Robert Lewandowski has enjoyed a sensational 2021 that saw him claim the Bundesliga's all-time single-season scoring record and play a central role in another Bayern Munich Bundesliga title win, securing his status the world's best footballer.
He's no stranger to trophies. In fact, he usually sleeps with them. There were those tweets of him and the UEFA Champions League trophy in bed together, while he also cuddled up with the FIFA Best Men's Player award in early 2021 after being named… well, you can guess.
But while it's become commonplace for fans, media, opponents and teammates to see Lewandowski scoop up honours as most scoop out ice cream on holiday, the man himself will — it seems — never get used to it.
"Kids from Poland are not supposed to be the best in the world. It’s just not supposed to happen. So when I received the trophy, I couldn’t believe it," Lewandowski wrote in The Players' Tribune after picking up the FIFA award.
"I know that people think it’s a cliché, but my life really began to flash in front of my eyes. I could see my first steps with the ball, my first games on the muddy pitches, and all the people who had helped me get to this point."
The life 'Lewy' has had is something that Hollywood could conjure: disappointments, tragedy, and a happy ending that adds smiling storyline after storyline, the latest of which has a golden lining.
Sport was in his genes from even before he was born in Leszno, the small town west of Warsaw where Lewandowski grew up. Krzysztof, his dad, had been Polish judo champion and played second division football in Warsaw, while mum Iwona was an ex-volleyball player, a sport in which his sister Milena represented Poland at youth level.
Watch: All 43 of Robert Lewandowski's goals in 2021
Just as for any great sportsman, the road to the top is long. In Lewandowski's case, it was literally long as his father would drive him an hour to the capital to train and play with Varsovia Warszawa when he was a teenager.
"They were both P.E. teachers, and my dad happened to be my P.E. teacher. So after school he would drive me to training, wait two hours for my session to finish and then drive me home," explained Lewandowski. "Some other parents thought he was crazy. They really did. I’m not kidding. I literally heard other parents ask my parents, "Why are you doing this?'"
The question was all the more pertinent as — at that age — no one could fully see the enormous potential in the rangy paperweight youth. Yes, he scored goals, but the boy was very far from the man who is now one of the game's most physically honed specimens.
"His legs were so thin; I kept urging him to put some weight on and eat more bacon sandwiches," said Krzysztof Sikorski, Lewandowski's coach at Varsovia. "It didn't stop him being a prolific scorer, though. I remember one season we scored 158 goals, and he got half of them."
"You can't imagine how small and skinny he was as a child", ex-Varsovia teammate Kamil Baczek told 51, the official Bayern Munich magazine. "You almost had to worry about something happening to him. But he was an outstanding player - he took on every opponent mercilessly."
"I was small, short and very skinny," Lewandowski himself recalled. "Everyone said, 'You are too small, you won't make it.' But I wasn't going to give up."
The change in physique would come later thanks to Mother Nature and his wife, Anna, whose university studies in nutrition and physical education helped transform her husband. Bronze medallist at the 2009 Karate World Cup, she and Lewandowski met while they were both at university and he was playing for Znicz Pruszków, the third division club he joined after he had been rejected by Legia Warsaw following a knee injury.
"It was one of the worst days of my life," wrote the Bayern superstar, who was 17 at the time Legia rejected him. "Now my career was falling apart."
That was because he felt his personal life had already been shattered. His father had passed away just over a year earlier, leaving Lewandowski devastated. His mother, however, enlisted the help of one of his former coaches and within hours he was training at Znicz. No one — least of all Lewandowski himself — could have known at the time, but this was the first step on the path that would lead to the very top of world football.
That step quickly became strides, investing in moving towards his ultimate goal in his favourite currency: goals. He finished top scorer in the league with 15 and 21 strikes as he fuelled Znicz's back-to-back promotions in 2007 and 2008. His performances very nearly convinced Legia to take him back. Instead, then-sporting director Miroslaw Trzeciak pulled the plug on the deal, stating, "Who needs this lad when we're going to have Mikel Arruabarrena from Tenerife?" Who indeed? Well, Legia as it turned out.
Watch: The evolution of Robert Lewandowski
Arruabarrena failed to find the net in six appearances for Legia, while Lewandowski joined Lech Poznan. After lifting the Polish Cup in his first campaign, the 2009/10 season saw the still-spindly forward flourish with a league-high 18 goals to bring the club a first Polish league title in 17 years. The then-Poznan coach Franciszek Smuda must have felt a little awkward: on a scouting mission just over two years earlier, he had branded Lewandowski "a tree" so wooden his performance had been.
