Marek Citko: The confession of an idol

Marek Citko was 22 when he scored against England at Wembley and raised many eyebrows of football fans when playing for Widzew. He could have played for Milan, Inter or Liverpool, but lost everything due to a disastrous injury.

The story begins on an autumn evening in 1996. I was sitting in front of the TV with my whole family. The stadium in Lodz, just like a couch in our small living room, was packed out. Widzew were playing against Atletico Madrid.

When I heard the Champions League anthem, shivers went down my back.

I had been waiting so long for this evening. My favourite player played in the Widzew team, some colleagues admired Ronaldo, while others loved Shearer or Del Piero. My first great idol however was Marek Citko.

It was raining heavily in Lodz that night. Actually, the downpour was so large, that it seemed as though a giant had poured out the water from a huge basin.

It was a fierce battle on the pitch, however Atletico were the better team from the very beginning. The Spaniards scored twice within half an hour, but the key moment was yet to come.

Widzew goalkeeper Maciej Szczesny threw the ball to Marek Citko. With a single turn of balance Citko beat two Atletico players and started a charge toward Madrid’s goal. In the centre circle he raised his head and shot from 50 yards. The ball landed in the back of the net.

It is the most beautiful goal I have ever seen.

That evening, nothing mattered. Neither the fact that Widzew ultimately lost 1-4, nor the fact that the next morning it was a normal school day. For a long time I laid in bed remembering how great Marek shot was. In my mind I heard the voice of the overjoyed commentator: “It was a technical masterpiece!”

Before I closed my eyes, I told myself that one day I have to talk to my idol.

Sixteen years later the dream came true. We are talking. Both rich from an experience which changed us. In the past sixteen years I have managed to grow up. Marek though went through a path that he certainly didn’t expect. From a man who was once Polish football’s superstar, to a quiet former footballer with the “wasted talent” label.

You feel like an accomplished soccer player?

I think not. Although I still think that I have achieved a lot. Scoring goals in the Champions League or at Wembley Stadium was incredible. This is a memento for life

He is very humble and quiet. It is evident at first glance, you can simply hear it in his voice. It seems that he can’t find himself in the center of attention very well.

Talking to him, you don’t feel the barrier that some footballers create. Marek is very friendly and has no problem answering any question. Even if it’s very difficult.

I remember watching Widzew games in the Champions League when I was a ten-year-old boy. It was great to see you play and score so many nice goals. Few years later I could not accept that my idol couldn’t overcome the injury. How did you got through with it?

It was not easy, although at first I had no idea that the injury would shatter everything. I remember that I tore a tendon while falling to the pitch, I immediately thought, “That’s nothing, it happens. Fast recovery and I will be back in play”. I told it to myself every day, but when rehabilitation got longer and longer, I began to understand that it was much more serious. That my return to form was not simple.

Today I know that some cardinal errors were committed during the treatment. If we hadn’t realized that the doctor who took care of me was not the best, today I probably couldn’t even walk. But you know, at the time I didn’t think that way. I thought I will get fit quickly and everything will be just like before.

I know you’re a very religious person. Did religion help you through that difficult period?

Without faith, I would not make it through, that’s for sure. I read the Bible often, and my favorite book is The Book of Job. He took so many blows, lost everything he had, but even for a moment he didn’t stop to praise God. In difficult moments, I told myself that everything bad that happened to me during the career, is nothing from the perspective of eternity. I could not break down.

Several years ago, the magazine “Bravo Sport” was extremely popular among the kids – I don’t even know if it is still issued today. Anyway, the truth is that “Bravo Sport” was the first newspaper to introduce me to the world of football.
I read about the stars of the game, stars who always seemed very distant and totally inaccessible. I was convinced that the best players had kind of superhuman powers. It was clear, that the stars of the game ran faster, shot harder, and were generally unique.

“Bravo Sport” used to publish weekly rankings of the top athletes. There were people practicing various disciplines. Tennis players, boxers, basketball players … I didn’t even know who half of them were. In 1996, the first place, however, was reserved for a football player. Do you think for Ronaldo? Not at all! The most popular sports star among the Polish fans was Marek Citko.

