Poland captain overcomes tragedy to become star
If it's grit, character and the willpower to overcome adversity you want in a captain, look no further than Poland midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski.
The 26-year-old Borussia Dortmund player's world took a horrible turn one night 16 years ago when his father stabbed his mother to death.
''I realize that this stigma on my psyche will stay with me till the end of my life. I'll never understand it, and the question of why, of what the reason was, will stay with me until I die,'' Blaszczykowski told Polish television in 2010. ''I don't know whether I'll ever get an answer, or whether I'm ready to look for one.''
His father was sentenced to prison for the murder, leaving Blaszczykowski and his older brother without either parent. Their grandmother, Felicija, stepped forward and took the brothers in, raising both of them and becoming one of the most important people in their lives.
''I don't know what I would have done without my grandmother, where I would have ended up,'' he said. ''I do my best to make her proud, to make her happy, and now, in a way, to pay her back for what she did for me and my brother when we needed her help.''
Football was the young Blaszczykowski's passion, and he showed a talent for it at an early age. He and his brother used to play in their room, singing the Polish anthem with dreams of the national team in their heads. Both brothers had been training with a local Czestochowa club for a few years before their mother's murder in 1996.
But after her death, the game lost its appeal and the younger Blaszczykowski gave it up.
''It was very tough for me, and it still is,'' he said. ''I didn't care. Life loses its sense, and you have to find it again. My uncle put me back on the path of football.''
His uncle, former Poland captain Jerzy Brzeczek, took him under his wing, and encouraged him to return to the sport after a three-month hiatus.
With Brzeczek providing guidance and nurturing his talents, Blaszczykowski continued to develop as a teenager. He moved from fourth-division club KS Czestochowa in 2003 to Polish first-division champion Wisla Krakow two years later, and it's been nothing but up since then.
In his first season with Wisla, Blaszczykowski won the Polish league title. A year later, he debuted with the national team, where he quickly became a fixture on the right wing with his pace, talent on the ball and strong runs down the right flank.
His success with the national team swiftly drew the attention of major European clubs, and in 2007 he moved to Borussia Dortmund. Joined a few years later at Dortmund by Poland teammates Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek, Blaszczykowski helped power the team to two consecutive Bundesliga titles, becoming a fan favorite along the way.
He became Poland's captain in 2010, and has emerged as the squad's undisputed on-field leader. When the momentum swings against the team, he digs down and refuses to let his teammates hang their heads, firing them up and pushing them forward.
Sometimes he just takes matters into his own hands, as he did against Russia on Tuesday.
With Poland trailing 1-0, Blaszczykowski perfectly struck a left-footed drive inside the far post from the edge of the box, leveling the score and setting off a frenzy in the capacity crowd of 55,000 at the National Stadium in Warsaw.
The whole country will be looking to him in Poland's last Group A match on Saturday against the Czech Republic. The Poles can secure a place in the quarterfinals with a win.
But despite the success and adoration of millions of Poland and Dortmund fans, the events of his childhood continue to cast a long shadow on Blaszczykowski's life.
His father died last month, and Blaszczykowski showed up late to Poland's Euro 2012 training camp in Austria to attend the funeral, despite keeping a distance from his father since he left prison.
''To people looking in from the outside, it looks like he has everything. He has money, a nice car, he plays for a big club, he has everything he could want,'' Blaszczykowski said of himself. ''No, it's not like that because the most important person in my life isn't here. I'll be happy with my family and kids and everything, but there will always be a scar on my heart.
''I've asked myself more than once, whether things would be different if she were alive,'' he added. ''I'd give everything for that.''