Polonia’s Biggest Fan

Written by Ian Thomson

On the eve of Euro 2012’s opening ceremony at Poland’s National Stadium in Warsaw, The Soccer Observer takes a trip back to the fall of 2009 in New York City and recounts the story of Henryk Kuszczak, Polonia’s biggest fan.

On a clear, crisp November night at the Metropolitan Oval in Maspeth, Queens, Polonia NY Soccer Club are looking for their first win of the Cosmopolitan Soccer League season at the eighth attempt. Henryk sits away from the cluster of wives and girlfriends huddled under blankets along two rows of aluminium bench seats, and away from the chirpy group of high-spirited guys revelling in singsong as they crack open bottles of Polish beer.

The game starts. Henryk stands up to don his jacket and game face—a picture of deep concentration.

“Okay, now I don’t exist,” he says, signalling an end to all communication with those closest by as he channels his attention to the field.

Henryk, 61, is Polonia’s most passionate fan. Never married, he dotes on his true love every Sunday, following the team from the suburban fields of New Jersey to the high school pitches of Long Island. The object of his obsession is no mega-franchise with superstar players to idolize. This is amateur soccer, where players play for kicks and to stave off beer-bellies. But to Henryk, the fortunes of this band of construction workers and students are as significant as those of the Polish national team. He stalks the sidelines, studying every movement, berating every managerial decision, and relieving the stresses of his working week as a limousine driver stuck in city traffic. His love isn’t always requited. Sports teams can be the cruellest of lovers, but Henryk is too smitten ever to leave.

Soccer’s surprisingly long history in the U.S. is exemplified by the Cosmopolitan Soccer League, which was founded in 1923 by German immigrants. The standard of play rose dramatically after World War II when thousands of people, professional soccer players among them, fled westward from the communist regimes being imposed on Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. Polonia were founded in 1963 to represent the Polish community in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. They remain a popular source of pride for the locals, fuelled by newer generations of players and fans, like Henryk, who left their homeland and hometown teams over the last three decades.

Twenty uneventful minutes pass as Polonia and their opponents, Central Park Rangers, struggle to keep possession of the ball. “I need to walk around,” says Henryk to an onlooker. “Usually when I move to the goal, they score. Just watch.”

As if magnetized, Polonia go on the offensive, following Henryk up the field. Defender Lukasz Bielen lashes a shot into the roof of the net—a goal fit to grace any professional game. On the sideline, Henryk thrusts his arms skywards in celebration.

“What did I say?” shouts Henryk gleefully to the disbelieving fans he left in the temporary bleachers. He jigs on to the field with clenched fists held aloft, seemingly running to embrace the players before restraint sets in. “I told you, I told you,” he shouts to the amusement of the Polish supporters.

Watching Henryk in full flow, Szymon Hryszczyk, Polonia’s scheming playmaker, smiles and shakes his head. “He’s at every event,” Hryszczyk said later. “He’s that passionate about it. He’s a pain in the ass! But everyone really respects him.”

So much so that last July, at an invitational tournament for Polish soccer teams from across North America, the players presented Henryk with a red Polonia shirt with  his name printed on the back above the number “1.” He wore it proudly throughout the event as he helped the organizers by maintaining the scores from all the games.

Polonia (in black) in action against Central Park Rangers at the Metropolitan Oval in November 2009. Manhattan's lights loom in the distance (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Henryk returns from behind the goal at half-time to socialize with the rest of the Polonia fans. He steals kisses from the ladies and talks soccer with the gents. Be it Polonia or the Polish national team, he recalls the minutiae of every game with exacting accuracy. Of Poland’s showing in the 1974 World Cup, he says: “We beat Argentina 3-2. We beat Haiti 7-0, and then we beat Italy 2-1. You know who scored for Italy? The England manager. Capello. 85 minutes.” The official website of soccer’s governing body bears out his claim, but Henryk has no access to the Internet. He doesn’t need it. His brain is a worldwide web of soccer trivia.

The second half starts with Polonia leading 1-0 and Henryk’s nerves are fraying. Polonia were one of the league’s leading teams for years, but no more. The Greeks and Croatians are on top this season while Polonia and Stal Mielec, the 12-team league’s other Polish community team, prop up the standings. Polonia’s general manager and head coach both resigned two games into the season—the reasons depend on who is asked—and the team’s results have been so disappointing ever since that relegation to the second tier is looming. A win is crucial as they trail Manhattan Kickers, the next-to-last team, by five points.

