Robert Lewandowski is proving the value of the old-fashioned striker. But what created him?
The winter is severe in Warsaw. It is 14 January 2006. Robert Lewandowski is seventeen, with a head full of dreams of becoming the next star of Legia Warsaw’s attack. He is tall and slim and arrived just a few months ago from Legia’s small satellite club in the fourth division, Delta. After signing a one-year deal with Legia, he was immediately sent to play for the reserves in the third division. On this particular day, it’s five degrees below zero, and the snow is piled around the artificial grass pitch where Legia reserves play in the Syrenka Cup, a friendly tournament, against other local teams from lower divisions. In the final, Legia face their local rivals, Polonia. Lewandowski scores five.
“I don’t really remember that match,” Lewandowski said nine years later, shortly after captaining Poland to a place at Euro 2016 and finishing the qualifiers as top scorer. Poland secured qualification for France at the super-modern Stadion Narodowy, 8km away from Legia’s old ground. “Well, I do remember the pitch we played at and that it took a while to adapt to the conditions,” he recalls. “I can’t believe what happened.” He scored his first goal in the second minute, with the others coming in the 5th, 9th, 12th and 34th. Legia’s reserves won the Syrenka Cup, but it was the only silverware they lifted with Lewandowski in the team. A few weeks later he was injured – the only serious injury he has ever had – and after treatment he was sold for £1000 to another third division team, Znicz Pruszków. It’s a mistake Legia fans regret to this day. To be fair the club, though, even Lewandowski’s most devout fan couldn’t have predicted what a player he would become.
“I’ll never agree with those who claim my son was meant for football,” Lewandowski’s mother, Iwona, said. She saved his career. “I remember that day as if it had happened yesterday. He was at the end of his break, ready to come back and fight for his chance at best club in our region. I was waiting in the car and I immediately saw something was wrong. He was devastated: ‘Mama, they erased me from their plans. It’s over.’ I simply couldn’t believe it.” Even all these years later, she is clearly moved by the memory. “We came back home. I made the dinner. He refused to eat. I didn’t know what to do. And suddenly, I decided to call one of his previous coaches and ordered Robert to get his boots. We drove to meet him and he immediately called Znicz. Within 40 minutes we were there. Their team was getting ready for training. The coach came in and saw Robert. He knew him from Legia. ‘What the hell?!’ he shouted. ‘Get yourself ready for training now!’ Robert was so happy when he heard this. It was the beginning of a new era.”
Iwona Lewandowski smiled and stopped for a little while. We met in a brand new sushi restaurant in central Warsaw and talked for more than two hours. She came with her other child, Robert’s sister, Milena, who is three years his elder. At that moment Milena and I looked at Iwona as her strong, joyful voice started to waver. I noticed that her brown eyes were in tears. “I’ve no idea why I’m acting like this,” she said. “This was never me. I did it all the way my husband would have done it. I believe he pushed me from heaven to help our only son. Krzys passed away in March 2005. I never realised before, but yes, he never saw Robert playing professional football even once. But it was he who shaped the man Robert is now.”
Lewandowski was raised in a family in which sport was as natural as breathing. Iwona represented Poland at volleyball; Krzysztof was a European junior champion in judo. He was the one who decided their son’s name. “He knew we were going to raise a footballer. That’s why he is Robert: travelling through Europe Krzysztof witnessed how important it would be to have an internationally recognisable name.”
When Robert was eight, he lived in Leszno, 30km and 40 minutes by bus from Warsaw. His father taught him judo, but decided his body was much more suited for football. But the basics of martial arts would be very useful years later, when Robert fights with defenders. The local club Partyzant had no junior teams, so Robert needed to go to Varsovia, where he trained and played with boys two years older. “He was small and very slim, but he knew what to do,” his sister says. “Sport was everything to us. I trained to play volleyball so our parents were a little bit stretched. It was normal that I had to wait two or three hours until Robert was finished, or the opposite. And of course, we played matches on weekdays.”
