Ezi The Wizard: A Forgotten Legend

Daniel KaiserCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2008

Last summer Podolski scored twice against Poland, the country of his birth. Some youth in Katowice, only a few miles away from Gliwice where Lukas was born, were celebrating the goals of their local hero in a pub. Obviously, the other pub-goers found that not very amusing, hours later Podolski`s Polish fans had to be treated in a hospital...

Coincidentally, Katowice is the home town of Poland`s most controversial footballl player. He was born Ernst Otto Pradella in 1916. His father, whom he never met, died as a German soldier in the Great War. When he was six years old, his hometown Katowice became part of the Polish state and at the age of 13 he adopted the surname of his stepfather. The German Ernst Pradella became the Pole Ernest Wilimowski.


The Rise of Ezi the Wizard

Wilimowski started his career at local club 1.FC Kattowitz, a team that was exclusively made up of ethnic Germans. At the age of 17, the skillfull forward with six toes on his left foot moved to Ruch Wielkie Hajduki, a bigger club in Poland`s first division, and soon established himself as the deadliest striker in the league. He scored 112 goals in 86 games and won numerous titles with his new club.

Ernest, who was nicknamed "Ezi" by his fans, earned his first cap for Poland in 1934 at the age of 17. But his behaviour off the field saw him excluded from the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Ezi enjoyed his success too much, his escapades with women and booze became well known.

But on the pitch (in case he was sober) he didn't show any weaknesses.

Brazil vs Poland , WC 1938  - the first match of the century

Poland managed to qualify for the World Cup in 1938 and had to play Brazil in Strasburg. Then, the World Cup was a knockout tournament with no group stage. Poland had to beat Brazil in order to reach the next round, but they were clear underdogs. Brazil`s best player, the legendary Leonidas opened the scoring after 18 minutes. But the game was far from over. In what the French press would call "The match of the century" the next day, Poland eventually lost 6-5 after extra time. Wilimowski scored four goals, but still ended up on the losing side.

Due to his brilliant performance against Brazil he became a superstar in Poland. Brazilian and French clubs tried to sign him. He was 22 years old and about to become a legend.

But 10 years later, the name Wilimowski was a forbidden word in Poland. His name was erased from the football statistics and the collective memory of the Poles. It wasn't Wilimowski who had performed so heroically against Brazil in 1938, but defender Szczepaniak. It was as if he had never existed.

How the Pole Ernest Wilimowski became the German Ernst Willimowski

With the outbreak of World War II Wilimowski's career in the Polish national team and football league was over. But that didn't stop him from playing football.

Ernest Wilimowski retook his German citizenship and changed his name for a third time to Ernst Willimowski. In order to avoid being drafted into the German army he applied for a police unit. He went on to play for several German clubs and managed to win the German Cup with 1860 Munich in 1942.

Maybe Ezi's fans would have found a way to tolerate this behaviour by their idol. After all, he was not the only player of the 1938 team who became German citizen after the invasion of Poland. Poles were not allowed to play football during the occupation and hence those professional footballers who changed nationality did this mostly out of necessity.

But Willimowski's did not only change his name and passport. Willimowski also started to play for the German national team scoring 13 goals in eight matches. That was too much. The Poles loved Ezi before the war, but this love turned into hate and disgust after he wore a shirt with a swastika on it while their country was burning.

And yet, Willimowski was probably not the opportunistic traitor he was thought to have been. As it was revealed just recently, his mother Paulina was sent to Ausschwitz in 1940 for having a relationship with a Russian Jew. Ernst used his influence to get her out of the death camp.

Sometimes, things are not as black and white as they seem to be on first sight...

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