Another Polonia attack breaks down. “Idiot,” screams Henryk to a player thankfully too distant to hear him as he leaps up to stand on the benches. “Why did you run there? You need to run this way!”

His arms whirl as if he is directing planes toward airport gates as he edges closer to Polonia’s management team until he is standing smack between the president and head coach. They do their best not to notice, eyes fixated on the field before them.

Polonia concede an equalizing goal with 15 minutes remaining, but five minutes later they earn a penalty kick and a chance to reclaim the lead. Hryszczyk scores and bedlam ensues among the 50 or so Polonia fans. Some cheer, some bang their feet on the benches, some break out into an impromptu Polish soccer chant, and a few exuberant ones charge over the sideline to hug the players. One observer is surprisingly unmoved—Henryk. He is too busy analyzing the referee’s decision.

He replays the build-up to the critical moment in his head, then he explains the key factors to those around him—the position of the defender making the tackle, the direction that the ball travelled in, the referee’s view of the incident. “Do you think it was a penalty kick?” he asks another fan, seemingly unaware of the mayhem as he stores away the call for a future conversation. Maybe in 10 days, maybe in 10 years, he will deliver a blow-by-blow account of every move.

“I was there. I saw it,” he will say, as he so often does.

The game ticks into the final minutes. “Koncentrat! Koncentrat!” scowls Henryk, marauding along the sideline as Polonia fight off some late pressure before Hryszczyk steals away on a last-minute counter-attack to score again. Polonia win 3-1. The players mob their diminutive game-winner, while Henryk hurls his arms around anyone who crosses his path. For the first time this season, the players and a handful of hardcore fans, including Henryk, will return to the team’s clubhouse for a celebratory drink.

Henryk runs through previous Polonia line-ups adorning the walls of the team's clubhouse (Photo: Ian Thomson)

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Henryk’s love for soccer began when he was growing up in Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city. With a resigned shrug of his shoulders, he recalls the moment in his teens when a “Commie doctor” told him he had flat feet and had to stop playing. He didn’t dwell on not being able to compete, instead choosing to accompany friends at games involving Slask Wroclaw, the local professional team. Seeing many of his heroes playing in what was a golden age for Polish soccer stirred his passion for the sport.

He worked in construction and various other jobs throughout the 1970s until 1981 when his boss, a Communist Party member, hinted that the party planned to declare martial law to crack down on political opposition from the Solidarity movement. Henryk, then 33, skipped to Austria three months before the borders were shuttered.

He left his parents, a brother and two sisters behind, as well as a four-year-old son he had with an ex-girlfriend, about whom he declines to discuss. He bounced from Austria to Canada, Australia, and Europe again before arriving in New York in June 1988. He visited Poland in 1990, one year after the fall of communism, and has never been back. Time and distance have pushed him apart from his siblings, and though he said he almost married a few years ago, he remains single. Instead, Polonia has become his family, his love.

In 1992, Henryk moved into an apartment four blocks from Greenpoint’s McCarren Park, Polonia’s home field. He had read about the team in Nowy Dziennik, New York’s daily Polish-language newspaper, and sauntered along one Sunday afternoon after church. After 11 years of following games from Europe through magazines and newspapers, suddenly he had a team to watch live again.

He worked a series of odd jobs and saved to buy his first car in 1994, which allowed him to follow Polonia around the five boroughs and surrounding area. By his count, he has missed only one game in the last 15 years, when a newspaper gave the wrong field information and he drove around Bay Ridge for half an hour before reluctantly turning home.

Usually he followed other fans to the games or memorized written directions, then recited the street names, forwards and backwards, until he visualized the exact route in his head, logging the directions in the vaults of his mind. Nowadays, when someone asks him about an upcoming Polonia fixture, a jet stream of superfluous information flows from his tongue.

“Atlas. Greek team. Top of the league, 17 points, five wins, two draws. They play at Cardoza High School. You know it? Just off the Long Island Expressway at Exit 29. Off Springfield Boulevard. I’ve been there many times.