Milena is the charming and beautiful mother of Leon, a six-month-old boy sleeping in the stroller next to our table. With her husband, Radek, she runs a bespoke tailor shop called Signor Leone. Robert, who refuses to confirm if he invested his money in the family business, wears their suits. “Yeah, it’s really quality stuff,” Robert says. “And Radek is very professional. He needed only two hours to work on me; he never asked me back again like others did.”
Officially, Robert’s first club was Varsovia. Although he started playing football when he was six at Partyzant Leszno, they never registered him. They regret this now, as Uefa transfer rules would have earned them enough money to survive for years after his moves to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. But it’s not that Lewandowski never played for Partyzant. Despite playing basketball, volleyball, handball (always in the school’s first team) and running, he operated under a false name. In one of the matches he scored a few goals and at half-time his father and coach decided to substitute him so that their opponents would not start checking the documents. Milena treats this as a joke. “I think this is the most crazy thing my little brother did in his all life,” she she laughs.
But that’s not true. “Robert told me that when he was a teenager he took his parents’ car once and went away somewhere,” Wojtiech Zawiola, a journalist for Polish broadcaster nc+ claims. But Lewandowski is not the kind of man who would seek trouble. “We had warm, loving home,” Iwona says. “We gave him confidence, protected his education and tried to help him develop as the footballer. It was his dream from the very first moment of his life, and also his father’s dream. Especially Legia. Krzys was huge fan of the club.”
Lewandowski was 16 when his parents decided it was time for the kids to move to Warsaw. So, Robert had only one bus instead of two hours driving for every training session and every match at Varsovia. He lived with his sister in a small apartment owned by the family. The parents came as often as they could. Robert asked his father to video training and matches, so they could watch them and correct any mistakes. He also competed against his dog. “He came home angry once,” Iwona remembers, “because his dog was quicker than him. He tried to be faster until he succeeded. I laughed, but now I see that he was focused on winning, always and everywhere. It wasn’t easy, and he was much smaller than the other kids.”
“We had to work a lot on him, but he was a pure talent,” Krzysztof Sikorski, Lewandowski’s first coach at Varsovia, told the TVP cameras after his protégé had hit five in nine minutes after coming off the bench at half-time against Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga in September 2015. “He loved football and the ball loved him.” He likes to tell the story of the end of the 1999 season, when Lewandowski wasted six one-on-one chances in a game and the team lost 1-0. “The other boys were so used to Robert scoring that nobody ran forward to help him,” Iwona remembers. “He was devastated until next match when he scored again.
“And Varsovia were very poor – they couldn’t afford respectable facilities. He changed in the backseat of our car and I always came with sausage and bread after the match, but when he scored he could eat his beloved muffins. Something his wife would now kill him for.” All three of us laugh.
Robert was 16 when his father died. “Robert didn’t really have time to see this,” said Milena. “I was older, and we decided with Mama that I would be the one knowing what was going on. He passed away very rapidly. Robert was obviously very moved by this. He never talked with Tata about his disease, but he felt the shadow that was coming.”
Then it was time to sort out Robert’s next move. He and his family chose Delta, Legia satellite club. On 30 April 2005, in front of 200 spectators, Robert scored his first senior goal, against KS Łomianki in the fourth division, on a small pitch with no seats and no stands. After nine months he decided it was time to move to Legia, as the financially troubled Delta senior team were liquidated. “During the next year, he never received any real chance at Legia,” Iwona remembers. “I remember that watching the reserve-team matches many people asked why Robert never got a chance.” Legia seemed to prefer a forward called Dawid Janczyk.
The knee injury ended his hopes at Legia. “Robert was so energetic that I couldn’t stand him when he was injured,” Milena said, shaking her head. “I was happier than my brother when he could get back to playing. But not for Legia.”
Janczyk signed for Legia in 2005, and two years later was sold to CSKA Moscow for more than €4m. After scoring only twice and being loaned to four clubs he was sold to Piast Gliwice in 2014. After a year there he is without a club and almost out of football, admitting he has disciplinary problems.
