The presence of loyalty is scarce in modern football, but often you get a glimpse of genuine adoration from a player towards a club. Cologne was the home away from home for Polish-born Lukas Podolski, and the explosive forward has dedicated much of his footballing career to his local club, both on and off the pitch.
Despite his love for FC Köln, he outgrew their homely surroundings as the streets of the city became too narrow and the steeples of Cologne Cathedral too small. Munich, London, Istanbul and Kobe were next on the trail for a player who became a hero in his adopted land.
Movements across the German-Polish border still faintly hold a feeling of intrusion but few bared more fruit that when Lukas Podolski, at the age of two, moved from the Silesia region of southern Poland to Bornheim in West Germany. Before World War Two, Podolski’s place of birth, Gliwice, was part of Germany and a city that his decedents had called home for decades.
Podolski’s family were given Aussiedler status due to his grandparents’ German citizenship and they were able to settle in the surrounding area of Cologne. Sixteen years later, Podolski was wearing the red and white of Köln for the first time as they battled against problems on and off the pitch.
Restricted by a minute financial budget, Marcel Koller was forced to delve into his academy to fight an impending relegation from the Bundesliga. Podolski made his first-team debut midway through the 2003/04 season and went on to notch double figures in under 20 Bundesliga appearances before the end of the campaign.
Wearing a humble number 36 on his back, Podolski thrust himself into the spotlight with a fierce, dipping half-volley that put his side ahead against eventual runners-up Bayern Munich. His final tally of 10 was a record for an 18-year-old in a Bundesliga season in which he’d only featured in around half of the games.
Opposition defences in Germany feared his pace and strength, and Podolski packing genuine power in his left foot, his performances earned him a place in Germany’s squad for Euro 2004 in Portugal. Before he’d broken onto the scene in the Bundesliga, Poland had courted Podolski but never really made an attempt to secure his international services.
His first major tournament may live long in his memory but the German people won’t hold any special place in their heart for it. After a disappointing draw with the Netherlands and then a stalemate with Latvia, Germany were dumped out at the group stage after falling to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic. That loss in Lisbon featured a 45-minute cameo from the teenage Podolski, who came close to putting his team in front before Milan Baroš struck to send Germany home. Despite a taste of high-level football, Podolski remained at Köln with the sole ambition to take his beloved club back to the big time.
A prolific season followed in Germany’s second tier as Podolski shone against experienced defenders. By the end of the campaign, Köln were marching back to the top flight and Podolski was walking away from the 2. Bundesliga as the top scorer. His 24 goals were as varied as they were important; free-kicks, long-shots, clinical finishes and delightful chips kept him in Jürgen Klinsmann’s Germany plans despite not playing in the top tier.
Podolski was once again touted by top clubs from around Europe but decided to stay with his Die Geißböcke as they returned to the Bundesliga. His heroics couldn’t prevent the club from yet another relegation, but a double-figure season for goals saw Podolski included in the Germany squad for the World Cup that summer.
With the tournament hosted at home, the pressure on Die Mannschaft was huge and the 16-year gap since the trophy was last brought back was becoming a growing concern. Partnered alongside fellow Polish-born forward Miroslav Klose, the 20-year-old wreaked havoc on opposition defences. Wins against Costa Rica and Poland were followed by a 3-0 defeat of Ecuador in which Podolski netted his first World Cup goal when he stretched to convert Oliver Neuville’s cross.
A clinical double saw Germany through to the quarter-finals as the country piled on the support for their national side. Klose’s late equaliser against Argentina took the tie to extra time before, as has often been tradition, Germany triumphed on penalties, Podolski converting his team’s third spot-kick.
Germany’s tournament ended in heartbreak at the semi-final stage when Fabio Grosso’s dramatic late goal sent Italy on their way to the World Cup final in Berlin. Despite theie failure, Podolski was named Young Player of the Tournament and had earned global acclaim over the course of the finals. The German public had taken the youngster into their hearts and, having been part of the national setup for two years already, it was hard to believe he was still a teenager.
