It was the night of 6 May 2000. Robert Mitwerandu had just returned from a party with his wife after an unsuccessful result for his club Raków Częstochowa. When they got in his wife put on the television as he jumped in the bath to unwind. Several minutes later she heard a peculiarly loud yawning noise emanating from the bathroom. Wondering what was going on she called out to Robert to ask him if everything was ok. On receiving no answer she went into the room and found him foaming at the mouth. She first shouted, then began frantically shaking him but he wouldn’t respond to any stimuli. An ambulance was called but it was too late. Mitwerandu had died of a heart attack, he was only 30 years old.
Mitwerandu’s early death shocked friends, family, players and fans of the clubs he represented for over a 12 year professional career. But in life he stood out almost as much, for Robert Mitwerandu was the first ever Afro-Polish player to appear in a Polish top tier game, and the first ever to represent Poland internationally, even if it was only at youth level. In death then, just as in life Mitwerandu was different.
But who really was Robert Mitwerandu and what does his story tell us? To find the answer we must cast our minds back to the time of the Second World War.
Inter-war Poland was considerably diverse ethnically, both on the pitch and off it. Approximately 30% of the country’s population was not ethnically Polish and teams representing Jews, Germans and Ukrainians achieved decent levels of success in the country’s football pyramid. The Second World War and its aftermath changed all that as first Nazi occupying forces murdered Poland’s three million strong Jewish population and then post-war border changes and ethnic displacements cleansed Poland of practically all its Germans and Ukrainians.
After the dust had settled in 1947 Poland was one of the most mono-ethnic countries on the European continent, with approximately 95% of the population being white and Roman Catholic. The catastrophe of the Second World War was compounded by the arrival of Communist rule from the East. Instead of opening itself up to other influences, Poland during the Cold War was to a large extent shut off from the outside world.
Communist rule saw the gradual outflow of ethnic groups that had survived the war: in 1968 an anti-Semitic campaign by the Polish state drove many Jews to emigrate and thousands of the remaining German population left for Germany in the 1970s. Poland then by the fall of the wall was more mono-ethnic than it was in 1945.
The only non-Poles arriving in the country during Communism were students. Mostly these students came from other Communist ‘People’s democracies’ such as Vietnam but sometimes they arrived from as far afield as Africa, in search of a better standard of education.
One such student was Robert Mitwerandu’s father who came to Poland from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) to study in the 1960s. He met and married a Polish woman and decided to stay in the country. As a result on 27 February 1970 Robert Mitwerandu was born in the Upper Silesian industrial town of Chorzów, home of the Polish footballing behemoths Ruch Chorzów. From the beginning Mitwerandu couldn’t have been any more different.
Mitwerandu’s footballing skills meant he was noticed from an early age. He was lucky to be brought up in Upper Silesia, an area where football has always been an important part of the social fabric. Not only does it possess two greats of the Polish game, in Ruch Chorzów and Górnik Zabrze and the immense Silesian Stadium which hosted many Polish national team games but it also has a whole array of other good-sized clubs.
Mitwerandu started his career at a small club known for developing young talents; Stadion Śląski (literally translated as Silesian Stadium). Mitwerandu, a centre back who liked to push forward, quickly attracted scouts from bigger Silesian clubs and the interest of Polish international youth team coaches.
By the age of 18 the third biggest club in Silesia GKS Katowice, a side that was at the time riding high in the Polish league and representing the country in Europe regularly, decided to take a chance on Mitwerandu. Between 1988-1990 Mitwerandu quickly achieved the double whammy of appearing for the Polish national youth side and playing (although only seven times) in the Polish first division.
Having achieved so much so young, Mitwerandu’s career started on a downward trajectory. He left GKS Katowice for third tier side MK Katowice in 1991 and then spent four years at mid-table second tier side Naprzód Rydultowy.
In 1997 Mitwerandu moved on to fellow second tier club Krisbut Myszków for whom he played for two seasons. At Myszków, Mitwerandu met someone who would be an important influence on him. That man was Zbigniew Dobosz; the coach of Krisbut Myszków and a man renowned for successfully developing young Polish talents. Dobosz would be Mitwerandu’s coach for the final four seasons of his career.
After several years at Myszków Dobosz took Mitwerandu with him to his new club Raków Częstochowa – who had just fallen from the Polish ekstraklasa.