Robert shows no sign of bitterness about what happened at Legia. He’s very different from the shy boy I met in 2007 when he was at Znicz and I was working as a commentator for TVP, covering second-division games. Lewandowski was the lethal weapon of the youngest team, the newcomers who nearly made it to the top flight. Eight years on he’s a gladiator, a European star and the captain of the national team. But I still get the impression every time we talk that he’s pretty much the same boy, focused on team winning.
“The injury I had during the year I was there was the reason Legia did not believe in my future,” Lewandowski said. “I was only a reserve-team prospect then, but that was not the future written for me. It was a painful experience, but only for a moment.”
Lewandowski graduated from high school and enrolled as a student at Warsaw’s Academy of Physical Education, where his parents met more than two decades ago. It’s there that he met Anna, a karate champion and future world champion with the Poland national team. He introduced himself as Andrzej. He was in a group, sure she would not remember his name, so he didn’t care. The next time they met she called him by his false name. Surprised she knew it, Robert started talking to her.
At that time in the third division he earned £230 a month. “I remember that he was driving a blue Fiat Bravo, and he always came to the club with two or three other players so they would share petrol costs,” said Leszek Ojrzyński, then the coach of Znicz. Lewandowski remains faithful to Italian cars, driving a red Ferrari, bought after signing his contract with Bayern.
When a friend asked me to set up the meeting with Lewandowski to show him his KTM X-Bow, I texted him — “Wanna ride KTM? 240 horse power, 800 kilos, no roof?” “Sure, let’s meet before the national team match,” he replied.
We came on the Tuesday, as I knew Robert wanted to stop his activities – interviews, commercial appearances etc – three days before the game. Did he enjoy the ride? “Nice, fast. But I already have a car,” he replied. Typical Lewandowski. It’s not the money — he earns €100,000 in three days. But he doesn’t like to spend when it’s not necessary, even though cars are his true passion.
Seven years ago he couldn’t even dream about this sort of money. “Robert came to us in the autumn,” said Ojrzyński. “He was physically weak, scored three times. After eleven weeks of the winter break, when we could prepare him, he scored twelve goals and we got promoted. In the first division he started scoring and assisting from the very first moment. When I moved to Wisła Płock I wanted to sign him, but he was already priced at £200,000. We couldn’t afford him. Maybe it was good, because at Płock he would never have developed as he did at Lech Poznań.”
It was at Znicz that Lewandowski started to become recognisable beyond the Warsaw football environment. As he was failing to make it at Legia, the forward Cezary Kucharski was finishing his playing career at the club. “I didn’t know him at that time,” he said. “The first time I saw him was training at Znicz, where I’d gone to help another player. But when I saw Robert’s movement and the touch, I immediately decided to contact him.”
We met in Warsaw, in the prestigious modern apartment that serves as CK Sport Management’s headquarters. The inside is luxurious and stylish. Kucharski’s office has a big brown leather chair and wooden furniture, full of his career football shirts and honours. “In 2006,” Kucharski recalls, “I said in an interview that I would stay in football as a players’ agent. And that I wanted to raise another David Beckham. I was sure we had that kind of player in Poland; it’s just that nobody takes the right care of them. And I knew I wanted to build a big, international career when I found a suitable player. I was lucky to find him right after.” Kucharski, who invested the money he made in football into 27 apartments in Warsaw and was elected to Polish parliament, pours a cup of black tea.
He was the first agent to talk to Lewandowski. “Cezary called Robert and when we met I was charmed,” said Iwona. “He seemed trustworthy, saying he thought that my son was a future star and had the potential to make a good career abroad. I was touched with the way he talked, promising to help Robert, not just earn from him.”
Lewandowski, whose role model was Thierry Henry, liked the prospect of major football abroad. “His first question was, ‘What and how should I improve?’” remembers Kucharski. “Well, at that time, despite his huge talent, it was pretty much everything.”
