by Ryan Hubbard
Scoring two goals in his last three international appearances, Śląsk Wrocław midfielder Sebastian Mila is steadily earning himself cult status in Poland. While the thought of the Ekstraklasa midfielder being close to the national team just a few years ago would have been said to be an indictment of the state of Polish football, the 32-year-old is proving any doubters wrong, playing an important role in Adam Nawałka’s group-topping side.
Just a year ago though, things were looking much less positive for Mila. Unfit and overweight, he was placed into his club’s reserve side by new coach Tadeusz Pawłowski, tasked with improving his fitness. But it was contact from Nawałka, at the time recently-appointed to replace Waldemar Fornalik at the helm of the national side, which ultimately spurred on the Koszalin-born midfielder.
Upon his appointment, Nawałka contacted Mila to inform him that the midfielder was a part of his plan for Euro 2016 qualification – provided he could increase his fitness levels and lose his excess weight.
Mila, who had only played one full senior international minute in the previous six years, duly obliged, and after much hard work was rewarded first with his cameo appearances against Germany and Scotland, followed by his start in Georgia on Friday evening.
A return to the national set-up has been something of a second-youth for Mila, having originally burst onto the Polish football scene back in 2002 with Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski. After a spell at local club Bałtyk Koszalin, followed by Lechia Gdańsk and Orlen Płock, he signed for the big-budgeted Dyskobolia at the age of 20; and in his first full season played 27 times as they claimed a shock runners-up medal behind Wisła Kraków. He also earned his first Poland cap under Paweł Janas, replacing journeyman Pawel Kaczorowski in a 3-0 friendly win over Macedonia.
Second place in the league also gave Mila an opportunity at European football, and after passing Lithuanian side Atlantas and Germans Hertha Berlin, it was his goal which knocked out Premier League giants Manchester City in the second round:
With a free-kick on the edge of the City box, Tomasz Wieszczycki dummied, before Mila struck a sweet left-footed strike over the wall. Dipping and curling, David Seaman was left grasping at thin-air as the ball sailed into the top corner; and cancelling out Nicolas Anelka’s early opener, it was enough to take what proved to be a crucial away goal back to Poland.
While Mila’s goal set-up a clash with French side Bordeaux, it was team-mate Grzegorz Rasiak – the man fouled for the free-kick in Manchester – who earned a coveted move to England. Signing for Derby County at the end of the 2003/04 season, he spent six-and-a-half years flitting between the Premier League and the Championship, before eventually heading back home via a brief stint in Cyprus.
Mila had to wait six months longer than Rasiak for his chance to play outside of Poland, signing for Austria Vienna at the start of 2005. Helping them to claim back-to-back Austrian Cups, and a league title in 2005/06. It was during his time in Austria where national team coach Janas handed the midfielder the majority of his caps, even calling him into the Poland squad for the 2006 World Cup.
Yet following a move to Norway with Vålerenga, and the appointment of Leo Beenhakker following Janas’ dismissal, Mila found his opportunities with the Białe-Orły had disappeared. By 2008 a loan move back to Poland with ŁKS Łódź was in place, and in the summer newly-promoted Śląsk Wrocław secured his permanent signature. He has remained in Lower Silesia ever since.
During his first year in Wrocław he was a part of the Śląsk squad which claimed the now-defunct Ekstraklasa Cup (although injury in the quarter-final ensured he missed the end of the season), and after a strong second season he was handed the club captaincy by boss Ryszard Tarasiewicz. While Tarasiewicz was sacked just six games into the new season, and replaced by veteran Orest Lenczyk, Mila kept hold of the armband and led Śląsk to second-place – their best finish since 1982.
As Lenczyk’s playmaker, Mila thrived during the 2011/12 season. In front of a midfield consisting of Przemek Kazmierczak, Rok Elsner and Mateusz Cetnarski; the captain’s fourteen assists – the highest tally in the Ekstraklasa – were hugely important as Śląsk went one better, storming their way to their first league title in 35 years.
But still, the call from the national team did not come, with bigger names preferred in the attacking midfield role. Beenhakker left and was replaced, temporarily by Stefan Majewski, and followed permanently by Franciszek Smuda. Ludovic Obraniak, Adrian Mierzejewski, and even Radosław Majewski – all were named ahead of Mila. When Smuda left after a disappointing Euro 2012, Fornalik came in, and again Mila was overlooked.
However with Nawałka’s appointment came a manager with a willingness to take risks and try new things. Widely criticised for his selection policy for friendly games, the start to Poland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign has turned many around; and while the appointment of Mila was originally seen by many as just filling a gap in the squad that could have been taken by someone younger, the coach’s decision has since been justified, with Mila fast becoming a favourite amongst the Biało-Czerwone fans.
Never the quickest player, Mila has always made up for his lack of speed with his talented footballing brain and an ability to pick out a pass – and of course the left foot which has left numerous keepers, including most-recently Manuel Neuer and Giorgio Loria, stranded. The ‘Selekcjoner’ spotted that these attributes were what his squad needed, and in the space of three months he has gone from filling a gap in the squad to an almost certain inclusion.
“I think I had not even dreamed of this because you dream about things that are realistic” Mila told reporters after scoring Poland’s second against world champions Germany. “I also must thank coach Nawałka, who called a year ago when I struggled with both my weight and injury. He prepared me for the fact that I would have to be ready, at one hundred percent, for the national team”.
The debt owed to Nawałka for his opportunity was clear to see when, after slotting past Neuer, Mila headed straight to his coach to celebrate (see above picture). At 32, it is naive to think that Mila has many years of international football ahead of him; but thanks to the coach, he has been given a chance to prove that his talent wasn’t wasted.
He may no longer be the prodigy he was touted as over a decade ago, but the fact that his name is once again being mentioned around Europe also speaks volumes about the hard work put in to return to the highest level.
If anyone deserves to be the cult hero of this Poland team, it is Sebastian Mila.