Dobosz remembers Mitwerandu fondly, noting that he was unlike other players in the squad due to an obsession with cleanliness and the fact that he wasn’t much of a drinker. In addition Mitwerandu seems to have a been a very nice man. Dobosz states the following:
‘It was impossible to have an argument with him, even though he had strong opinions and was able to express them clearly. He was an exceptionally cheerful, kind and gentle man. He also had a very lovely family, which makes what happened to him even more tragic.’
Mitwerandu’s presence in the Polish football world brought much attention. When he trained with the Polish youth team players openly stared at him – only to be shocked when he asked them to pass him the ball in a strong Silesian accent. Of course as a native Pole Mitwerandu spoke excellent Polish but this surprised many people.
Dobosz remembers a time when Raków Częstochowa arrived at a hotel the night before an away game. The hotel manager after having a chat with the player apparently told Dobosz: ‘He speaks really good Polish for a foreigner.’ The woman simply did not believe that Mitwerandu was Polish.
The 1990s in Polish football was a time when racism was on the rise, as the skin-head movement took hold but Mitwerandu himself seems to have experienced very little outright discrimination. Journalist Paweł Czado remembers how Mitwerandu was very popular among GKS Katowice fans. They even had a special name for him, calling him ‘Bambo.’ Czado says this wasn’t intended in a racist fashion but was actually more of an affectionate nickname.
Dobosz cannot remember any racist incidents directed at Mitwerandu, recalling how the player was loved by both Krisbut Myszków and Raków Częstochowa fans. Indeed Dobosz believes that in the late nineties there was a lot less open racism displayed by Polish football fans than in 2014. Mitwerandu was thus treated warmly by the Polish football world.
Nothing went right for Raków Częstochowa during the 1999-2000 season and by early May 2000 the club had already been condemned to relegation. Mitwerandu however was consistently putting in good performances and there were even rumours that he could make a lucrative move abroad.
On the 6 May 2000, the day of his death, Raków played at home to Polar Wrocław and Mitwerandu had a great game despite the fact he ended up being on the losing side. He even scored a consolation goal in the dying minutes as Raków went down to a 3-1 defeat. There were no signs that it would be the last match he would ever play.
Mitwerandu’s sudden death shocked those who knew him. Dobosz and the rest of the Raków Częstochowa squad took the news hard. Marek Koniarek, a good friend of Mitwerandu from his GKS Katowice days (and top scorer in the Polish league in 1996), recalls his feelings on finding out the news:
‘Two days before he died he came to visit me at home. He had this habit that at least once a week he bought roses for his wife. After a while he set off for home on his bike while I sat on my veranda. I called after him ‘You fancy something to drink?’ To which he replied ‘No thanks, I best get back. On Saturday we’ve got a match.’ That was our last ever conversation. At six o’clock in the morning on the Sunday I found out he’d died. I picked up the phone and the priest let me know about it. The news hit me for six and what’s worse is no-one knew what happened and still no-one does. When I go to the cemetery I always visit his grave. There’s a beautiful football engraved on it.’
The swift and unexplained nature of Mitwerandu’s death attracted the attention of the Częstochowa regional court. Indeed Dobosz himself was called to give evidence at the court investigation. When asked if he had noticed anything unusual about Mitwerandu’s behaviour during the game he answered: ‘It was as if he’d been given wings.’* The public prosecutor took this to mean that Mitwerandu had been using performance enhancing substances. In the end however nothing was proven and the death was put down to a freak accident.
*A phrase in Polish meaning Mitwerandu had played exceptionally well
Robert Mitwerandu will be remembered as a well-loved and respected figure who paved the way for future black footballers in Poland. Indeed in the year of his death Nigerian born Emanuel Olisadebe was on everyone’s mind in Poland – as his goals drove Polonia Warsaw to the Polish title and Poland to the 2002 World Cup finals. In addition in 2014 it’s a common sight for black footballers to grace Poland’s football pitches.
Robert Mitwerandu may not have hit the same heights as Olisadebe but his example did much to show that black footballers in Poland did not represent a threat and could integrate easily. It’s a shame that his genes deprived him of the chance to be a spokesperson for ethnic minorities in the Polish game.
To write this post I received help from Marek Wawrzynowski, Paweł Czado and Jacek Purski. Purski works for the Nigdy więcej (Never Again) foundation which does sterling work recording racist incidents that take place in and around Polish football stadiums.
I am also deeply indebted to Zbigniew Dobosz for agreeing to speak with me about his former player.
Last but not least I drew on the following articles when writing this piece: