Before the start of the World Cup, Piotr Nowakowski knew that watching matches would be a difficult experience for him, and it really was. Though he didn’t think it would be so hard at the end. Nikola Grbi, who started working with the Polish team this year, saw a place for the 35-year-old in the team, but the latter, for health and family reasons, folded and announced his retirement in the national team in spring. It turns out that it cannot be completely ruled out that the world’s best mid laner will still return to the national team, although he approaches this option very carefully.
Agnieszka Niedziela: Before the start of the world championships, you told journalists that watching this tournament will be accompanied by a bit of sadness and jealousy. Was it like that or maybe other emotions appeared?
Piotr Nowakowski: No, just the ones mentioned. Honestly, I haven’t watched the last two matches, I was following the results live. I felt that mentally I couldn’t take it. It is because of the feeling of sadness that I am not there. That I cannot be there and cannot participate in it.
Wife watched these two matches in the other room and told what was happening on the pitch?
She followed the finale in the same form as me. She had a hard time going through it too. You know, these are fresh things. A year has passed since my last appearance in the national team, but the memories are still alive. It was just hard for us and we wanted to spare ourselves some nerves and negative emotions.
The quarter-final with the USA and the semi-final with Brazil ended with tie-breaks and it was not known until the end what the outcome would be.
It could be different. In the match against the Americans, there was one action when Micah Christenson touched the net in the tie-break probably already and it could have turned out quite the opposite afterwards. You could watch it with bated breath and the guys really fought. Then I was reminded of the US semi-final in the 2018 World Cup, where we had a match in individual sets and where there was a tie-break. Back then, I had nice memories and it’s great that the guys managed to get promoted. But as I said, then it was just tracking the results, no picture. We also experienced each next point then, but we wanted to let go of some emotions and it was a bit easier.
By following the result in the final, it was impossible to guess how well the Italians played back then. While watching this match, you might sooner be guessing what the final decision will be.
It would not be. Maybe if I had seen any before game Italians before this final, it would be like that. Because some people said earlier that they were in galactic form, so maybe I would calculate the final result a bit differently then. It seemed to me that our team – maybe a bit ugly, so to speak – would ride the Italian team. Having in mind the duel for third place in the Nations League in Bologna, which was not so long ago, I expected an easy match. And it came out as it came out. In the first set the guys made up for a big loss and I thought they would go further on this wave, but it turned out that the Italians were in the form I mentioned earlier. The final result was therefore not a surprise, as the rivals kept the situation under control all the time.
When it turned out that it was silver and the tournament was over and the stress was over, did you feel relieved?
Yes. You know, I cheered on the guys and wished them the best, but I think some pressure went down from all of them. Obviously, the full hall heightened the atmosphere and everyone was relieved that this was the end of this championship. However, it was certainly unsatisfied. It is known that there are several experienced players in the team who already have the title of world champion and for them it can be “only” silver. But there are also a few freshmen for whom it is definitely “silver”.
I also think that for the whole of Poland retina it is “as much” as silver, because it is a really well-earned medal. They had a tie-break with Americans and Brazilians. I bet the Italians had a slightly easier path – of those really top teams, they only hit the French, whom they defeated in the tie-break. It seems to me that they also had a little easier and didn’t have to leave as much health on the pitch as our team. However, there is no point in reducing their level. They played really well. Maybe if our players were a little fresher, it would be different, but this is just a guess. Bravo Italians for what they have achieved.
During this tournament, did you feel more like a member of the Polish team or an outsider?
Yes, in two ways. I started to cut myself off a bit, but was tagged every time on Instagram with action photos from this championship. I was sitting either in Gdańsk or in Warsaw, and someone meant that I was playing, so I felt a bit like I was there (laughs). It was strange, but I want to cut myself off a bit. Because you know, memories remain, but you have to look at it with a slightly cooler eye and accept that it has already happened and focus on what is being done outside the frame. However, of course I kept in touch with the guys.
During the championship itself too?
Too. I didn’t want to tire them too much, but we had a little chat from time to time. Therefore, as I said, I felt a little twofold.
So you partially belong to the “Bald Gang” …
Yes, I need a half shave!
While watching any of the matches or following the score, you rushed to run to the floor and help?
Not. Maybe in a match against the USA. But I felt the guys would win this quarter-final, so I didn’t feel the need to intervene.
Was there any similarity between experiencing this tournament and the 2017 European Championship, when you took a one-year break from the national team?
Back then, I was in a different world because I had taken a break due to the birth of my daughter. Knowing what was happening in the frame and hearing what the atmosphere was like, I didn’t miss it at all. It is known which person was watching over all this at the time.
I think now this person, the coach Ferdinando De Giorgi who is leading the Italians, has changed.
As you can see. Now it’s probably completely covered in feathers (smile). He deserves respect for an amazing result with such a young team. In addition to three world titles as a player, he now has a fourth as a coach, so he has to have something. But he made himself known to us from such an average side.