By then, Lewandowski could already have been a player at IL Hødd, but the club promoted to Norway’s top flight never sent an official transfer request. They decided that a player from the Polish third division was too much risk. When Kucharski came on the scene, Lewandowski was on his way to becoming the second division’s top scorer, as he had been the previous season in the third. The offers started to come. “Half of the Ekstraklasa teams wanted Robert,” Kucharski said. The choice seemed obvious: Legia.
At that time, Legia were a superpower waiting to be born. With a new rich owner the future seemed bright. Mirosław Trzeciak, their sports director and a former national-team forward, had been searching for a new striker. As the man who scored the winning goal in Osasuna’s crucial match while battling for promotion to La Liga, Trzeciak was taken by the idea of signing a player from Spain rather than giving a chance to a promising Pole. One day the mobile phone of Znicz Pruszków’s president Sylwiusz Mucha-Orliński rang: “Trzeciak here. You can sell Lewandowski, we just signed Mikel Arruabarrena. In this situation your boy would be fifth in line to play at Legia.” Arruabarrena failed in Poland and Lewandowski signed for Legia’s biggest rivals, Lech Poznań. Robert was not to fulfil his father’s dream of being a star in the city of his birth.
Seven years later, Kucharski claims Legia had no chance. “I was the one who told Robert, ‘You should not go to Legia.’ Why? Because I was captain at that club and I knew they were not going in the right direction at that time. Lech gave us the chance of moving forward, up to the title. The coach Franciszek Smuda wanted my player and from the very first moment we all felt this was the right thing to do.” What Kucharski does not say is that Lech’s offer was not the best one. But Znicz’s president, grateful for what Lewandowski had achieved, told the player he would agree to any transfer suitable for Robert, as he signed him for almost nothing. Lech payed £200,000 plus bonuses. In other words, Lewy was worth a million złoty. And he signed the first deal that made him a rich man – his basic salary was £8,000 a month. One of his first decisions was helping his mother buy a new car, which for Robert has become a relative common expenditure.
In Poznań, one of Poland’s biggest cities, only a 90-minute drive to Berlin thanks to new A2 motorway, Lech means everything. The city breathes the club. Fans were delighted with the signing of Lewandowski. “It was extremely important to us,” Kucharski said. “Every coach offered a place in the first team from the start, but Lech’s stadium, under construction before Euro 2012, with passionate fans, helped us prepare for the next move. When we were negotiating terms, I already told Lech’s owner that we were going there to win something and take another step.”
“We decided to sign Robert Lewandowski after deep research made by our Scouting Department,” explained Piotr Rutkowski, vice-president and son of the owner, Germany-based businessman Jacek Rutkowski. “We observed him many times and wanted to know everything about him. He was getting better and better every day, and very soon foreign clubs started asking about him.”
If their research was so good, though, why didn’t Smuda know anything about Robert’s personal life? “Cezary asked me once to drive with him to Białystok, where Lech were playing Jagiellonia in a league match the next day,” said Iwona. “We met the coach in the hotel lobby. He knew nothing about Robert’s father and all that story. Maybe he didn’t care. But after that he said in an interview that he knew Robert would never cause any trouble and would keep his feet on the ground.”
Smuda is linked with another story. Watching one of the Znicz matches to scout Lewandowski he decided to leave early, dismissing the forward. “Are you crazy?” he shouted at Kucharski so everybody in the small VIP area in Pruszków could hear. “What is this? A boy with wooden legs? Give me back the money I spent on petrol.”
“Yeah, that was fun,” said Kucharski as he poured another cup of tea. “It was all a set-up. Smuda went crazy about Lewandowski. But he knew other coaches might do the same. So he asked me if he could leave early and shout at me. I was surprised at that moment, but played my role and few minutes later he assured me this was only an act for other club’s representatives watching Robert.” The story is good, but local journalists claim Smuda would have preferred the experienced Tomasz Frankowski over Lewandowski, calling him “that boy from Znicz”.