Such displays inevitably attract attention, and if Trzeciak has any regrets about his decision not to sign Lewandowski, Blackburn Rovers must have even more.
A Premier League outfit at the time, the north-west English club had previously missed out on signing Zinedine Zidane, and were a volcanic ash cloud away from potentially netting Lewandowski. Rovers manager Sam Allardyce had travelled to Poznan to speak to Lewandowski and the Lech president, and a deal seemed imminent.
"After that, whatever could have gone wrong went wrong," Blackburn's head of recruitment at the time, Martyn Glover, said. "A trip to Manchester airport had been booked, but a volcano eruption in Iceland and the ash cloud it created caused flights to be cancelled throughout Europe for weeks."
"I wanted to go there just to see what the club is like because I didn't know back then where I was going," Lewandowski told ESPNFC in 2017 when discussing his planned visit to Ewood Park. "I couldn't go but I have to say at that time Blackburn was my second choice anyway. But maybe if I went there and saw the club — the stadium and everything — it would have become my first choice."
And his first choice then?
"There were so many rumours, so many people telling me what to do. I could have gone to so many places. But I remembered what my parents had told me: 'Trust your instincts,'" Lewandowski explained. "Deep down, I always knew where I wanted to go. Germany was calling me."
"We have reached agreement in all areas," said Borussia Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc as they landed Lewandowski with the sort of low-key statement clubs issue when they have bought a promising but largely unknown player for €4.5 million. It was a modest sum even then. Now, it looks like one of the biggest bargains in the game's history.
Initially though, it didn't. Dortmund won the Bundesliga title that season, but the club's top scorer was called Lucas Barrios, not Robert Lewandowski. The new arrival came off the bench to replace the Paraguay international and make his German top-flight debut in a 2-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 1 of the 2010/11 season. He went on to feature in all but one of his club's league games.
But coach Jürgen Klopp handed him only 15 starts, and the 22-year-old was mostly used as a support striker with Barrios the more potent of the pair at the time.
"The first two years at Dortmund, my finishing was not like it is now," Lewandowski told the BBC in 2019. "After every single training session I stayed on the pitch and practised with my left, my right foot, and being systematic and repeating the movements was very important."
Watch: Lewandowski, the 2020/21 European Golden Boot winner
He also had Klopp pushing him on. The current Liverpool manager made a bet with Lewandowski: score 10 goals in training, his boss would give him €50, fail to reach that tally and Lewandowski was the one dipping into his pocket. "The first few weeks, I had to pay up almost every time. He was laughing," admitted Lewandowski. "But after a few months, the tables turned."
"I could tell right away that he was the most interesting player to come out of Poland for 20 years," explained Klopp. "The potential was there and could easily be developed, if he had the right attitude. That is exactly what happened. It was clear he wanted to reach the top, and that was all I needed to know.
"He has all the skills you want from a striker, particularly physical strength and great finishing. But he also has the technique of a gifted midfield player. When he gets the ball in the middle of the pitch and distributes it to the wing, it's like watching a playmaker. The ball is his friend."
A modest eight goals came in his first season in Germany, and his second started with the forward not having a clear picture of what Klopp wanted from him. The pair had a frank discussion, and Lewandowski moved into devastating high gear after the talk with the man he recognises is almost literally a father figure.
"Three days later, I scored a hat trick and assisted another goal against Augsburg. We won 4–0, and that was the turning point for me," he said, describing his club's Matchday 8 win of the 2011/12 season. "It was a mental thing, a hang-up of some sort. And I think it had something to do with my father.
"At the time I didn’t think about it. But now I realise that my conversation with Jürgen was like one of those I wish I could’ve had with my dad. One of those I had not been able to have in many, many years. I could talk to Jürgen about anything. I could trust him. He is a family man, and he has so much empathy for what goes on in your private life."
Klopp's charismatic personality and human touch has worked on a host of players before and since, notably Mo Salah at Liverpool. His arm-round-the-shoulder and tough love blend of man-management brought 22 goals in 34 league appearances — all starts — from his blossoming striker, whose deadly finishing skills were honed razor-sharp by Klopp.
"He taught me so much. When I arrived at Dortmund, I wanted to do everything quickly: strong pass, one touch only. Jürgen showed me to calm down — to take two touches if necessary," Lewandowski explained.
"It was totally against my nature, but soon I was scoring more goals. When I had that down, he challenged me to speed it up again. One touch. BANG. Goal. He slowed me down to speed me up. It sounds simple, but it was genius, really."
It was the only time that Lewandowski has taken his foot off the pedal since he moved to Germany.
