Grzegorz Lato is one of the great World Cup legends due to the fact that he remains one of surprisingly few attacking players to have done really well in three different World Cups.
The speedy right-winger spent most years of his career at Stal Mielec where he made 272 league appearances and scored 111 goals. Lato helped the club win the Polish league championship twice and was also topscorer in the league twice. The Polish FA prohibited transfers abroad until a player was 30 and that hampered Lato’s chances to show off his skills on a weekly basis for a larger audience on the continent.
But whenever he was given the chance at national team level to compete with the best internationally, he always stood the test and shone as bright as anyone else out there. Lato was not the typical crowd pleaser who would run circles around his full-back showing off magical skills, instead he was the complete team player. He knew instantly when to cut inside going for goal and when to make another decision with the ball that would benefit the team.
Poland impressed greatly in the World Cup 1974 in West Germany – two years after winning the Olympics in Munich – and Lato more so than anyone else. He became topscorer in the finals with seven goals and was match winner against Argentina, Sweden, Yugoslavia and Brazil. Poland came third behind Beckenbauer’s Germany and Cruijff’s Holland. For his contribution Lato won the Player of the Year award in Poland.
On a personal level Lato did fine also in Argentina ’78, but Poland did not have the same fortunes as four years earlier and finished fifth in the finals. In a tough second phase group where the match against Argentina was decisive, Lato had a goal bound header saved by Mario Kempes with his fist. The following penalty was missed and Kempes was later match winner.
Lato took on a senior role in 1982, still instrumental, setting up Boniek for some of his goals. Poland finished third again and Lato picked up his second bronze medal in eight years. In the 20 World Cup finals matches he played, Lato scored 10 goals (no penalties) and had 7 assists.
Lato turned down a personal invitation from Pelé to play for New York Cosmos, but would finally later move abroad to Lokeren in Belgium and then in fact across the pond to Mexico and Canada where he ended his career. Despite his achievements on football’s greatest stage, Lato was not on the European Top 50 best players’ list compiled by UEFA for their 50th anniversary in 2004. It underlined what many feels – that Lato is one of the most underrated players in European football history. Today Grzegorz Lato works as a politician.
ADN-ZB-Mittelstädt-6.7.74-ma-BRD-München: X. Fußball-Weltmeisterschaft-Spiel um den dritten Platz: VR Polen – Brasilien 1:0- Der Schütze des “Goldenen Tores” Grzegorz Lato (links) im Kopfball-Duell mit Francisco Marinho (Brasilien-rechts).”