Perhaps the unsuccessful and short cooperation with the Polish national team was a painful lesson that he needed.
Perhaps, because it is not a method after all. Maybe something like this worked once, but now there’s not much room for it. Therefore – as I said – I did not regret my absence at that moment. I had other priorities then.
This year’s absence from the national team allowed you to make your debut as a TV expert in Polsat. How was it?
It was an accident. Jurek Mielewski asked if I had time. I didn’t have it, but Jurek arranged for it, but I did have it (smile). It was so much fun. I do not like my appearances on television, I think that an expert should analyze all of this in some factual way …
Such an experienced and highly titled competitor lacks substantive knowledge?
Very. And I was there, that’s my opinion, to say something funny, maybe tell a story from the frame. Because recently I was in it, so maybe I know something fresh. And this role was enough for me, but I can’t play it all the time. So I think it’s such a one-off adventure. Well, maybe sometimes, when they don’t have someone to invite … It was hard for me to talk about the reflection technique, for example.
But maybe it was because it was about recent colleagues and you missed your distance?
Too. But most of all, I would lack knowledge. I know what to do on the pitch, but I cannot convey this knowledge and I cannot judge from what I know whether someone is good or not. I just do my job. And judging by experts who really know what it is, former players who also already have some past coaching, who know the basics. I do not know them because I did not study in this field. Maybe I’ll do some courses, then I’ll get to know volleyball in theory. For now, I am a practitioner. It’s hard for me to judge someone. And this regardless of whether it is someone I know or a stranger to me.
And just watching the game in the TV studio? Wojciech Drzyzga told me that he was distracted by, for example, the conversations of his companions.
It’s true, it’s hard to watch the game there. Especially since there were also monitors showing another meeting of this championship, apart from that, the Ninja Warrior Polska program was on, because Jurek had to follow (laughs). It was hard to concentrate. Besides, you know, I had a phone in my hand because someone wrote and commented on my TV performance. I prefer to watch the game calmly on the couch. I do not like live either, because I have no fun doing it. I even get tired. I prefer to either play or watch from the couch.
Watching the current team members and talking to them a bit, did you get the impression that the atmosphere was similar to 2018?
Oh yes, very similar. If not even better. Bartek Kurek did a very good job as a captain and it seems to me that the atmosphere – if it wasn’t better – would be the same for the bank. After the championships, I met him and he said that the guys behaved great and he didn’t have to interfere too much with all of this, because they were winding up themselves. Those who were – when I was still playing – the younger ones are now slowly moving into the older stage. They found themselves more experienced and were able to maintain this atmosphere. And young people, like young people, gave something from each other, sometimes stupid, sometimes funny, but they all melded well and the atmosphere was really great. Hence the jealousy that I was not there. But Bartek mentioned that if I was, it would be even better, so he gave it back to me a bit and it’s cool (smile).
At any point during or after the championship, you thought that you weren’t able to play at the right level now, but at some point you might be able to come back to it?
Yes, I have such thoughts all the time that now it is definitely not the moment, but maybe someday … I will never return to the fullness of what I presented, but maybe when I come back, I would have a chance to fight for anything more. But I do not know.
I say “rather” all the time. It is difficult to say for sure. But it should be done once, properly so that you don’t get more of these questions. But seriously, there are such thoughts and you can’t get away from them.
Many of the world’s top athletes returned, often with success.
Seems like that. But there are also 35 years on the back of the neck and it would be much more difficult. It has nothing to do with closing the door completely. I don’t think I did it after the conversations I had with coach Nikola Grbic.
The fans and journalists did not know their details and hence the impression that it was the final farewell to the national team.
Perhaps we just missed that farewell. Those “retirees” who ended their representational career this year. Maybe if there was an event in the hall in the style of “Thank them all”, then it would be stupid to come back later …
And yes, you have a gate.
Exactly. I have a gate and I don’t lock it.
But watching how the young players in the middle become experienced teammates, and there are also new ones, do you have no fear that even if you return to the right level, it may not be enough, because new generations will have a chance for players?
That’s why this gate is supposed to be open, but I don’t look at it that way anymore. Because I do not need it and I will probably be below the level that will guarantee the game in the squad. I won’t be too much fun to be in it, but as the fourth mid laner. I will actually be watching from the side then. Cool because I would be experiencing these emotions, training with the guys and being with them, but I won’t be playing. And like I said before, I don’t like watching matches from the side. So it would be a bit tiring for me.
Karol Kłos, who was in such a situation during the last World Cup, recently told how difficult it was for him mentally.
It is not a light affair. You are part of the team, you give your best. But somewhere in the back of my head is the thought “fun, but I’d also play. And I’d like to be one of those leading actors who fight on the dance floor.” Unfortunately, there is a moment for everyone and you have to find a place in the row. And despite the greatest will and ambitions, sometimes you just have to accept it with honor and say that the young and the better should fight and play.