Lukasz Piszczek: Borussia Dortmund's greatest servant
Although Lukasz Piszczek did not get the vociferous send-off his dedication and loyalty to Borussia Dortmund deserved, Signal Iduna Park's famous Südtribune was nevertheless one grand tribute to the No26 who is leaving his home for 11 years.
bundesliga.com pays homage to Piszczek, the iconic flying full-back who became a living legend in Dortmund.
A patient breakout in Berlin
It's difficult to think of Piszczek as anything but a marauding right-back in the black and yellow of Dortmund but there was a time when the now 35-year-old plied his trade both further up the pitch and further west of the country.
A barnstorming UEFA Under-19 European Championship with Poland put the world on notice of the teenage Piszczek as he took his goalscoring exploits in Gwarek Zabrze's academy to the international stage. He would finish up joint top-scorer in the competition with four goals, including an effort against a Germany side featuring Mario Gomez and Rene Adler, despite the Poles finishing bottom of their group and losing three out of three matches.
It was at youth international level that a burgeoning relationship with Jakub Blaszczykowski would form, albeit with Piszczek featuring alongside his future BVB teammate in attack rather than bombing past him on the overlap. And those performances would prompt Hertha Berlin to make their move for Piszczek in the summer of 2004 but after loaning him to Zaglebie Lubin for three seasons, he would not make his Bundesliga debut until August 2007.
Watch: Piszczek Top 5 Bundesliga goals!
He did so as a centre-forward in the 1-0 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt and Piszczek would spend his early days in Germany flitting across Hertha's front-line. A maiden Bundesliga goal would come in April 2008 but his second season with the Old Lady became what defined him: A cruel run of injuries first saw him miss 20 successive Bundesliga matchdays before a run at right-back for the final five matches of the season helped shape his future.
Who was the coach that masterminded Piszczek's move to full-back? Why none other than Lucien Favre, the man who later had the pleasure of working with him again at Dortmund.
"Above all, he was a striker. My assistant coach and I saw that he did really well [at right-back]. It was surprising," recalled Favre to BVB Matchday Magazine. "You're a striker and all of a sudden you're supposed to play right-back. He was not convinced and I understand that. He was not too excited about it but, bit-by-bit, he understood that it was pretty good for his career."
A home from home
Favre's departure from Berlin in September 2009 preceded Piszczek's by only nine months, the 65-time capped Poland international recruited by Jürgen Klopp despite Hertha's relegation, as the German tactician plotted the club's first league title in nine years.
And boy did Piszczek have an impact. His searing pace, relentless running and superb delivery provided seven assists and aided 14 clean sheets as Klopp's men romped to the Meisterschale with the Polish trio of Piszczek, Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski at their heart. It was a remarkable first season at the club and by the time Piszczek had helped defend Dortmund's Bundesliga crown while adding a DFB Cup trophy to the Signal Iduna Park's halls a year later, he had clearly endeared himself to the Yellow Wall's revered faithful.
"I've spent two years in Dortmund, during which time I've become firmly embedded in the football culture, the club and the Borussia Dortmund fans," he said at the time. And it's little wonder fans from this mining region - famed for hard work - took so fondly to Piszczek, who built his legend with every one of his 11 seasons in Dortmund colours on the back of a highly professional and dedicated approach. Just ask anyone who has seen first hand how Piszczek sets the example for those around him to follow.
"He's really conscientious, a role model, the best you could hope for. He embodies everything that is good about BVB and what BVB should stand for," said former coach Thomas Tuchel, while Dortmund's sporting director Michael Zorc adds: "'Piszczu' is an absolute model professional and, as such, a role model for our younger players."
Watch: Lukasz Piszczek's Signal Iduna Park send-off
While the trophies Piszczek has helped deliver to the Dortmund cabinet speaks volumes for his importance to the team over the last decade, those that they've missed out on similarly communicate his significance. And there is no more relevant case in point than the 2017/18 Bundesliga season.
Dortmund were rampant as they went on a seven-game unbeaten start under Peter Bosz, moving five points clear of Bayern Munich at the top of the table. But a ruptured knee ligament sparked a subsequent run of eight games without a win that led to the Dutchman's departure. Peter Stöger stepped into the role and with Piszczek back in his side, Dortmund immediately went on a 10-game unbeaten streak.
They would lose just four league matches and concede 21 goals from Piszczek's 24 appearances that season, compared to five defeats and 20 goals shipped in the 10 he missed through injury. That led Dortmund to finishing fourth and a whopping 29 points behind champions Bayern, with Dortmund's CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke saying the team missed Piszczek and fellow absentee Marco Reus "like a fish misses water."
In total, Piszczek sat out 109 games in all competitions due to injury over his time at Dortmund, a spell that could have been even more trophy-laden had both the player and club enjoyed a little more luck. Furthermore, he never earned a suspension, seeing just 21 yellow cards at an average of just two per season. Those came from a remarkably low total of 150 fouls while, in the season just ended, Piszczek committed just one solitary foul. For a defender on the field for 450 minutes, facing some of the fastest, trickiest and most talented wingers in the game, that is some achievement.
Despite these spells on the sidelines, Piszczek's longevity is undeniable and after 332 Bundesliga games, 49 assists, 19 goals, two league crowns, a DFB Cup treble and a trio of German Super Cups in the bank, it's been a truly memorable career in Germany for one of Dortmund's most iconic players in recent memory.
"He's an incredibly worthy player," said Edin Terzic, the final coach of his Dortmund days. "He's taken this club onto another level, with the titles he's won here, and he was an important member of this team.
"When we're all allowed back into the stadium again; when this pandemic is over, I hope Lukasz will be given the send-off he deserves, in front of a full house, with everybody chanting his name and celebrating him."
Such a testimonial is an unwritten obligation once it is again possible, and when he does return 'home' to say an official farewell to the fans, he will do so having left the club the way he ended his first year on the right-hand side of their defence: with a trophy.
"When I extended my contract by a year, I said that I'd love to leave with a cup or the league title," he said. "We've done that and I'm so happy and proud. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."
Likewise, Dortmund will never forget the Piszczek years.
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