Robert Lewandowski and the journey from club-less teen to striking royalty

Robert Lewandowski and the journey from club-less teen to striking royalty

THOUGH IT SELDOM FINDS USE on the nation’s streets or in the homes of those who reside in Poland, there is a poignant turn of phrase belonging to the eastern European country that goes a little something like this: ‘Okazja na nikogo nie czeka.’ Translated into English the saying means ‘wait too long and the opportunity is sure to vanish.’

In today’s game, one particular footballer knows a thing or two about the virtues of taking opportunities in a timely manner and the immense rewards available to those who operate with such efficiency. That player is Robert Lewandowski, the man who embodies his homeland’s proverb better than any who share his discipline.

On 22 September 2015, Lewandowski was cast hopefully onto the field by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola as a much-required remedy to the 1-0 deficit against which his team were battling. Within nine minutes of entering the fray, Lewandowski had dispatched an astounding five goals. His Wolfsburg opponents, along with every other bemused onlooker scattered throughout Germany and beyond, had literally never seen anything quite like it.

Lewandowski’s outrageous five-goal salvo not only emphatically decided the game in his team’s favour, leaving the rest of the Bundesliga reeling and wondering how on earth they would shackle the striker when their time came to face him, it also secured for the forward four genuine world records in the process of emboldening the Pole’s claim to be recognised as the most feared out-and-out striker alive.

Though it may have been the most fleeting flash of excellence in Munich that reminded the world exactly what Lewandowski was capable of, the Polish striker’s journey to the very summit of the game was a dream many years in the making and one that required great patience and the devotion of a life’s work to become a reality.

EARLY YEARS

With a national Judo champion and former footballer for a father and a professional volleyball player for a mother, the path towards young Robert Lewandowski’s potential future career as a professional sportsman appeared clearer than most. It seemed not a matter of if he would allow for sports to be his calling but instead which sport he would ultimately choose to excel in.

After taking to football effortlessly as a small child, it was evident to Mr and Mrs Lewandowski exactly which sport their ambitious son would come to devote his life to, only they could hardly have imagined just how great a mark he would one day leave upon the game, particularly given the early setback their son was forced to endure.

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At the age of nine, Lewandowski joined his first youth academy, that of hometown club MKS Varsovia Warsaw, where he played for seven years before moving across the capital to Delta Warsaw. Just 12 months later a call was made to the Lewandowski household, a verbal agreement was swiftly made between brief bouts of delirium induced by the extraordinary nature of the call, and another cross-city move was soon made, this time allowing Robert to link up with Polish giants Legia Warsaw.

To those present for each early step of the boy’s rise to prominence, and not least of all to Robert himself, it appeared as though the youngster’s fledgeling career was progressing perfectly. However, after just a single season with Legia, the striker was released from their academy with an all too familiar cause at the root of their decision. They deemed the striker to be too short and too skinny; in their eyes, Robert Lewandowski would never make it as a footballer.

Dejected, clubless and fast approaching 18, he could well have turned away from the game, unwilling to climb the ladder all over again from the bottom so soon after having stood for the briefest of moments on the rungs that afforded the most stunning view of his country’s rich footballing scene. Instead, Lewandowski picked himself up, dusted himself off, and began plotting his grand scheme of retribution with Polish third-tier outfit Znicz Pruszków.

In his debut season with Znicz, Lewandowski wasted no time in showing his mettle. Empowered by the youthful exuberance and enthusiasm his teenage years afforded him, all the while retaining his focus and determination on account of the disappointment he refused to forget, the young striker ended the campaign as the league’s top scorer, his goals helping to carry Znicz Pruszków onwards to promotion into their country’s second tier.

His club’s success meant the following season brought with it a change of both environment and expectation yet the job at hand, and the manner in which he executed his duties, changed not in the slightest. A most appeasing sense of déjà vu began to set in as again he topped the scoring charts in the league while aiding his team in securing another promotion.

Having led by emphatic example, Lewandowski’s lower league exploits typically caught the attention of those sitting at the summit of the Polish football pyramid. As they watched on from afar, in quiet attendance as the young man scored goal after goal, Lewandowski had earned himself a number of well-to-do admirers, including the folks at Legia.