But Lewandowski shone from his very first moment at the club. The new forward scored a beautiful back-heel goal in his league debut against GKS Bełchatów, a 3-2 defeat, only four minutes after coming on as a substitute. With expectations raised, the press wanted the national team coach Leo Beenhakker to give the wunderkind his chance. “Is he a player who can fight with strong Czech Republic defenders who would want to kill him in every second of the match?” the Dutchman replied. He decided it was too early to call up the Lech player for Euro 2008. But a few weeks after the tournament it was time. After a draw at home to Slovenia, he picked Lewandowski for the next match, away at San Marino.
It was there, in the small Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle, that Lewandowski scored his first national team goal. He doesn’t remember that either. Well, in all honesty neither does Poland, as the nation was stunned in the opening minutes when San Marino were awarded a penalty, only for Łukasz Fabiański to save from Andy Selva. Lewandowski came on in the second half and scored in the 68th minute, knocking in the rebound after an Ebi Smolarek shot to make it 2-0.
Beenhakker used Lewandowski four times during qualification for the 2010 World Cup, and he scored once more in Kielce, when Poland demolished San Marino 10-0. The team failed badly, finishing second-bottom in the six-team group, ahead only of San Marino. Beenhakker said this year how impressed he was with Lewandowski from the start, but there was no chance to use him the way he is being used by the current coach, Adam Nawałka. He was simply not the same player.
In fact, Lewandowski’s record for the national team before the Euro 2016 qualifiers was far from impressive. Yes, he scored, but not against the biggest teams. He was often isolated because the 4-5-1 formation left him without support.
Lewandowski’s time at Lech was almost perfect. They did well in Europe — for a Polish team — and won the Polish Cup in 2009. Lewandowski played a major role. Sharks started to swim around the Miejski Stadium in Poznań. Borussia Dortmund made their move. “They contacted me with an offer of around €2.5m,” Kucharski said. By that time he had created a company helping players to develop – as he describes it – with the German co-owner Maik Barthel. His contacts in the German market were invaluable. The 21-year-old Lewandowski thought this could be his moment. But the club refused to let him go. The forward was devastated, although he now denies it. “I knew the next offer would come if only I played well enough,” he said.
The facts are different: at the start of the season Robert had problems on the pitch. Some journalists began to suggest he was not focused enough. “It was only a moment. Few days. I’d be unhappy in his place,” Kucharski said. “I’d feel the same if my transfer to Sporting Gijon in 1997 had been stopped by the club.” The agent started to convince the young forward that it was only a matter of time. It worked. Ten months later Lewandowski, as Polish champion and Ekstraklasa top scorer, signed a deal with Dortmund worth €4.5m with an annual wage of €1m plus bonuses. “I remember he was so happy, but he knew from that moment he it was like starting over,” said Iwona. “This was the chance his father wanted for him.”
There were many offers, including one from Blackburn Rovers which was very attractive for Lewandowski. But he never had the chance to accept the invitation to fly there and negotiate because the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull stopped air traffic. “Dortmund were determined to sign me, I liked the club, the team and the coach seemed to be very interested, so everything looked optimistic,” Lewandowski recalls.
He started to learn German. “It takes six months for him to speak fluently, so if we make another move to other country he will be ready very soon,” Kucharski said with a big smile. But Lewandowski had his problems. Jürgen Klopp, the then Dortmund coach, tried him as number 10, with Lucas Barrios up front. Many experts in Poland thought that was the limit for Lewandowski.
“Barrios? Remember what I told you?” Kucharski laughs exactly the same way he did five years ago when I asked him about the Paraguay international. “Good, but not at Robert’s level.” It’s important to have such confidence from your agent. Lewandowski needed a year to be played as a number nine, but once Barrios had left, the Polish forward started to be the match winner. Dortmund impressed with the way they could transform themselves and started to counter and re-counter attack. Soon the theories about their success began. Why? How? “There were many, many details,” Lewandowski explained. “For example, my wife, who is crazy about healthy food, helped me prepare for my challenges. I told the guys one day why I like different things to what everybody else was eating, so their wives started to call Ania. It’s just one of hundreds of details. We changed our diets… Of course we worked very hard with the coach on every aspect of the game. Jürgen Klopp made me the footballer I am. I haven’t changed anything at Bayern. I’m just using different weapons in my artillery, but I shaped my career in Dortmund.”