After pocketing a second Bundesliga winner's medal, he broke Friedhelm Konietzka's 1964/65 club record by scoring in 12 successive league games. His four-goal haul in the 4-1 UEFA Champions League semi-final mauling of Real Madrid in April 2013 was one for the record books before Dortmund went on to lose narrowly to Bayern in an all-Bundesliga final.
Lewandowski's wait for a UEFA Champions League winner's medal — and a new, shiny bedfellow — would go on until 2019/20 when he played a central role in Bayern's second treble-winning side. A successful future in Bavaria seemed assured as early as February 2013, however, when Zorc revealed the striker would not be renewing his contract, which still had 18 months to run.
He netted twice in a 4-0 win over Hertha Berlin on the final day of the 2013/14 season, the finishing touches on his haul of 103 goals in 187 competitive appearances for BVB before joining Bayern. "We are very pleased that this transfer is successful," said the Bavarian giant's CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. "Robert Lewandowski is one of the world's best strikers, he will strengthen the FC Bayern squad and give us a boost." Over 300 competitive goals for the club later — at a rate of almost one a game — you could say that, Karl-Heinz.
The boost Lewandowski gave Bayern was also fuelled by Anna, the striker's wife.
"When I was about 26, we began to look at how to use her knowledge to improve my diet and my mental approach to the game," said Lewandowski, who celebrated his 26th birthday the day before he made his Bundesliga debut for Bayern in a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg.
"We spoke about every problem. Again I realised something that I wish they would teach all young footballers: Whenever you open up about your problems instead of burying them inside, they instantly became easier to solve. That was a big, big step up in my development as a footballer — and as a human being."
Prolific previously, Lewandowski moved up a gear. His new approach to his work off the pitch meant he missed just 10 Bundesliga games through injury in his first seven seasons at Bayern. Ten. His longest spell on the sidelines was four successive matches, and that was in the 2020/21 campaign, the one in which he netted 41 goals in 29 top-flight matches to break Gerd Müller's single-season scoring record, a mark that had stood for nearly half a century.
That outstanding achievement — which came with the dying breath of the season in Bayern's 5-2 win against Augsburg — is not the only time Lewandowski has made individual history in the Bundesliga. Anyone remember those five goals in nine minutes? If you don't, it means you simply didn't see it. Having said that, even those who saw it could scarcely believe it.
"This is something I have never experienced before," said then-Bayern coach Pep Guardiola, who had previously witnessed the genius of players such as Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. "I can't really understand it. Five goals. Neither as a coach nor as a player did I ever experience something like this and I can't really explain it."
Watch: Lewandowski's five goals in nine minutes
"This was just crazy. Five goals, that's just unbelievable. I just wanted to shoot and wasn't thinking about what happened afterwards," said Lewandowski, who had come off the bench at half-time with his team 1-0 down against Wolfsburg before flipping the scoreline violently on its head between the 51st to the 60th minutes.
"I looked up at the board after the third or fourth goal and I was surprised there was still so much time left to play. The coach did not have to tell me anything. I knew what had to be done. But it was only one game, we have to win the next games as well. We are Bayern Munich."
That sort of sentiment was echoed by Bayern captain Philipp Lahm post-game, who was only half-joking when he said: "You have to remain critical — Lewandowski could have grabbed seven tonight...he missed two big chances!"
He certainly hasn't missed many since. He has claimed the individual honour of being the Bundesliga's all-time leading foreign-born scorer, and has moved second overall in the German top flight's scoring chart behind Müller, whose 365 league strikes for Bayern may be just out of reach for Lewandowski, who turned 33 in August 2021.
Then again, they might not with the Pole having passed the 300-goal mark in August 2021 and passing another of Müller's longstanding records by setting a new bar for most Bundesliga goals in a calendar year with 43 strikes from January to December in 2021. His legendary commitment to his own and Bayern's cause keeping him on the pitch and in tip-top condition.
"He is the most professional player I have ever met," current Manchester City boss Guardiola said in February 2016. "In his head, he thinks about the right food, sleep and training: 24 hours a day. He is always there - never injured - because he focuses on these things. He always knows what is important to be in the best condition."
He certainly seems to — just when you think he has peaked — find a new cruising altitude.
He struck a career-high 15 UEFA Champions League goals in 2019/20, the season in which he also broke the Bundesliga record for the highest tally for a foreign-born player with 34. Then came his stratospheric record-setting 2020/21 in which he scored 48 times in just 40 competitive appearances for Bayern to wrap up a ninth successive title win. Somehow he missed out on this year's Ballon d'Or, but he was not to be denied a second straight FIFA Best Men's gong.
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