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Monday, 3 June, 2002, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Poland's ground-breaking player
Emmanuel Olisadebe celebrates scoring for Poland
Olisadebe has adopted Poland as his own country

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One of the most unlikely players turning out for his country's team at the World Cup is Emmanuel Olisadebe of Poland.

Olisadebe was born in Nigeria, and spent his youth hoping to play for the West African team.

But after firing the unfashionable Polonia Warsaw club to the league title a couple of seasons ago, his Polish citizenship was rushed through, many say with the direct intervention of the football-mad Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, himself.

Olisadebe now plays his club football in Greece with Panathinaikos, but he will be an integral part of Poland's plans in the Far East.

Poland became the first European country to win through the qualifying rounds to the World Cup finals. Olisadebe's goals were to the fore.

And now Olisadebe's success in the white and red of the Polish national team might also be challenging the racism which is still a serious problem in many parts of Poland.

Open Quote
Success for him and the team will be helpful in changing the way people think and behave towards blacks
Close Quote
Michal Lipcynski
Lech Poznan director
Krzysztof, a student from Warsaw, said: "Olisadebe playing for Poland is a very, very smart move because his skin is black, and I think a lot of people are changing their minds about foreigners."

At first fans threw bananas at Olisadebe, but his success led to that being replaced by a banner reading "Olisadebe - 100% Polish".

Other Africans who play their football in Poland hope to have a similar impact.

Stanley Udenkwor, who used to play for Jasper United in Nigeria, now plays for Polonia Warsaw, and has also had to face up to prejudice.

"A hooligan confronted me. I was with a friend and he said my friend should give his car back because why should a black man have a car when many Polish people didn't," he said.

Hooliganism has been a serious problem for many years in Polish football.

Most top matches only attract a couple of thousand fans who seem more intent on fighting and chanting racist abuse than watching the game.

One club, however, is determined to change this.

Lech Poznan tackled the problem head on, three years ago, and even came up with the idea of employing former hooligans as the security guards at the team's matches.

Emmanuel Olisadebe
Olisadebe won the league in Poland
Lech now boasts well-behaved crowds of up to 20,000 at each of its matches.

Michal Lipcynski is one of Lech Poznan's directors. He says a good World Cup for Olisadebe and Poland will help change the behaviour and attitudes of fans across the whole country.

"I think it could be very helpful in changing the way people behave in the stadiums," he said.

"There is no doubt Olisadebe helped the Polish national team to get to the World Cup.

"And I think that success for him and the team during the championships will be very helpful for changing the way people think and people behave towards blacks."

Many Poles say Olisadebe's presence in the national team is the best thing to happen to race relations in modern Poland.

It is now a common sight to see young children wearing replica football shirts with his name on the back. His face also appears on advertising billboards, selling soft drinks to the Poles.

At Polonia Warsaw, Stanley Udenkwo already believes his friend Olisadebe has changed attitudes, and says he too would love to play for Poland if the chance ever came along.

"Nigeria is an unpredictable team. I want the situation whereby Nigeria and Poland will have a match. So that we will know which one is the better!" he laughs.


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