Lewandowski’s old club pondered if they had made a grave error in letting a natural goalscorer slip through the holes in their youth academy’s net without due care and attention, and they considered coaxing him back to his hometown. But they eventually decided against conducting such business; they’d made their mind up on him long ago. Besides, “Who needs [Lewandowski] when we’re going to have Mikel Arruabarrena from Tenerife?” scoffed Legia sporting director Miroslaw Trzeciak when quizzed on his club’s decision to renege on a potential recapturing of the young striker.

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To the delight of the supposedly expendable forward, Trzeciak’s words would soon grow infamous as the following two years tumbled by. Legia’s seemingly avoidable loss would become Lech Poznań’s tremendous gain.

RISE

“His legs were so thin; I kept urging him to put some weight on and eat more bacon sandwiches.” Those were the words of Krzysztof Sikorski, the coach at Polish youth team Varsovia Warszawa under whom the striker in question performed miracles for much of his childhood.

There was no denying that, while growing up, Lewandowski lacked the imposing figure or natural stature of many great footballers, but his physical inadequacies only fuelled his desire to hone his abilities and his understanding of the game at every given opportunity. “[His size] didn’t stop him being a prolific scorer … I remember one season we scored 158 goals, and he got half of them,” exclaimed Sikorski. The young striker simply hoped that one day his body would catch up with his excelling mentality and technique.

By the time he had left his teenage years in his wake and had earned his transfer to Lech Poznań on the back of two consecutive top-scoring seasons, it was becoming increasingly evident Lewandowski had carried no such physical deficiencies into the subsequent stage of his career, and his new top-tier club would soon reap the rewards of his belated ramble into manhood.

Lewandowski’s inaugural Ekstraklasa campaign saw him outgunned by only two players, firing in 14 league goals, while he and his teammates were able to finesse an admirable third-place league finish with victory in the Polish Cup, affording Lewandowski a memorable first soupçon of silverware. Thankfully, having become quickly accustomed to its addicting aftertaste, plenty more was to come. The next much desired offering would arrive in plentiful fashion in the upcoming season.

In the following campaign Lech Poznań conquered their division, topping the table at the season’s end for only the second time in more than two decades, thanks in no small part to the league-leading 18 goals scored by the ever-improving Lewandowski.

With a league title and domestic Super Cup added to his previous season’s Polish Cup capture, in addition to the personal accolades he dutifully collected after the season’s climax – the league’s top scorer trophy as well as the unanimously decided Ekstraklasa Player of the Year award – Lewandowski’s triumph had allowed his feet to do the talking. In doing what he did best, his actions sent a resounding retort hurtling across the country, in the direction of his old hometown, intent on reaching those sat warily in the Legia Warsaw boardroom; straight from the boot of the one that got away.

But, such is the nature of the sport, Lewandowski would soon get away from Lech Poznań too. Having unsurprisingly outgrown the domestic football scene in Poland, not before subjugating each of his nation’s leagues on his way to the top, the Pole, whose increasingly illustrious reputation was fast beginning to precede him, suddenly had the pick of a number of potential suitors across the continent.

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Even from the vast grassy banks of Poznań’s river Warta, the noise being made by the German press regarding Borussia Dortmund’s intensifying interest in Poland’s fastest rising stock could be heard loud and clear. Yet according to reports originating from the British Isles, it was then-Premier League club Blackburn Rovers who looked to be leading the race to secure Lewandowski’s highly sought-after signature.

The Lancashire side seemed set to complete their reported multi-million-pound move when the forward was said to have been en route to Ewood Park, leaving rumours of a swift medical and contract signing to pick up substantial pace over the course of the transfer window. Only, Lewandowski never did partake in a medical at Ewood Park, or sign a contract with Blackburn, or even make it to England at all, despite his intentions to do the latter at the very least. Mother Nature seemed hellbent on denying the striker the opportunity to move to Blackburn; she had far loftier plans in mind.

On 14 April 2010 a volcano named Eyjafjallajökull, perched atop Iceland’s south coast, reignited and resumed its eruption having initially blown a month before in much less spectacular fashion. On this occasion, erupting from the very centre of the broad ice cap blanketing the volcano, the fiery discharge caused meltwater floods to rush down nearby rivers towards populated areas at the volcano’s base, requiring the immediate evacuation of some 800 people. More relevant to the story of Robert Lewandowski, though, was the enormous quantity of volcanic ash spewed kilometres into the air by the explosion.

So expansive was the cloud of ash pumped into the air by Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, air travel experienced unavoidable disruption across north-west Europe for almost a week, including the forced closure of airspace over many parts of the continent. This just so happened to take place at the very time Lewandowski had planned to travel to England to take in the sights of Blackburn and lend a willing ear to their lucrative offers for his services. So, instead, Lewandowski more closely considered Dortmund’s approach.

