60 years of Bundesliga

Lukas Podolski: a Bundesliga and Germany legend


Lukas Podolski is a Bundesliga legend having starred for Cologne and Bayern Munich in the German top flight while also earning himself a place in his nation's football history for his part of the 2014 FIFA World Cup win. bundesliga.com pays tribute to the Cologne boy made very, very good.

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"I've often been asked the question, 'What was your best moment in football?' Honestly, I don't have one," said Podolski post-retirement. "From 2003 to now, I'm totally happy with the whole of my career. Numerous cities, wins, defeats, goals, assists — it's all part of me and defines me."

He certainly has played in a number of special cities and countries: Munich with Bayern, London with Arsenal, Milan with Inter and Istanbul with Galatasaray. But if there is one city that really does define Podolski, it is Cologne.

Watch: Lukas Podolski's top five goals

Podolski was not born there. When he came into the world on 4 June 1985 it was in the Polish city of Gliwice, but he was just two years old when his parents, former footballer Waldemar and ex-international handballer Krysztyna, and his sister headed across the border to then-West Germany, travelling to the Domstadt to re-join the childrens' paternal grandparents.

"We had nothing," said Waldemar, who made the move in the dying throes of the Cold War. "That's when Lukas started getting into football. Every day, he would be out there on the playground with a ball."

It is a long way from those first tentative dribbles in Bergheim, a suburb of Cologne, to owning a string of kebab shops, an ice cream parlour, a sportswear brand with a shop in the centre and, well, generally being regarded as a living legend of the city.

The feeling is mutual. "It's hard to put into words," said Podolski, trying to find how to express his connection to the city that made him. "There are times when I'm totally in love with it. When I land at the airport or walk down certain streets, when I see the stadium for example, then I get butterflies in my stomach. Then I realise I'm home."

He was not always that comfortable. Hailing from an immigrant family, at first Podolski was not even Lukas - he instead wrote his first name with the Polish spelling Łukasz. But his football ability, which stood out early on, earned him kudos in social circles, and also the nickname by which he is universally known in Germany.

He was just six when he joined Jugend 07 Bergheim, his local club, and within four years he was pulling on the shirt of his first football love: 1. FC Köln. With a flurry of players called Lukas in the squad, Podolski was christened 'Poldi'. And yes, it has stuck.

"I just went for it and took on the challenge," explained Podolski of how he established himself in a fiercely competitive environment. "I was this kid from Poland, an immigrant kid, who didn't let himself get pushed around in training. I said to myself, 'So, now you're here, train!' Of course, you also need a little luck and a coach who has faith in you. That was my case, too. And everyone knows what came after that."

Marcel Koller is the man Podolski means, the one who saw the potential and took the risk. At the start of the 2003/04 season, the 18-year-old Podolski was still part of the club's youth set-up — scoring eight times in the opening eight games for the U19 side — to catch Koller's eye.

Marcel Koller gave Lukas Podolski his Bundesliga break while Cologne coach. - Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

"I became Cologne coach in November 2003 and shortly thereafter I saw Lukas Podolski on a football pitch for the first time. Immediately you noticed things: that he had a very strong left foot, a perfect centre of gravity, that he's very dynamic and powerful," explained Koller, who decided to take his young protégé on a first-team training camp and the rest is, well, German football history.

Of course, Koller's gamble paid off handsomely. On 11 November 2003, Podolski signed his maiden pro deal, and a further 11 days on, he was a Bundesliga player making his debut against Hamburg. Three days later, he netted the first of his 55 German top-flight goals for the club in a 1-1 draw with Hansa Rostock. He ended the season with 10 goals in 19 Bundesliga appearances, a feat never previously achieved by an 18-year-old. How good an achievement was that? It took Florian Wirtz — another Cologne youth academy product — to claim the record from him. That was in September 2021.

"It wasn't like it is now. In my day, there were a lot fewer players who got to play in the top flight so young," Podolski explained. "I know what I owe Marcel Koller. Without him, I would perhaps be playing for Bergheim today, and wouldn't have been able to have such a career."