Perhaps his mind was shaped even earlier, but his body was shaped at Dortmund. And the atmosphere was fantastic. I saw it myself, while speaking to Klopp in Marseille, after the final Champions League group game in December 2013. Lewandowski scored and his compatriots Jakub Błaszczykowski and Łukasz Piszczek both played as well. Klopp entered the area for TV rights holders, smiling as usual, and, seeing me talking to Błaszczykowski, started to swear in Polish. Błaszczykowski laughed. They high-fived and I could start my interview with the coach. “We’ve created a beast. You saw the beast? I did. It has your Polish name. Lewandowski. But tell the fans we are proud of everybody from your country…” Klopp started to flow immediately.
It was Lewandowski’s final season at Dortmund. Two weeks later he confirmed he was moving to Bayern. It was a logical move, not changing country, language, the style of the opponent. When I heard about it, I simply couldn’t believe it. Too good to be true? Nope. I remember it like it was today: 25 April 2010. Lech, fighting for the title, shared the points with their biggest rivals Wisła in Krakow. After the TV transmission I started my journey back to Warsaw. Not by train, as I came, but in a brand new Audi Q7, driven by Kucharski, whom I had known for years. Lewandowski’s mother and sister were in the back seat, the first time I could witness the positive atmosphere in the family of Polish football’s biggest star. We stopped at a small petrol station, about an hour outside Warsaw. “Tell me, what do you think Robert’s future will be? Honestly?” I asked Cezary. “Bayern. After we finish the contract in Dortmund. We must prepare for the big jump,” Kucharski replied. Iwona and Milena smiled; I thought Kucharski was just being nice to them.
When I talk to Kucharski now, he has the same confidence. “I wasn’t lying that day,” he said. “I really believed in Robert. I didn’t know it would be Bayern, but for me they are among the top 10 clubs in the world, so moving to Munich was natural. And Robert knew he wasn’t going to wear the yellow shirt for a lifetime. He never said anything like that, but we were honest with everybody there.”
Is there a place for sincerity in football? Maybe the powers that be at Dortmund authorities should re-think this issue. One year before Lewandowski’s contract expired Kucharski drove his next Audi Q7 — black this time — towards Dortmund. His player, scoring four against Real Madrid on the way to the Champions League final at Wembley, three years less a day after our conversation about Bayern, proved himself again. “With bonuses Robert earned €1.5m,” Kucharski explained. “I wanted him to get €5m, like Mario Götze did. But I heard that the maximum offer would be €3m. Why? You’re not gonna believe this. ‘Come on… This is a lot of money in Poland’. I left.”
Kucharski stared his private conflict with the Dortmund authorities, but denies it lasted longer than Lewandowski’s last day at the club. But it was certain his next move would be made within a few months. “I never thought about it,” Lewandowski said. “This mess around me never gave me any extra pressure. I just did what I did.” He raised his arms for a second. “What could I do? Nothing. My job was on the pitch and till the very last day I did my best for the team, the fans… We were lucky in Dortmund. I was one of the three best players there, we worked very hard and sometimes we were just lucky. That’s it. Details.”
Signing for Bayern made Lewandowski a very rich man. In 2013 Bayern offered €25m and were about to sign an €8m-per-year wage deal. But after selling Götze to Bayern, Dortmund made Lewandowski wait again. He signed the following summer, for free. He earns €11m a year with a big bonus at the start. His agent refuses to confirm it, but while talking to Polish Playboy, he admitted to having “earned 25 million euros during a supper” – which is presumably the bonus for contract signing. By then Jupp Heynckes, who had wanted Lewandowski, had been replaced by Pep Guardiola. The Catalan coach confirmed the transfer. Did Lewandowski hesitate? “Not even for a second. I know Pep had disliked some classical forwards in the past, but it didn’t concern me. I wasn’t there, I don’t know much about these players. I know my quality. I knew I was ready and good enough. You know what the most interesting thing is about Pep? He likes to tell us, forward players, how much he trusts our instinct. People think sometimes that everything is programmed. It’s not. In the defensive phase, Pep demands certain behaviour. But he tells us, ‘Hey, I didn’t play as a forward, so you tell me what you think and let’s work on everything we need to.’ I do what I feel is good for the team.”
