KuzimskiMateuszWorld News

Mateusz Kuzimski: The veg packer who became a pro footballer

By Owen Amos

BBC News

Published

image copyrightPiotr Lesniowski

image captionMateusz Kuzimski (right) after scoring on his debut for Warta Poznan in the Polish Cup in August against Blekitni Stargard

It isn’t easy lifting celeriac for 10, 12, or even 15 hours a day, as Mateusz Kuzimski knows only too well.

Kuzimski grew up in Poland and dreamed of being a professional footballer. He supported Barcelona and idolised Thierry Henry.

But by his early 20s, the Henry wannabe was in a warehouse in Cambridgeshire, working on a line, packing vegetables.

“It was hard,” he tells the BBC. “I was packing celeriac all day long – and they get quite heavy, you know?”

It seemed the dream was over – yet seven years later, Kuzimski is scoring goals in the Polish top division. So how did it happen?

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionA worker washing celeriac (file picture)

Kuzimski began playing football as a boy in Tczew, northern Poland, and took to the game quickly.

“It was something in my blood,” he tells the BBC via a translator. “All the time I wanted to win the next game, to win the league.”

He joined his local side, Unia Tczew, and by his late teens, had made it to the fringes of Polish professional football.

The money, though, wasn’t great, and by his early 20s, a bad knee injury made him question his long-term future. At the same time, his girlfriend’s sister – who worked in England – said she could find him a job.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to move,” he says. “But I knew I needed to work normally.”

So – like more than 800,000 Polish people since their country joined the EU in 2004 – Kuzimski and his girlfriend moved to the UK. They lived with her sister in Soham and began working in the warehouse.

“I began on the first line – cleaning,” he remembers. “After a couple of weeks I was promoted to the second line – preparing and packing.”

For six months, Kuzimski played no football at all – but the long shifts on the celeriac line gave him time to think.

“And I realised I can’t live without football,” he says. “So I decided I would try again.”

image captionWhile living in England, Kuzimski (bottom right) played in a five-a-side tournament where the finals were played at Wembley – his team finished ninth

Kuzimski went to an open trial in north London for unsigned footballers, and soon realised what he had been missing. “To touch the ball, to play with the guys, was a magnificent feeling,” he remembers.

“The main guy who organised the trial was shocked when he saw me play. He asked how it was possible I wasn’t already playing in the UK.”

After a second trial, he signed for Cambridge City in the Southern League – the seventh tier of English football – before moving to Histon in the same division. The flame had been reignited.

“Every day, after the warehouse, I was trying to improve myself,” he says.

“I went to the gym, I went running after work, I was trying to improve my football skills. I realised that I can’t give up. Yes, I had a knee injury, but I needed to try, try, try again and chase my dreams.”

He played 30 times for Histon, scoring four goals, before returning to Poland on a two-week holiday. While at home, he took a call from a coach he knew, went to some training sessions, and soon got an offer.

The club, Baltyk Gdynia, were fighting for promotion to the third tier of Polish football. But, after two years in England, the decision to go and play for them was not straightforward.

“In Polish football, at that level, it’s three or four times less than what I was earning in the warehouse,” he says.

So should he stick with the well-paying job in England? Or try, for a second time, to be a footballer in Poland?

“I decided to go home,” he says. “It wasn’t because of money – it was because I wanted to chase my dream.”

The view from Histon

Kuzimski is fondly remembered by his former Histon manager, Brian Page, who now coaches in Finland. “It was clear to see his hunger to score,” Page tells the BBC.

“He would run behind the opponents’ back line and was very direct with his movement. He would also get into the box any time the ball went wide… a very pleasant young man that wanted to succeed and work hard.”

The decision to return to Poland paid off.

After scoring “lots of goals” for Baltyk, Kuzimski moved through the leagues, finishing second-top scorer in the second tier last season for Chojniczanka.

That form earned him a move to Warta Poznan in the top division this summer. So, when he returned to the Polish fourth tier in 2015, did he ever think he would make the top flight?

“I wasn’t expecting it to go so well,” he says. “Of course I believed I could – but I wasn’t expecting it.”

This season, Kuzimski has scored seven goals in 14 league and cup games for Warta. It remains a long shot, but could the one-time warehouse worker soon be playing for the Polish national team?

“It’s very hard to answer,” the 29-year-old says. “I know I can still develop, I can still improve, but we need to check my date of birth! I am not the youngest any more. But if, one day, someone gives me a chance, I will take it.”

And – if he ever does line up alongside Robert Lewandowski and the other Polish superstars, who have been drawn in the same 2022 World Cup qualifying group as England – it will be down, in part, to the celeriac line.

“Working in the warehouse built me as man, and as a footballer,” he says.

“I realised that football is the main thing for me. I think about it a lot, and it was a very good lesson for me – and for my life.”

  • With thanks to football coach @EmilKot for translation and research

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