Bayern Munich had come calling before the World Cup kicked off and a €10m deal was struck for Podolski to finally leave Köln. In hindsight, the Allianz Arena represented greener pastures but not every player can cope with the pressure of a big move so early in their career. He netted his first Bayern goal in a 4-2 defeat of Hertha Berlin but only notched four times across a season hit partially by injury.
Podolski’s playing time was restricted once more in his second campaign in Bavaria by the signing of Luca Toni, and with the other slot being filled by Klose, Podolski often had to settle for a place either out wide or on the bench. The Bayern fans were reminded now and again of the talent of their young forward, and they warmed to him after a curling, first-time strike from range against Borussia Dortmund helped Die Roten to a 5-0 thrashing.
Podolski got his hands on some silverware for the first time in his career as Bayern won a league and cup double before Ottmar Hitzfeld departed to take up the Switzerland job. The choice of replacement – Klinsmann – would’ve lifted Podolski, with their strong relationship a key factor in his success under the striking legend.
That summer also saw Podolski compete at Euro 2008, where he netted twice against Poland during the group stages, refusing to celebrate either of the goals. Another goal followed against Croatia but the Germans were defeated by Slaven Bilić’s side in Klagenfurt. After impressive and dramatic wins over Austria, Portugal and Turkey, Germany finished as runners-up to Spain as La Roja won just their second major tournament.
The new season started brightly as Podolski scored for Bayern on his return to Köln to secure a 3-0 win over his former side. However, it turned out to be a tough campaign for the German giants as Edin Džeko and Grafite fired Wolfsburg to an unlikely title win. Both strikers bagged braces in a 5-1 rout of Bayern in April before a 1-0 defeat to Schalke at the Allianz saw Klinsmann dismissed.
Podolski netted in two of Jupp Heynkes’ first three games in charge as caretaker manager but a few decent performances in the last weeks of the season didn’t sway the overall perception that Podolski couldn’t cut it in Bavaria. More often than not, you can’t climb the highest mountains without genuine experience.
Podolski returned to Köln to a hero’s welcome in a transfer that was partially funded by the fans, such was the attraction of their hero’s homecoming. His first season back didn’t bear much fruit in terms of goals but he did make his mark on his former employers with an exquisite free-kick only. By the end of Podolski’s third season back at the RheinEnergieStadion, Köln were being dragged back into a relegation battle. With history repeating itself, his 18 goals were not enough to keep the club in the top flight.
Two years earlier, a more mature Podolski travelled to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup as part of a young, inexperienced squad led by Joachim Löw. The manager’s tactics saw Podolski move out to the left, with Mesut Özil playing just behind Klose with a young Thomas Müller deployed on the right.
In previous tournaments, the Germans had often lacked creativity going forward but this youthful support for Klose was as refreshing as it was prolific. Australia couldn’t contain this new-look side and succumbed to a 4-0 defeat, with Podolski opening the scoring. A narrow loss to Serbia was followed by a win over Ghana by the same scoreline to secure qualification to the second round.
England were dispatched as Germany’s pacey counter-attack proved too much for John Terry and co to handle, Podolski doubling Germany’s lead during the first half with a powerful shot that found its way past David James from a tight angle. For the third time in five games, Germany notched another four goals against a desperate Argentina in the quarter-finals but they were halted by Carles Puyol’s header in the last four.
The semi-finals were again the stumbling block at Euro 2012 as Podolski, despite playing the last three seasons at lowly Köln, was called up to play in his fifth major tournament at the age of just 27. A right-footed, powerful finish against Denmark helped Germany secure a safe passage through to the quarter-finals with a perfect record after three group games. That game against Denmark was his 100th for Germany, which earned him a place among the top 10 most-capped players in the nation’s history.
André Schürrle replaced Podolski for the quarter-final tie with Greece but the Köln man returned to the starting line-up to face Italy in Warsaw. Mario Balotelli’s emphatic first-half double was enough to see the Azzurri through despite Özil grabbing a late consolation as Germany’s wait for a first trophy since 1996 went on.
Podolski’s standout performances for Köln earned him a move abroad for the first time in his career when Arsène Wenger came calling. After just a few months in north London, Podolski became a firm favourite with the fans.