There was no stopping Cologne's teenage prodigy. The club's problem was that the rest of the team were very stoppable indeed. Relegated that season, they bounced back up immediately thanks to Podolski's league-high 24 goals in 30 Bundesliga 2 games only to go back down again as a further 12 top-flight strikes from the young forward were not enough. As his beloved club yo-yoed between divisions, Podolski had to move to ensure his career maintained an upward trajectory.

Podolski's (c.) time at Bayern Munich was not the happiest of his career - Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

"I'm looking forward to a new challenge," said Podolski, who - aged 21 - was expected to take the step up in his career that he could not have made with Cologne at the time and so he made the move to Bayern. "Another year in the second division wouldn't have been OK for me."

The promise of Podolski had been significantly enhanced by his international performances. Having made his debut as a surprise inclusion in the squad for UEFA Euro 2004, he became a central figure in the rebuilding of the national team and was key in Germany finishing third at their home FIFA World Cup in 2006, where Podolski was named Best Young Player ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But why not Poland? Imagine what Robert Lewandowski and he could have done up front together… "No one suggested to me to play for Poland when it was still possible," explained Podolski. "The officials missed their chance."

Watch: Podolski's top long-range goals

His international career blossomed just as his club career also should have, but instead it stalled at Bayern. Under Felix Magath, Ottmar Hitzfeld and his 2006 World Cup father-figure Jürgen Klinsmann, Podolski never quite clicked with the record German champions. He played the full 90 minutes in just 13 of his 71 league games, and scored only 13 goals, a paltry return for such a talent.

Two of those strikes came - along with five assists - in his final five league appearances for the club when Klinsmann had been replaced by Jupp Heynckes. "If Heynckes had come earlier," said then-Bayern president Uli Hoeneß a few years later. "Lukas would perhaps still be playing for us."

But the damage had been done. "If I had known that it would go as it did, then I wouldn't have even signed," said Podolski. Even the swelling of his medal collection as Bayern won the double in 2007/08 could not ease his pain. Though he still had 12 months to go on his contract at the Allianz Arena, there was only one place Podolski wanted to be come the end of the 2008/09 campaign.

"I wanted to go back to Effzeh, to the fans, the Südkurve," he said. "I could have played in the Champions League for years, but at that time, I didn't give a f**k."

How could Cologne afford to bring a superstar back home? Michael Schumacher. Well, not only thanks to the seven-time Formula One world champion who was born just outside Cologne, but he did contribute €875 of the estimated €10 million transfer fee by buying some of the 37,500 pixels of an online Podolski picture at €25 a pixel that was used, in part, to fund the move.

"So, boy, you decided to follow your heart," Schumacher wrote on the club's website. "Now you can show what you've got and allow all FC fans to celebrate again."

The man who wore his home city's name and crest on his right bicep certainly does have an emotional attachment to the club. "I do that from the heart, because a part of Cologne is always in me — the city, the fans, the people, they have given me so much," said Podolski after brandishing the club's flag on the Maracana pitch after Germany had won the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the biggest prize Podolski picked up in the 130 caps he won for his country.

A first-choice Germany international at the time, it was little wonder the Cologne fans could barely believe their prodigal son had returned to the RheinEnergieStadion. They perhaps should not have been too surprised that the comeback did not match their stratospheric expectations, however.

His first season back was a struggle, and though the 2010/11 campaign was better — he scored 13 times in 32 games and was named captain — the arrival of Stale Solbakken for the 2011/12 season made life more turbulent for Podolski.

Stale Solbakken's appointment as Cologne coach cast a shadow over Podolski's second spell at the club. - Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The new Cologne boss handed centre-back Pedro Geromel the captain's armband: cue a frenzied reaction from the fans at what they saw as an unforgiveable act of lèse majesté by Solbakken.

"I can understand the reactions this decision has provoked, and I understand the disappointment of some fans," said the Norwegian boss, who highlighted Podolski's comprehension of the move too. "In my idea of playing, he has an important role as a matchwinner. All of us in the coaching staff are convinced of his qualities as a player and his ability to produce performances."

Podolski certainly responded positively on the pitch. He finished the season as the fourth-top scorer in the division with 18 goals in 32 appearances, but it was another heroic effort in vain. He could not single-handedly save his team from relegation and another move beckoned.