Each and every person in Poland loved him at the time. It was often said that Citkomania prevailed. Every journalist wanted an interview with Marek, every kid dreamed of his autograph. Every girl wanted to get a kiss from him.

Indeed, it was a crazy time. So much was happening in my life. The phone would break, because everyone wanted to do an interview with me, get an autograph or drag me to a party. I’ll tell you that I was not prepared for it and I think that I was not aware of the scale of it all. Today, only in retrospect, I realize how popular I was.

It was faith and everyday routine that kept me on the ground. Because every now and then there was some training, a game or a camp, I managed to cut off from all the hype. It was also a period of my first major decision. I decided to propose to my fiancee, who helped me somehow survive that crazy time.

I remember that when we once went to the cinema someone recognized us. We immediately hid around the corner. We had to wait until the movie started, the lights went out, so we could go unnoticed and not cause a sensation.

From the time when Citko was at his best, Poland hasn’t seen a more talented player. He was more gifted than all of the today’s stars. He was technically better than Lewandowski and Blaszczykowski, and was able to decide the fate of matches with one touch. He anticipated everything two steps ahead. There is no doubt he could have played in any of the biggest European clubs.

After a few great matches in the Champions League a big move seemed to be just a matter of time.

The most attractive offer that I got came from Blackburn Rovers. They offered a salary of over one million pounds per year. At that time this was an unimaginable amount of money. However, money never meant a lot to me. I thought I was not ready to play abroad and decided to stay in Poland for a few more months.

Which teams, apart from Blackburn, wanted to transfer you from Widzew?

In the newspapers you could read that all of the best in Europe, but of course this was an exaggeration. I knew for sure that there were offers from Liverpool, Arsenal, AC Milan and Inter. But Blackburn gave the most money for Widzew, so I only negotiated with them.

Then came the disastrous injury that eventually ruined your career. You had no claims to the fate that struck such a blow to you?

I have a personal motto: “Let the will of heaven write your destiny”. I think it may serve as an answer. 

– Many people can’t cope when they lose everything in one day. Have you tried to retreat somehow by for example hitting a bottle?

Oh no. It was not my style, you know. Since I was little, I was taught that in difficult times you don’t look to the glass but at the cross. Faith has helped me overcome various temptations in my life. And I can tell you there were a lot of those.

Are you an unfulfilled talent?

As a footballer – I think so. But luckily as a man I feel satisfied. And this is much more important. I have a nice family and that’s what really matters. Being a footballer lasts for a few years, but being a father, a husband – that is something that lasts for life.

Today Citko is a football manager. As he says, he wants to help young players make the right decisions. He often watches lower-league matches and tries to bring talented players to the Ekstraklasa.

At first glance, the modest and withdrawn Citko does not fit into the milieu of managers, who have a very negative reputation. Most people believe football agents are the incarnations of evil, bloodsuckers feeding on footballers and squeezing them to the bone. However, according to Marek such an opinion is unfair, because in any job there is a group of people whose bad practices affect the perception of the whole.

Look at the doctors or lawyers. There are some black sheep among them, which spoil the opinion of all. So it is with managers and players. Not everyone does his job properly, but I focus on my work. I try to do my best and, until today, nobody accused me of anything – he says.

Citko points out that providing the best medical aid for the players in case of injury is what’s most important to him.
Some time ago, one of his players – Lukasz Gikiewicz from Slask Wroclaw – broke an ankle. Citko rapidly launched his contacts and the player got fit in just a few weeks.

That’s what I see as my greatest achievement in the work of an agent. And so I understand my function. You have to be with your player no matter if he is up or down. It’s so easy to pat one’s back when everything goes well. But to support someone in a difficult moment is much more valuable – Marek says with conviction.

In a low voice he says that he regrets that no one gave him a helping hand, in the first months after he was injured. Maybe then everything would be different? Maybe there would be more nights like that one in September, when Europe wondered how a young boy from Widzew ridiculed the famous Jose Molina?

Sixteen years have passed since that September evening. Almost everything had changed. It turned out that the world is not so remarkable as that seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy. It turned out that even the greatest talent may lose his best years.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. I’ve never seen a goal more beautiful than the one scored by Marek Citko on that rainy autumn evening.

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