Yet the man famously described as “a circus clown in gloves" by Brian Clough has since been marginalised by the nation he served with such distinction as a footballer.
Unapologetically outspoken, he spoke to Eurosport Poland's Peter Kwiatkowski to touch on why this is the case as well as to recall that incredible encounter and the 2-0 victory that preceded it - the only time Poland have ever beaten England.
You must get asked about this game so much, but what are your memories of that famous day against England at Wembley in October 1973?
I remember that day alongside the victory we achieved over England in Chorzow on June 6. We had lost against Wales in Cardiff and England arrived with their strongest possible squad which included world champions such as Bobby Moore and Martin Peters and a bunch of the best footballers in the world. It was like England came to Poland with the sole aim of fulfilling their duty of advancing to the World Cup. But Kazimierz Gorski prepared us with great tactics: he told us we had to go to battle, which we didn’t do in Wales. Before the game the mood was that we had lost the opportunity to play in the finals, but afterwards we knew it could still happen. We played on the borderline in terms of fouling: it wasn’t brutal though, it was a fair fight, and it was Alan Ball that was shown a red card, not Leslaw Cmikiewicz [who had fouled Peters prior to the sending-off].
After that we beat Wales 3-0 and then came the match at Wembley - we needed a draw and England had to win. We knew we could get a result, even in a great atmospheric stadium like Wembley - not many of us had played in such a place. The genius Gorski said that we needed to slow the game and keep the ball as much as possible, because when England had the ball, the crowd was so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves think - it was hard to communicate with my defence. Whenever I went for the ball my team-mates covered the goal-line behind me - I made a lot of mistakes but they were fixed by Gorski’s tactics. When you play for your country, by the 70th minute of the match your body is exhausted, but you can give more from the heart. And we did that. I think it was the happiest day in Polish football history.
What more can I say? We proved that football is a game of coincidence and that sometimes theoretically weaker teams can beat better ones, because it was a winning draw. And I said afterwards that those who had survived Wembley could go to the World Cup with their heads held high - and we went on to prove it [by finishing third in Germany].
Was it your greatest performance as well as your most famous - and how does it feel to be known as the man who stopped England?
For me, the title 'The man who stopped England' is true - but in the sense that that man consisted of 12 parts: Gorski and 11 players which he knew how to organise on the pitch. Of course it’s a big pleasure for me to be talked about in that way and I am thankful for such a nickname, but football is a team sport. It works both ways: after we lost to the Germans 3-1 on my debut in 1971 I was the most unpopular man in Poland: half of the country wanted to hang me and the other half to send me into exile. So it was nice to be singled out again in a positive way by the English press.
What did you think when you heard that Brian Clough had described you as a clown prior to the Wembley match?
It's a psychological battle: he had the power to say that Englishmen were better than the rest because they had recently been world champions. The entire football world also thought like that about the English. Such psychology remains common in football today. You have to be resilient: I was resilient back then, and my colleagues were too. England had beaten Austria 7-0 and we were similar to Austria in terms of ability. Honestly, when I was listening to the national anthems in front of the English team and the royal box, I thought: "God, I hope we don't become another Austria here." England had the best footballers in the world.
What happened with your hand injury?
At the start of the match I was so nervous that I dropped the ball and didn't notice Allan Clarke standing two metres away from me. He jumped for the ball and I somehow managed to cover it, but he hit me in the hand. It wasn't deliberate - I would do the same if I was trying to score. My hand was frozen after that and I played with it until the end of the match. The first comment from my team-mate Adam Musial after the game was: “It's good that he kicked you." I said: “Why?” And he answered: “Because he woke you up!”
How was the result received in Poland?
In Poland it was hailed as a miracle to match when we stopped the Bolsheviks in 1920. It was a euphoric reception.
You have had some disagreements with former colleagues like Grzegorz Lato and people inside the Polish federation. Why is this?
Grzegorz Lato was my friend on the pitch, to whom I owe the great moments of my life: I knew that when I conceded a goal, he or one of my team-mates would score more. I would pick out the eyes of anyone who said he wasn't a great footballer. But when he was elected chairman of the Polish FA it was the biggest shame in Polish football history. When I said this for the first time, everyone jumped on me, saying: “How can you say something like that about a friend?” I said: “I’m not saying it about my friend from the pitch, I’m saying it about a man who is going to represent Polish football." Wladyslaw Zmuda wanted to exclude me from the 'Outstanding National Team Players Club' so I just quit it. I have my own opinion - and I even agree with it! My team-mates think that it's okay to sit back and stay silent when they receive two tickets for the Euros or another match, but for me that is unacceptable. That is why Eurosport call me and not my team-mates. I’m not the type of person who will say what the others want to hear. I’m not the smartest man on earth, but I am entitled to my opinion.
Is that what got you into politics?
In politics I am the same as when I am away from it. I have tried to fight the disease of Polish football - corruption. The Polish FA are like a country within a country: it is run like a mafia organisation. When I started to criticise Polish football we were 20th in the world rankings, and now we’re 54th. In parliament I am trying to get Polish football on the straight and narrow. The Law and Order party are not a major force but that does not prevent me from fighting for what I believe in. I hope that after the October 26 elections Zbigniew Boniek will become chairman of the FA and Roman Kosecki vice-chairman. I said to them: if you win I will work not 24, but 25 hours a day for you on the image of Polish football if you like. Why? Because Boniek, Kosecki and Tomaszewski owe it to the Polish fans.
Are you surprised at the treatment shown to you, one of the great figures of Polish football?
Not at all. Why should I be? I didn’t call you, you called me. For me, that’s the proof of my worth. It looks like finally I have something to say. If I told you that Polish football is great and the chairman is a phenomenal person, what would you think of me? You would say that I’m a cretin. When you call Jan Tomaszewski, you are asking for a realistic view of the situation in Polish football. Look, I’m not trying to have a go at this team. I only want it to be like it was in the 70s when the whole country went football crazy. I know it can be like that again.
Will you be attending the game on Tuesday?
No, I won’t. I’ll return to the stadium when Boniek is chairman and Kosecki the vice-chairman. I’m also fed up of this team we have filled with foreigners who were too weak to play for their first national teams: players like (French-born) Damien Perquis, Ludovic Obraniak and Eugen Polanski (who was born in Poland but moved to Germany as an infant) should not be there - I think we should count on boys who were raised in our country, true Poles. If I’m going to watch a match, it depends on who is in the starting XI.
So you'll wait until you see the starting team before deciding whether to watch on television?
Yeah. If we beat England with players like Perquis, Obraniak and Polanski it has nothing to do with national pride, although I would like us to win for the fans. Waldemar Fornalik’s team must win this game: after the disgrace during the Euros, when we did not advance from the weakest group as hosts, it is the only match which can restore the trust of the fans. And it is a good opportunity, when England are rebuilding and refreshing their team.