Their negotiations progressed far more smoothly than Lewandowski’s prior plans to fly to England and by mid-June of the same year, his move to the Westfalenstadion was complete. For a fee of less than €5 million the striker was added to BVB well-stocked ranks, in time to train with his new clubmates in the weeks preceding the 2010/11 Bundesliga season, and his burgeoning career readied itself for a stunning new chapter.

If Lewandowski’s impressive endeavours on home soil had allowed him to departed his native Poland as a hugely exciting export, in Germany he would become a bona fide revelation.

BORUSSIA DORTMUND

Not unlike his introductory season in the Ekstraklasa with Lech Poznań, Lewandowski’s initial emergence at BVB was perhaps a little ponderous, though once the forward was allowed the time and space to find his groove, the speed he set off at was frightening and his ability to maintain such form was even more so.

Life in Dortmund began about as sweetly as Lewandowski could have hoped as the striker claimed his maiden German league title in his very first campaign with BVB. But given his limited contribution of just nine goals in all competitions, at least in comparison with the impressive numbers amassed in former seasons and, most notably, what was still to come, the Pole could have been excused for feeling unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the newly crowned Polish Player of the Year’s increasing hunger was evident from the moment the subsequent season kicked off.

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The following year, Lewandowski conspired to craft his first of many 30-goal seasons, aiding Dortmund in not only comfortably retaining their Bundesliga title but adding to their year’s wares the DFB-Pokal trophy, with a scintillating hat-trick in the 5-2 final win versus rivals Bayern Munich, to complete a historic club-first domestic league and cup double.

Sadly for those of a Dortmund persuasion, that season would remain their most successful collaboration with Lewandowski to date as, perhaps hinting toward the inevitability of his eventual move across country, the final two seasons of Lewandowski’s four-year stay in yellow and black provided a stark contrast to the first two. Whereas the opening campaign and its immediate successor saw Dortmund comfortably ahead of their great domestic rivals, the latter years saw them make way for a Munich revival of grand proportions.

Swashbuckling back-to-back Bundesliga titles and a smattering of other trophies, awards and plaudits went a long way to proving just how impressive a squad Jürgen Klopp had assembled, how extraordinary a team they were on the field, and how ambitious a club like Borussia Dortmund could be off it. But Bayern are Bayern, their tranquil hibernation was always to be followed by a reinvigorated reemergence, and when Jupp Heynckes’ men came to reclaim their throne, there was little Dortmund could do to stave them off. Their protestations fell on deaf ears and their relinquishing of power signalled the end of Lewandowski’s time in the country’s west.

On the face of things, between 2012 and 2014 Lewandowski and co were hardly hard pressed for prosperity; two trophies and four runners-up finishes accounts for a far better showing than almost every rival of theirs and certainly represents a forwards progression from the kind of season’s hauls Dortmund had become accustomed to collecting in decades gone by.

But the details of those two particular seasons betray any such optimism. Both pieces of silverware claimed came in the form of DFL-Supercups, the lowest hanging fruit of the trophies on offer, and Dortmund were bested by Bayern not only twice in the two Bundesliga campaigns but in a DFB-Pokal final and, most painfully, in the 2013 Champions League final; the first all-German final of its kind.

It was clear Dortmund had fallen behind the returning pace-setters and now landmark treble winners from Munich, and when the so-called FC Hollywood came calling for their leading man, there was little Dortmund could do to convince him of their own superiority.

Heynckes had taken his opportunity to bow out as a treble winner and his retirement cleared the path for Pep Guardiola to take up the reigns, insistent on upholding his new clubs traditions and heralding in another era of Bayern Munich domination, and to do that he wished for Robert Lewandowski to lead his team from the front.

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Though such a scenario had been made all the more possible due to the impending expiry of the Pole’s contract, many expected Dortmund to name their price, to tell their rivals that if they wished to court their prized asset they’d have to pay handsomely and then some. But so important to Dortmund was Lewandowski, the club compromised and allowed him to sign a pre-contract with the Bavarian club. They would lose him for nothing the following summer but would at least retain their hitman’s services for the remainder of the season.

Interestingly, the deal was officially announced as early as November 2013, with the pre-contract to be signed in the following January before making his move in the summer, meaning Lewandowski’s transfer from Dortmund to Munich was rubber-stamped long before the fate of the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal or Champions League had been decided.

