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The Okęcie Airport Incident (Polish: Afera na Okęciu) occurred in November 1980 at Warsawmarker’s Okęcie Airportmarker. It involved five Polish international footballers: Józef Młynarczyk, Stanisław Terlecki, Zbigniew Boniek, Włodzimierz Smolarek and Władysław Żmuda. Młynarczyk had spent the night before the team left for Italy to prepare for an away match in Malta in a restaurant with a journalist, and was thus in bad condition in the morning, prompting manager and coach Ryszard Kulesza and Bernard Blaut to leave without him. However, when Terlecki, Boniek, Smolarek and Żmuda decided to side with Młynarczyk, Kulesza relented and allowed Młynarczyk to travel with the team. Four of the five players were later temporarily banned from representing Poland, while Kulesza paid the price for his leniency as he lost his job over the affair.

Background

In late November 1980, Ryszard Kulesza's Poland team was preparing for a 1982 FIFA World Cup qualifying match away to Malta on 7 December. The Poles had planned to leave Warsawmarker ten days before the match because they had organised a training camp in Italymarker; a match had also been arranged against an Italian League representative team. Poland were at the time regarded as one of the world's top sides, having finished third in the 1974 World Cup; ranked sixth in the world by the Elo rating system, Poland had beaten Spain 2–1 and Algeria 5–1 in the weeks running up to the incident.

One of Poland's key players of the time was the ŁKS Łódź forward Stanisław Terlecki, the "outspoken" son of two university lecturers who had earnt a degree in history from the University of Łódź. Terlecki, known for reading western magazines such as Time and Newsweek on journeys with the national team despite the Communist rule in Poland, had been in trouble before with the Polish Football Association: in 1975 he had outraged the Association by moving clubs without permission.

Poland in 1980 was a hotbed of unrest: the June 1976 protests across the country had seen violent incidents at factories in Płockmarker, Radommarker and Ursusmarker, and after the workers' strikes were quelled, they received sympathy from intellectual such as Terlecki; following the creation of Solidarity (see Lublin 1980 strikes, History of Solidarity), Terlecki himself attempted to form a footballers' union, resulting in a Polish Football Association-enforced six-month suspension from the Poland team. Solidarity, the first non-Communist trade union in an Eastern bloc country, had been formed in July and August 1980 in Gdańskmarker, prompting the Polish government to enforce censorship and to cut all phone connections between the coast and the rest of Poland. Despite the efforts of the authorities, four out of every five Polish workers were members of the union by the Autumn of 1980.

The incident

On the night before the team's departure, goalkeeper Józef Młynarczyk of Widzew Łódź spent several hours drinking in Warsaw’s Hotel Wera restaurant with Janusz Zielonacki, a Polish sports journalist. As a result, Młynarczyk did not sleep during the night and, according to Stanisław Terlecki, spoke of his fear that "[the coaches] [would] ban [him]" at breakfast. Even though Młynarczyk was still intoxicated, the other players decided to take him with them. Due to his drunken state, Młynarczyk could not carry his own bags: Włodzimierz Smolarek, the goalkeeper's room-mate, therefore took them down for him. In front of the team bus, Smolarek was confronted by coach Bernard Blaut, who told him that Młynarczyk was to stay behind.

Młynarczyk's "alleged drunkenness" was "blown out of proportion" according to the team's forward, Grzegorz Lato; upon hearing of Blaut's decision, Smolarek, Terlecki and two other Polish players – Zbigniew Boniek and Władysław Żmuda – decided to side with the goalkeeper. In the argument which followed, the players nearly came to blows with Blaut. All five played for clubs from the central city of Łódźmarker: Boniek, Smolarek, and Żmuda were team-mates of Młynarczyk's at Widzew, while Terlecki turned out for ŁKS. When Młynarczyk arrived at the airport in Terlecki's car, Kulesza, facing mutiny, gave up and decided to take the goalkeeper to Italy and Malta.

Due to the large media presence at the airport, news about the incident quickly spread across the country: the government swiftly decided to use the scandal to distract the people in the face of the "Solidarity Carnival". Meanwhile, in Rome, Terlecki disobeyed orders by organising a meeting with the Pope for the players; Terlecki, Młynarczyk, Boniek and Żmuda were consequently sent home. Despite being without four of their first-team players, Poland beat Malta 2–0 in a game blighted by violence as the match was stopped after 77 minutes by Maltese fans throwing stones at the Polish players. Młynarczyk was replaced between the posts by Lech Poznań’s Piotr Mowlik.

Aftermath

When the team returned to Poland, Terlecki once again attempted to form a players' union: securing the support of 16 other members of the Poland squad, he wrote a letter to the Association declaring their intention to do so, leading the authorities to order them to face a tribunal. All of the players disavowed the letter, save only Terlecki, Młynarczyk, Boniek and Żmuda. General Marian Ryba, head of the Association and a former military prosecutor, decided to bar each player from the Poland squad until December 1981. Regarding Kulesza as too lenient, he also forced the manager to tender his resignation, replacing him with Odra Opole manager Antoni Piechniczek on 5 January 1981. Ryba himself was to resign his post in April 1981.

In addition to their international bans, the players involved faced penalties at club level: Boniek and Terlecki were each banned for a year, while Żmuda was suspended for eight months. Boniek would later describe the incident as "the most dramatic moment in [his] career". Smolarek was treated more leniently; his sentence of two months came with a six-month suspension period. Despite being without some of their top players, Widzew Łódź were crowned champions of Poland at the end of the 1980–81 season.

Młynarczyk, Boniek and Żmuda had their bans cancelled early: Żmuda and Młynarczyk returned in the 1–0 home win over East Germany on 2 May 1981, while Boniek regained his national team place as Poland lost 2–0 to West Germany on 2 September. The players' recall was mostly due to efforts of the new manager, Piechniczek: Młynarczyk was among his favourites, and had previously played under him at BKS Stal Bielsko-Biała and Odra Opole before moving to Widzew before the 1980–81 campaign. Piechniczek also saw fit to drop Śląsk Wrocław forward Janusz Sybis: the new manager preferred to field a team made up of tall and physically strong players, and Sybis, a short and skilful player who had been a regular under Kulesza, saw his opportunities limited as a result.

Despite his team-mates' return, Terlecki would never represent Poland again: it was not the first time that Terlecki had been in trouble with the Association, and although Terlecki appealed against the ban several times, his suspension was not lifted. Terlecki participated in students’ strikes at his old university in Łódź and across Poland before his activities caused his club, ŁKS Łódź, to cancel his registration. Stating that "[he was] being treated like a leper", Terlecki emigrated to the United Statesmarker in June 1981, where he was such a success with the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League that former Pittsburgh forward Graham Fyfe dubbed him "Stan the Fran (as in "franchise")". He did not return to Poland until 1986.

Even without Terlecki, Poland qualified for the 1982 World Cup with a perfect record. Piechniczek's team reached the semi-finals before being knocked out by Italy; Poland then beat France 3–2 to repeat the third-place finish that the team had achieved eight years before. Meanwhile, Kulesza became the manager of Tunisia and later founded a coaching school in Warsawmarker which became popularly known as "Kuleszowka".

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