I imagine few people in England would remember the midfielder Ryszard Tarasiewicz. He played most of his career with Slasc Wroclaw in his native Poland before leaving a nation finding its way back to democracy in 1989 and playing out his career in Switzerland and France. He is the joint twenty-fourth most capped player in Polish history, with one solitary World Cup appearance for his depleted national team in Mexico in 1986, where Poland were hammered four-nil by the Brazil of Socrates, Junior and Careca.
And yet rather than be a mere footnote in international football history the name Tarasiewicz could have haunted English football as much as Maradona, Van Basten, Ronaldinho or his fellow countryman Jan Tomaszewski. In Katowice in October 1989, as England and Poland entered the dying seconds of a tense and goalless final World Cup qualifier, Tarasiewicz struck a shot at goal from thirty yards out that had a flailing Peter Shilton utterly beaten. The ball swung in the air, thumped the England crossbar and bounced down and back into play for defenders to scramble it clear. Seconds later the final whistle sounded and England had qualified for the World Cup.
Had the ball gone in then Poland would have taken England’s place at Italia 90, a tournament in which England’s dramatic run to the brink of the Final is credited as being at least partly responsible for the great changes in English football and its subsequent boom in popularity. How different might English football have been? And all for the sake of an inch, a couple of centimetres. As Juan Sasturain remarked when describing the same fractions that denied Rob Rensenbrink and the Dutch the World Cup against Argentina in 1978: “The distance between heaven and hell.”
England will shortly play Croatia in the final qualifier for next year's European Championships, and it does amuse me that large sections of England’s support are perplexed as to why we are in a position where we require a win or a draw to advance to the Finals. We are England I’m afraid, and this is what we do. Only once in my lifetime have England ever qualified for a tournament without requiring a result in the final game, and all too often it has been in jeopardy in the final seconds. Christian Vieri missed a free header in injury time that put England through to the 1998 World Cup, and famously a very late David Beckham free-kick saved England against Greece to qualify for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. At least on those occasions existed the safety net of the play-offs, but no such get-out clause is in place to save England on Wednesday if they lose and Russia, as expected, beat Andorra. Croatia of course have nothing really to play for - but then neither did Greece.
So don’t be surprised if England enter injury time against Croatia with everything - qualification, McClaren’s job, several England careers, the FA’s finances - still in the balance. And should a Croatian let fly in the manner of Ryszard Tarasiewicz and hit the frame of our goal time will stand still as we wait to see where the ball will land, and joy and despair, two emotions that power football, will never have been in closer proximity.