Oct. 11, 2014, will always be remembered as a historic date for Poland: it was the day they managed to defeat Germany for the very first time. The man most responsible for the achievement was not Robert Lewandowski, superstar in the Bundesliga for both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, but rather his little-known partner at the time, Arkadiusz Milik, who barely featured when on loan at modest Augsburg last season. The youngster headed home a cross from Lukasz Piszczek en route to a 2-0 triumph, immediately becoming the nation's darling.
Milik didn't stop there -- he found the net for the national team again versus Scotland and Georgia, and is now an established member of the squad that looks to be on its way to qualifying for Euro 2016. The 21-year-old is in rich form for Ajax as well, the team's leading scorer in the Eredivisie with 11 goals. He scored thrice in their Europa League double-header against Legia Warsaw, which made him even more popular in his homeland because the former military club from the capital is very much unloved by many a fan. After netting a brace in a 4-1 win at Heerenveen on Sunday, Milik is set to be the main man as Ajax face Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk at the Amsterdam Arena, trying to overcome their 1-0 defeat in the first leg.
Lewandowski's life story is well documented by now, but Milik's fate is even more remarkable. His father left when he was a little child and, in a recent interview with Mecz Sport, he said: "At the age of 6 I was impudent, smoked cigarettes and stole small things like candy bars from stores. Fortunately, 'Moki' entered my life and saved me."
"Moki" is Slawek Mogilan, the young coach who noticed Milik's talent, took the kid under his wing and helped him develop both professionally and mentally. Arkadiusz quickly became the best player in the youth squad of Rozwoj Katowice, not far from his hometown of Tychy. Instead of smoking, he was watching Cristiano Ronaldo's games for Manchester United, trying to emulate his tricks. That was not easy, especially given the fact Milik has always had problems with his right foot, even though he tried hard to improve it in training. Mogilan was a father figure for the youngster, who would arguably never have succeeded without his mentor.
At the tender age of 16, Milik made his debut for Rozwoj in the third division. Reports about the talented striker reached England; Tottenham and Reading invited him for a trial. Legia Warsaw were also very keen on signing him and made a generous offer, but Milik didn't seem to think about money. He was focused only on football and wanted to join a team that would give him a chance to play in the first team immediately. He found it at Gornik Zabrze, where former Schalke defender Tomasz Waldoch was serving as sporting director.
Waldoch was instrumental in signing Milik in 2011, but the coach, Adam Nawalka, was responsible for giving the youngster all the time he needed to find his feet. It took seven months before the striker managed to find the net for the first time -- April Fool's Day, to be precise. Nawalka's patience paid off as Milik started scoring game after game in late 2012, and scouts from around Europe started watching him closely.
Nawalka was eventually rewarded in more ways than one. In October 2013 he took over as the coach of the Polish national team and made Milik an integral part of his squad. A year later, both would become heroes after the win over Germany, though at the time that wasn't the most obvious outcome because the striker didn't play regularly for his club.
Milik always aspired to sign for teams that could help him develop, and Bayer Leverkusen looked a good option in that respect, especially given the promise to loan him out if things didn't go according to plan. It turned out to be a mistake: the German club paid Gornik more than €2.5 million for his services at the beginning of 2013 but saw the Pole as a prospect for the future. Eventually, he was loaned to Augsburg for the 2013-14 season but he didn't get enough chances there, either, starting only five games and scoring just twice.
That is why Ajax fans weren't overly enthusiastic when Milik arrived on loan at the Amsterdam Arena last summer. They didn't expect a bench-warmer at Augsburg to become a star, but the club were wise enough to include a clause in the deal enabling them to sign the striker for €2.5 million if he impressed. According to some reports in the Dutch media, Milik has already agreed to a long-term contract with Ajax, probably until 2019.
There is a good reason for the club to make the deal, too. Initially, the Pole wasn't supposed to be the central striker, with coach Frank de Boer intending to use prolific Iceland forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson in that position. However, Milik proved his abilities after a hesitant start and won over the critics. "Milik is eight times better than Sigthorsson," former Netherlands striker Wim Kieft said back in November.
Kieft's statement is not really proportional to his talent -- much like the incredibly premature comparisons to Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- but the Pole is indeed held in very high regard at Ajax. As Ronald de Boer told Polish national TV: "Milik has a potential to develop into a top striker, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez before him. It depends on him. History teaches us that potential is not always fulfilled. Milik looks to be on the right path but, just like Zlatan, he has a lot of work ahead of him."
Indeed, Milik is far from the finished article. He doesn't always control the ball well, his tactical awareness leaves a lot to be desired and his right foot is still a concern, even though he used it to score a nice goal against Legia. The striker clearly prefers working with his left foot, which can make him predictable at times.
However, as Ajax assistant coach Dennis Bergkamp said in an interview with Przeglad Sportowy, Milik's left foot is "unique." His stats are impressive to say the least -- the Pole boasts a conversion rate of 11 goals from 28 shots. "Milik came here with a positive attitude, eager to learn," Bergkamp said. Ajax fans even have a special song for him now.
If his current progress continues and Milik stars at Euro 2016 alongside Lewandowski, Ajax will be able to make a good profit on their star. Leverkusen's loss is their gain, and Manchester United should be aware that the Pole is still dreaming of playing at Old Trafford.