For the first time in three years, Podolski was playing in a team alongside players of similar quality so it was no surprise to see him settle in quickly at Arsenal. He and Santi Cazorla, with a goal and an assist each, contributed to a win at Anfield before a free-kick against Southampton saw him make it onto the scoresheet at the Emirates for the first time.
In the Champions League, an intelligent one-two with Olivier Giroud set up Podolski to score a stunning volley against Montpellier as Arsenal progressed from their group. Having faced Köln in a pre-season friendly upon his arrival, Podolski came up against his only other former club in the last 16 as Bayern Munich visited the Emirates. By the time Podolski nodded the ball past Manuel Neuer in the second half, the Gunners were already two goals down and, despite an impressive victory at the Allianz, Arsenal succumbed to aggregate defeat.
Laurent Koscienly’s winner at Newcastle snatched Champions League football away from Tottenham as Podolski finished his first season in England with double figures for both goals and assists.
The first half of the following season was spent on the treatment table but Podolski picked himself up and produced some crucial displays as Arsenal won their first trophy in almost a decade against Hull City in the FA Cup final, a game that Podolski started only to be replaced by Yaya Sanogo after an hour.
Having fallen down the pecking order during his time abroad, Podolski had to settle for a bit-part contribution during the group stages of the 2014 World Cup as Germany progressed to the knockout rounds. His two substitute appearances in the first round proved to be his only minutes in Brazil as Germany went on to lift their first World Cup for 28 years.
Mario Götze’s goal in the final signalled a new beginning for German football with many senior players, including Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Per Mertesacker, making way after the tournament. The show would go on for Podolski, however, as Euro 2016 beckoned.
After experiencing World Cup glory for the first time, Podolski returned to Arsenal just in time for the start of the Premier League season alongside fellow champions Özil and Mertesacker. Although Podolski was used sparingly in the Premier League, he made quite the impact on Arsenal’s Champions League campaign.
In their third group fixture away at Anderlecht, Kieran Gibbs looked to have salvaged a point with a late equaliser before Podolski pounced on a loose ball inside the penalty area to fire the winner into the roof of the net. Arsenal also visited Istanbul and went ahead against Galatasaray at the intimidating Türk Telekom Stadium. Podolski found the roof of the net again, this time inside four minutes, before Aaron Ramsey’s double took the game away from Galatasaray.
Despite his mini-renaissance in Europe, the summer arrival of Alexis Sánchez had severely limited Podolski’s overall playing time and, as a result, he was sent out to Internazionale on loan in January. A swift transfer to Galatasaray followed in the summer as Podolski bid farewell to England.
Despite Galatasaray’s struggles in defending their Süper Lig title, Podolski managed double figures in the league and made a significant contribution to their cup triumph, scoring the winner in the final against bitter rivals Fenerbahçe with an opportunistic header. The goal earned him a place in Galatasaray folklore and would have had him bouncing back into the Germany squad for Euro 2016.
Much like 2014, Podolski rarely featured for Joachim Löw’s side as they were knocked out by hosts France in the semi-finals. His next and final appearance for the national side came almost 12 months later in Dortmund against England. Given his outstanding contribution to Die Mannschaft over a career that included 130 caps, 49 goals and a World Cup winners medal, the England game was dedicated to him as a testimonial.
There were tears before and after the game in which, in typical Podolski fashion, he fired the only goal of the game into the top corner from range. With Bastian Schweinsteiger following him through the exit door, it was the end of a memorable era in German football where they reached the semi-finals of six consecutive major tournaments. The boy from Köln had done his country proud and made a legion of fans the world over.
Now spending the twilight years of his career in Japan with Vissel Kobe, where he’s recently been joined by Andrés Iniesta, Podolski’s influence was missed as Germany faltered at Russia 2018, lacking leadership and fortitude, something the likes of he, Lahm and Schweinsteiger all possessed from his generation of talent.
The prodigy who started out with the billy goats from Cologne may not have turned out to be the legendary goalscorer some predicted in his early years, but his loyalty, dedication and international record, alongside his likeable and humble personality, makes Lukas Podolski one of the game’s most popular footballers.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08