He signed for Arsenal, though took his home town with him by singing 'Viva Colonia' at his initiation with the Gunners. He also packed a weighty CV that had been embellished by his achievements for his country.

Though the World Cup win was still two years away, Podolski had struck the second-fastest senior international goal of all-time when he hit the net after just nine seconds of the late May 2013 friendly against Ecuador. "I would be lying if I said that it meant nothing to me. I'll happily take it, but I wouldn't place it too highly as I've already scored more important goals."

He certainly had already brought up a more important landmark before arriving in the British capital, winning his 100th cap in the opening group game at UEFA Euro 2012 at the age of 27 years and 13 days to set a new world record as the game's youngest international centurion and knock legendary compatriot Franz Beckenbauer off top spot.

"I have always said that 100 caps is a milestone I'd like to achieve, a dream, and there's a certain pride," said Podolski, who was surpassed by Spain's Sergio Ramos in May 2013. "But it's not my aim to go chasing after statistics. There are 1000 more important things."

Perhaps he doesn't indulge in the selfish pursuit of massaging his numbers, but he did chase a selfie with then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she arrived in the dressing room to congratulate her nation's best footballers on having lifted the World Cup in Brazil.

Podolski played just 53 minutes of Germany's triumphant march to the summit of the global game as his international career was already starting to wind down, finally coming to an end after UEFA Euro 2016.

"It was tough for me to come to this decision. The national team has always been an affair of the heart for me and always will be," wrote Podolski in his farewell to Germany fans on his Instagram account. "Everything has its time, and my time with the national team is over."

That was August 2016, but come March 2017, Podolski was winning the last of his caps in fitting fashion with a friendly against England in Dortmund. It ended 1-0 with Podolski, named captain for his swansong, thrashing in a long-distance screamer - something of a specialty, and his 49th goal for his country - to win it. It is easy to sum up his place in Germany's pantheon of greats: only Miroslav Klose and Germany's 1990 FIFA World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthäus have played more times for the four-time world champions, and only Klose and Gerd Müller have scored more goals.

Ironically, Podolski's first appearance for Arsenal was in a 4-0 friendly win against Cologne, the local boy scoring twice. It set the tone for a successful first season in England that ended with a total of 16 goals and 11 assists. He helped the Gunners end a nine-year trophy drought with an FA Cup final win just before he went to Brazil, but consigned to a bit-part role after becoming world champion, Podolski was at another crossroads. "Of course I'm not happy with my situation right now," he said. "I can't be satisfied with that. It's hard when you can't do what you love."

He left for Inter Milan on loan in January 2015, and then joined Galatasaray on a permanent basis the following summer, winning a Turkish Cup - and scoring the winning goal in the final against his club's arch-Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce - a year later. He then, in March 2017, made a surprise announcement that he would joining an exclusive club containing Pierre Littbarski, Guido Buchwald, Uwe Bein, Frank Ordenewitz and Michael Rummenigge of German players who had plied their trade in Japan.

He added an Emperor's Cup to his collection and after two-and-a-half years returned to Turkey with Antalyaspor. His story there turned sour over 18 months, but it did have a happy ending as he, in summer 2021, went back to his roots. No, not Cologne. His other roots.

"I'm delighted that I'm home and that I can play in this stadium," said Podolski upon signing for Gornik Zabrze, the Polish top-flight side located a handful of miles from his birthplace. "It's even more emotional [than his return to Cologne from Bayern] because I was born here. My whole family are fans of this club. Now I'm wearing the shirt, and the last game of my career, I will play it for Gornik."

When that final 90 minutes comes is going to be down to Podolski. When he does hang up his boots, though, he will surely have one more homecoming in him.

"Lukas is an idol for a whole generation of FC fans and will always find an open door here," said Cologne president Werner Wolf. "We would like to use his love and the spotlight he brings FC, and at the same time, accompany Lukas in the important and very personal steps in the transition from an active career to the time afterwards."

"We had a pleasant and open exchange, and I want to thank the FC officials for that," said Podolski. "I'm looking forward to planning together how I can support FC.

"Because Cologne is and remains my home, and FC is my club."