Mural in Chorzow.
Mural in Chorzow.

Gerard Cieślik

Challenging communism

Every sports club has its unique history and its protagonists. In most club teams we can distinguish players who are considered to be the symbols and legends. As for GKS Katowice it is Jan Furtok, while Gerard Cieslik is the undisputed legend of Ruch Chorzów. 

Beginnings

Gerard Cieślik was born in 1927, less than 200 meters from the historic Ruch Chorzów football field “on Kalina”. He had three younger sisters and an older brother. From a young age he went to the matches of his beloved team, but also to training. As he once recalled – “I made myself a ball from rags, women’s stockings from my mother, and socks. It was great, it even bounced up to a height of one and a half meters, but of course I dreamed of a leather ball.

The turbulence of war

One day in 1939, Mr. Gorol who was the manager of the junior team, called up the boys who were watching training. He told them that each of them could score from a penalty kick, and the one who did it best would get a chance in the youth team of Ruch. “I got lucky and the last months before the war I trained in the tramp team,” Gerard recalled. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he lost his father. Gerard’s father was a steel mill worker. When the war broke out, he and other workers were evacuated to the east, where heavy industry was planned to move.  Unfortunately, he was killed during the bombing. The rest of the family went on foot to Kielce. There, they were imprisoned for several days, then sent back by train to Katowice. During imprisonment Gerard learned his first word in German: Hunger. For Gerard, a particularly difficult time began. 

Working to play

The 12-year-old boy was employed at a bakery. Every day he would get up at 4 am to help bake. Later he would go to school, and then back to work again. Only after his duties were done was there time for ball and other activities. The payment for his work was the loaf of bread he received each day and sometimes the not-quite-burnt coal from the stove, which he and his family used to heat the apartment. Time was not conducive to playing soccer. In September 1939, the German rulers closed the club and instead created the Bismarckhuette Sport Verein team in its place. 

Into the battle

Soon young Gerard stopped thinking about fighting on the pitch. In December 1944, the Wehrmacht called up Cieślik. In early 1945, after one training he was sent to join a unit in Denmark. He was very lucky that he ended up there, and not on the Eastern Front, from which many Polish soldiers did not return home. He and others lived in a church, and their job was to protect one of the bridges. He befriended one of the families there, who wanted to help him escape the German service, but before the opportunity arose, Cieślik was sent to the front. 

Unable to escape the Red Army

When the war ended, Cieślik found himself in the areas that the Red Army had occupied. Together with other soldiers, they wanted to escape. One night they crossed Elba and wanted to surrender to the Americans, but the latter handed them back to the Soviets. To a prisoner of war camp, he was sent along with more than 30,000 other prisoners. There he met Teodor Wieczorek. Soon after their meeting, it was Teodor who saved Cieślik’s life as the Soviets wanted to send him in the cattle car to the labor camp located in Siberia. In the fall of 1945, they were released home. 

In the first years after the war, the Polish national championship was restarted. The post-war matches attracted many fans. The result was important, but the social aspect was even more meaningful. When Gerard joined Ruch as a striker, he was just 18 years old. On September 12, 1945, he made his debut in a match against Zgoda Bielszowice. The team from Chorzów won 6:0, and Ćieślik  scored his first goal.  As he once recalled “We enjoyed the game itself, although we had huge problems with equipment. At first we played in cycling shoes. We nailed corks to them and that’s how we managed. Sometimes, however, the nails pierced the soles. It was difficult to stand in them.” As his goals kept coming advanced, in post-war Poland it still meant having a regular job. He started out as a turner at Batory Steelworks, and then advanced to a master turner after completing a course. Finally, he secured a position at the Steel Repair Company. 

Representing the Nation

There have been many memorable matches in the history of Polish football. In addition to the triumphs at the Olympics or the World Cup, one particular match against the Soviet Union in Chorzow has a special place in collective memory. For many fans, the first association with that game is Gerard Cieślik – but not because he played in it. How come? The match was to take place on October 20, 1957, and Cieślik’s last appearance in the national team was in 1956. Also in the league, he no longer stood out as effectively as he once did. A remarkable sequence of events follows:

Getting called through the radio

On the 19th of October 1957, Gerard is having dinner with his wife. The radio reports that Cieślik received an additional call-up for the match against the Soviet Union. Suddenly he hears a knock on the door, the player opens and sees national team coach Ewald Cebula, who informs him that what he heard on the radio is true, while Cieślik refuses him, because the match coincided in time with his work. The next day he actually shows up at work. When his boss spots him, he immediately agrees to the match and sends him to the stadium. 

Course of the match

On the 20th of October 1957, there are 100,000 fans in the Silesian stadium. The Soviets entered the field first and were booed by the audience. Just before halftime, a Ruch player scored a goal. Five minutes into the second half, Cieślik scored a header. 2:0. Soon the Soviets get back, but the game ends in victory for the Poles. Gerard’s appointment to the national team was a shot in the dark. For Cieślik, who led the team onto the field as captain, it was the 40th game for Poland. Cheering crowds descended on the turf. The sobering chamber at the Silesian Stadium also filled up quickly, with citizens bringing several thousand bottles of alcohol with them. They planned to drink up victory or drink up defeat. After that match, the best soccer clubs were fighting over him and he kept saying, “For me, the Ruch is life.”

An eye for youth 

On November 15, 1959, he ended his active career having won the Polish championship three times, lifted the Polish Cup once, and was twice the top scorer of the competition. At Ruch, he played 237 league games and scored 167 goals. He represented Poland 46 times and scored 27 times against rivals. At the end of his career, he was the most successful scorer in the history of the national team, and among the best snipers in the Premier League, he still ranks third. After getting his coaching credentials to be able to help other soccer players, he ran as many as 5 soccer clubs, and spent a decade as a youth coach.

Legacy

He died on November 3, 2013. He suffered from diabetes and had lung problems. A few days before the funeral, fans had decided to pay tribute to him. A coffin with Mr. Gerard’s body appeared on the turf and the most faithful fans bid him farewell with a banner “May the Lord guide you with our song into the flowers of the blue meadows”. For all his popularity, he always remained a modest man. He was named the 50th anniversary footballer of the Polish Football Association. In 1961, a youth nursery in Slupsk was named after him. 

Thinking Points

Cieślik is a legendary figure in Polish football. He built a reputation among young footballers. He gave joy and satisfaction with his achievements. Educators can look at this turbulent life story with young people and seek answers to questions like:

  • What role might football have played for a young person in difficult economic and social  conditions?
  • What might have been the value of football for the post-war society?
  • How could a football game impact society during a totalitarian rule?

Find out more

You can watch a summary of the 1957 match on YouTube. In 2013, a short documentary was created by Grzegorz Grabowiec where you can also watch him speak, this is available on DailyMotion.

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A player who showed it was possible to overcome the regime

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