Otton Wilimowski who was one of the finest goal-getters in Europe during the 1930s – and ultimately one of the most divisive players in Polish history.
Born in the disputed city of Katowice to German parents in 1916, his father was killed in the trenches during the First World War and Ernst was later adopted by his Polish stepfather at the age of 13. The young Wilimowski showed great aptitude for the game from an early age and word of his pace and sublime dribbling skills spread quickly.
The physical oddity that saw him born with six toes on his right foot proved no impediment to his budding football career and the young forward joined Silesian giants Ruch Chorzow in 1934.
The five years he spent in Chorzow would be enormously successful individually and for his new club. Ruch won Polish championships in 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938 and Wilimowski’s goals – three times he was the League’s top scorer – were invaluable in these triumphs. One particular record the forward set which will likely never be bettered was the 10 goal spree he enjoyed during a single 1939 fixture which his club won 12-1 against Union Touring Lodz.
His international career brought just as prolific a return with 21 goals from 25 international appearances between 1934 and 1939. Wilimowski’s dazzling dribbling tore apart Brazil during their 1938 World Cup match in what would be remembered as the most famous game of his career.
He individually scored four goals and was also fouled for a penalty that was converted for Poland’s fifth in extra time by team mate Scherfke. Alas, Brazil were no slouches in front of goal themselves and won the game 6-5 despite Wilimowski’s heroics.
Another fine international performance in 1939 would be his last. Poland trailed Hungary 2-0 in a friendly until a hat-trick by their star forward turned around the match. A fourth was added late on when Wilimowski, who else, was fouled in the box and the penalty was duly converted.
When war broke out and Poland was invaded, Wilimowski was automatically granted German citizenship because of his parentage and he went on to play on eight occasions for the German national team, never on the losing side. A different team in different circumstances, yet 13 goals flowed from those eight fixtures including a hat-trick against Finland and four in a 5-3 win over Switzerland.
Acknowledgement back in his former Silesian home for these scoring achievements was deafeningly silent. Although Wilimowski self-identified as a German, his ready acceptance of a call up for the Greater Germany side caused much anger in his native Poland and turned him into pariah among those who had once cheered his fabulous striking talent.
At club level he turned out for a multitude of different German-originated teams during and in the immediate years following the war: Chemnitz, Chemnitz-West, Hameln 07, BC Augsburg, FV Offenburg, Singen 04, VfR Kaiserslautern, a Parisien Army team, Karlsruhe FV, Merseburg, Babelsberg, and Detmold.
His most notable success came playing as part of an 1860 Munich team that defeated Schalke to become German champions in 1942.
Ernst Wilimowski finally retired from playing in 1959 at the grand old age of 43 having scored 554 official career goals and twice that number when counting friendly and other unofficial games. He lived out his life in West Germany as a publican in Offenburg and died in 1997 at the age of 81.
Happily he passed with proper recognition of the great he was with the Poland Communist regime having rehabilitated his reputation and re-instated his pre-war records during the 1970s – just as that famous golden generation of the Polish game was approaching its own heyday.