Piotr Zielinski: Poland’s kind-hearted midfielder can shine on biggest stage
Paulo Sousa, shortly after being appointed as the coach of Poland, indicated Robert Lewandowski as the most important element of his puzzle. Nothing surprising there. The Portuguese coach is excited to work with the best striker in the world. However, he also strongly appreciated another player in his new team – Piotr Zielinski. An exceptional player with some skills that only the very best possess, Sousa had plenty of praise for the Napoli midfielder, but he is a player from whom Polish fans demand more.
Zielinski signed a new contract with Napoli last summer, which will keep him at the Italian club until 2024. The negotiations were very long and demanding. His contract is over a hundred pages long. The club’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, wanted to keep one of his greatest treasures at all costs. The fact that he did the right thing is borne out by the stats of the player last season, which are the best of his career.
Just before signing the new contract, Zielinski had the chance to move to Barcelona. His agent met with a representative of the Catalan club during the match against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. Ultimately, Zielinski stayed in Italy, where he has been living since he was 16. This is his second home, where he lives with his wife Laura, with whom he is expecting their first child soon. As he admits, all the puzzles in his life are in the right place.
He feels very happy off the pitch, and so plays the best football of his career. Has he changed anything in particular? No. The same routines – he just grew up, matured. No special wonders – says his brother Pawel, who also plays football in the Polish second division for Miedz Legnica.
However, Zielinski is still criticised for his performances in the national team. Fans would like him to display the form he shows in Serie A, to give Lewandowski more support. This feeling was shared by the previous coach, Jerzy Brzeczek, who said during his reign that if Zielinski gets up one day and something switches over in his head, Poland will have a player whom everyone in the world will envy.
Words that were surprising and could hit any footballer hard. However, this is now forgotten, because Brzeczek was unexpectedly dismissed by Zbigniew Boniek, the president of the Polish football federation, despite the fact that the team qualified for the European Championship finals. Sousa became the new coach, and when he was asked about Zielinski his eyes lit up.
“Zielinski is an exceptional player,” said Sousa. “Recently, I was listening to Pep Guardiola talking about Phil Foden. He said he was a genius, an outstanding talent. But to get to the highest world level, he needs to know when to change the pace of the game. He [Foden] still lacks that. And Piotr has it. He sees everything. He perfectly feels the space between his teammates and the opponent. He has an amazing sense of timing and pitch geometry. He can slow down or speed up the game with one pass. He is a beautiful footballer. Sometimes he just needs a little more adrenaline. We will try to do it.” High praise indeed from a player like Sousa, an outstanding midfielder who won a Serie A title and Champions League with Juventus in the mid-1990s.
Although Zielinski is an architect in the middle of the field, he is not a natural leader. And it is not necessary to expect things from him that he does not feel himself. He has to speak with his game, and that is certainly what he is doing this season for Napoli where he is closing in on double figures in both goals and assists.
He was always sensitive. His parents have been running a foster home
since 2015 but have helped children from difficult backgrounds since 2002. For 13 years, his parents looked after children in their own home in
Zabkowice Slaskie, 40 miles south of Wroclaw in south-west Poland.
In the first months of his parents’ new work, Piotr could not accept it. He was eight years old and simply jealous that a “stranger” lived in his room. He stuck paper notes on the furniture: “my wardrobe”, “my desk”. He signed toys so people would know they were his. Today Boguslaw Zielinski laughs as he recalls his son’s reaction when he saw one of the girls smoking a cigarette. “He was downright terrified. From an early age he was a sensitive boy. We were afraid whether he would be able to handle everything in the future. That his kindness would have a negative effect on his career,” says Boguslaw.
The young Piotr gradually became close to his “temporary siblings” and began to open up. He invited them to play football together. He often trained in the yard with a boy who had a leg contracture. The future footballer gave his heart to children in his own style: quietly, without the desire of media attention. With his own money, he bought two houses in the Zabkowice area, which the family renovated and transformed into orphanages under the “Peter Pan” association – a title derived from their son’s name.
“He came out with the initiative, he’s a golden boy,” says the footballer’s father proudly. “If he returns to Poland he visits the kids, plays football with them. He also gives away electronic equipment that he does not use: a laptop, a game console or a tablet. At the holy communion of one of the charges, no one from the family appeared. Piotr came from Italy to please the boy. This is what he is.”
His parents’ fears that he would not cope out in the wide world were unfounded. Zielinski moved to Udinese as a teenager. Since then the 26-year-old has played over 200 matches in Serie A, and is one of the most important players in the Polish national team. Maybe he is sensitive, but it does not show on the pitch.
There is no doubt across Italy about the talent Zielinski has. Barcelona wanted him after all, and Jürgen Klopp once sent him a helicopter to talk about a move to Liverpool. Zielinski is Poland’s diamond with a big heart. The whole country hopes he will shine brightly this summer.