“Do you know it?”

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Henryk arrives at Belson Field, Jamaica, the following Sunday for a cup tie against New York Pancyprian Freedoms, a storied Greek team with a sprinkling of former professionals on their roster. Henryk is carrying a copy of First Touch, New York’s weekly soccer newspaper, that he picks up from the Nevada Smiths soccer bar in Manhattan every week so he can pore over the previous weekend’s scores and check the standings.

“Look at this. Look at this,” he says to another fan, pausing to put on his reading glasses. He runs his finger across the match report for last week’s win. No Polonia players are mentioned, only the goalscorer from the other team.

“When Roman used to be general manager, he used to give information to the paper,” he says, palms turned skywards as if pleading for the team to be recognized. “But now that he’s not involved, nothing. No names.”

Kick-off approaches and Henryk scuttles toward the goal, believing it is his job to cajole the ball to its proper home. But this week, he has no magnetizing effect. He paces up and down, his temperature rising as night falls.

“This coach, I can’t believe his decisions,” he screams to the nearest fan. “We’re playing with four or five players. Look at that guy…idiot!” he shouts, pointing vaguely toward the field before turning his attention to other targets.

“That guy…idiot! That guy…doesn’t even run. He’s 22, 23, and he’s walking? RUN! RUN!”

Nobody disagrees, partly because nobody else watches the game with Henryk’s neurotic attentiveness, partly because nobody else takes it to heart as much as he does, and partly because nobody wants to agitate him any further, especially when the team is playing poorly.

Polonia lose 1-0 and are eliminated from the tournament in the first round. The fans and players traipse out to the car park, except Henryk. He timidly hangs at the back row of the stand, dazed by the team’s meek exit.

“I don’t want to go down there because I might say something I’ll regret,” he mutters.

Henryk, stood behind the goal, couldn't summon the ball into the Pancyprian Freedoms' net (Photo: Ian Thomson)

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Polonia’s team president Michal Siwiec, 49, is reflecting on the season so far after a rain-drenched training session at McCarren Park. He began playing for Polonia in 1987, a year after arriving from Poland, and took over the running of the club in 1998 when it fell on hard financial times. Despite his other business interests—a construction company and a share in some local bars—he says he spends 12 hours each week on club matters, at least an hour every day on the phone, and he funds Polonia without asking the players for subscriptions.

“People appreciate if the team is winning,” he says. “But if we lose a game they say you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that. That’s the culture.”

As the players disappear into the night, Henryk is in his apartment preparing a home-made remedy to ward off his light cold—warm milk, a teaspoon of organic honey and some garlic.

Sunday sees another vital league game and Henryk is determined to maintain his record: 17 years of never missing a game because of illness.

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Polonia are swarming over the Brooklyn Italians. Hryszczyk sets up three goals for striker Lukasz Jagodzinski before scoring one himself as they race to a 5-1 victory, but Henryk, his cold fully cleared, is strangely subdued for such a resounding win.

Before the game, Hryszczyk had approached him to say he was leaving the team and returning to Poland because of visa troubles. This would be his last game. He thanked Henryk for always being there and for being such a fanatical supporter. After the game, Henryk returned the compliment by singling out Hryszczyk for an especially prolonged hug.

“Henryk was really moved that he was being appreciated,” said Polonia fan Kasia Buczkowska, who heard the news of Hryszczyk’s departure from a stunned Henryk.

Hryszczyk's skill blew away Brooklyn Italians in what turned out to be his farewell appearance for Polonia (Photo: Ian Thomson)

The win pulls Polonia out of its lone spot at the bottom of the rankings, instead leaving them tied with Manhattan Kickers as the league nears its winter break. In spring, Polonia will have six games to avoid relegation.

“We’ve got two wins now,” says Henryk to another Polonia fan as he left McCarren Park. “But look at the games. Last time, 3-1, Szymon scores two goals. Today, 5-1, he makes three and score one. Now he’s gone.

“How are we going to replace him?”

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Postscript: Polonia won two of their six remaining games in the spring of 2010 to finish the 16-game Cosmopolitan Soccer League season with a 4-7-5 record and 17 points. Manhattan Kickers ended with 15 points and were relegated to the league’s second tier.