An incredible record-breaking display at home to Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, which saw Lewandowski score all four of his team’s goals in an unforgettable 4-1 victory, underlined his importance to the club and sparked many conversations pondering the likelihood of a remarkable scenario that would see him depart Dortmund as a Champions League winner.

But when Munich prospered at the expense of Dortmund in all three competitions, closing firmly the coffin lid on their rivals’ tentative treble hopes with a succession of bitter victories, it served only to vindicate Lewandowski’s controversial decision to jump ship. Put plainly, if he wished to be the best, he would have to walk among the best and Bayern were just that.

BAYERN MUNICH

Strange though it may sound, Lewandowski’s switch to Guardiola’s Bayern Munich changed almost nothing about the player himself; his temperament, his ability, his style all remained exactly as it was. Instead, like seasoning an already exquisite dish with a pinch of salt, the transfer simply intensified his existent qualities and the obvious upgrade in environment allowed him the opportunity to elevate every facet of his game. He was in every sense the Lewandowski of old – just better.

On account of the outrageous prolificacy with which he performed from the very beginning at Bayern, Lewandowski’s name ebbed slowly away from debates attempting to shortlist the most prolific goalscorers in his country and began starring in conversations discussing the most adept strikers on the planet. In the eyes of many, there were drastically few playing the role of the complete forward in today’s game as well as Lewandowski; an opinion many still hold, as the 29-year-old shows no signs of slowing.

Evidently blossoming into his unassailable peak, helped largely by his model professionalism and commitment to his craft, Lewandowski hit 25 goals in his opening season in Bavaria, 42 goals in the following season, and 43 in the next, each with a more impressive goals-to-game ratio than the last. And, all the while the trophies continued to tumble his way domestically, with consecutive Bundesliga titles in all three seasons, Lewandowski was able to carry his incredible goalscoring form onto the international stage while playing for Poland.

Prior to his Bayern move in 2014, Lewandowski boasted a sound record of 18 goals from 60 caps for his country. But those figures were soon to change and mark a far fairer representation of the breed of striker Lewandowski is today.

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After scoring 11 times for his country in just seven appearances throughout 2015, before putting his name to the record for the most goals scored in a single UEFA European Championship qualification campaign – hitting 13 goals in 10 games as Poland finished second only to Germany in their qualification group for Euro 2016 – Lewandowski upped the ante in qualifying for World Cup 2018 and put another record to the sword.

Scoring in nine of his country’s 10 fixtures in qualifying, notching no fewer than three hat-tricks along the way, Lewandowski bagged an unprecedented 16 goals in 10 games to lead Poland to Russia, becoming the first European player ever to hit 16 goals in one qualification campaign.

Having already conquered the German game sufficiently to become the top goalscorer of any foreign player in Bundesliga history, Lewandowski continued to pass all tests placed before him on the international scene in order to become Poland’s all-time leading goalscorer. By now there remain few accolades in football that he has still to claim for his own.

Yet it seems little to nothing about the forward has changed beyond a maturing and a narrowing of focus or honing of abilities since his days as a skinny teenager being turned away from clubs due to his stature, or lack thereof. The only difference today is that Lewandowski is the striker he always seemed to know he would be.

The six consecutive Polish Player of the Year awards that sit on his humble mantel at home are a testament to both his undeniable quality and astounding longevity, while the records by which his outstanding career will one day be signposted ensure his name, as well as his tales of his many goals, will surely outlive the player himself.

Should Lewandowski lead Poland to their greatest ever World Cup finish in Russia in 2018, which isn’t too fanciful a thought given the quality of the man whose name undoubtedly appears first on their teamsheet, there’s no telling what awards may yet await his possession.

Such striking royalty, as he could surely claim to be today, perhaps requires an Order Orła Białego (Poland’s highest civilian order, the Order of the White Eagle) to be worn proudly on his chest in defiance of what few dissenters may still exist. Or, far more fitting for a man of Lewandowski’s modesty, the pride of his wife, children, teammates and country may be more than sufficient reward for his life’s work.

With retirement certainly still some way over the horizon, exactly how many more records will fall at the feet of Lewandowski is anyone’s guess. But, having already tread the long road from Legia reject to Bayern legend, and with no reason to believe he’s done walking that same road yet, it’d be a brave man who would bet on the goals drying up for the Pole any time soon.

By Will Sharp  

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