Asked about the main differences between Klopp and Guardiola, he is silent for a moment. “Hard to say… Maybe the warm-up? For Pep it’s part of the game, he wants us to fight as hard as during the match. There aren’t many differences I can speak about in public: both are top-class with great contact with the players.”
How, then, was Lewandowski the number nine who survived under the high priest of tiki-taka? “I can speak only about myself. I’m versatile. I improve and feel I’m better with every month, but I’m not a classical centre forward. I’m good at attacking from the side, for example.” He’s not moved by statistics showing that his conversion rate is the best in Europe, far better than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. “They play in a different way and, besides, it doesn’t matter how many times you take a shot. It only matters when you score.”
Lewandowski’s five goals in nine minutes against Wolfsburg, followed by some supreme performances for his country, have made him even more popular. He doesn’t care. “He tells me, ‘Mama, stop reading about me, it’s pointless,’” Iwona says.
“Fame, fortune. It’s part of my job, and I have to accept every positive and negative aspect of being professional footballer,” said Lewandowski. I wondered if he ever steps out of his role, watching his answers.
“He’s not acting,” says Milena. “The problem with Robert is that you have to ask him exact questions or stop trying to know what he thinks. It’s like he doesn’t want to bother people with him. For me everything in his life makes perfect sense, the path he’s walking, the choices he’s made. Anna is very similar to our mother, very energetic, optimistic. I’m more like Dad, calm and quiet.”
He never wanted his wedding to be sensational. Of course he couldn’t avoid paparazzi, but it was as quiet as possible. There is a lot of crossover between the role he has to play and the reality. He doesn’t follow his special diet, for instance, only because he has to. “I like it because it gives me the confidence that my body works in perfect condition,” he explained when we met in Doha, Qatar, in January 2015. I’d gone for the handball World Championship; Robert was training and playing friendlies with Bayern. We sat in the lobby of the five-star Aspire Academy hotel, where the World Cup 2022 hosts house and train talented youngsters. The facilities are extremely impressive. I want to know how to lose a few pounds by changing my diet. “It’s simple, there are rules,” he said. “You start with something sweet, then you add another, then another in a certain order.” He was at least engaged as when speaking about football.
Robert Lewandowski is a star. A predictable star – boring, some would say. But not for sponsors. Gillette, Panasonic, Nike, T-Mobile, Coca-Cola, Huawei. All the brands wanted to sign contracts in the local market, but it seems only a matter of time before he becomes a role model on the world stage. “I never had any problems with Robert,” said Kucharski. “He perfectly understands that no scandal is good for his career. Well, there were some situations we had to handle, as with every human being, but we work so that nobody knew what we didn’t want people to know.” Observing Kucharski, I can’t say whether he was joking or was serious. He surely means what he says, when he points out that Robert needs to become a marketing icon for a clothing company to be regarded as the world’s best. Or one of the best.
Messi and Ronaldo have both found themselves criticised in their home countries for an inability to bring success in a national shirt. Trophies at club level only heighten the expectation of fans of the national team. With Franciszek Smuda as the national team coach, Lewandowski desperately wanted to achieve something on home soil in Euro 2012. In the first minutes of the opening match against Greece at the Stadion Naradowy in Warsaw, he starred. He scored a header and the country exploded with joy. But it all went wrong. Greece levelled and it finished 1-1. After another draw against Russia, Poland lost to the Czech Republic in Wrocław and finished bottom of the group. But the public didn’t look for scapegoats. 100,000 people attended the Warsaw fan zone to thank the players for the efforts. Lewandowski, who wasn’t the captain, grabbed the mic: “I can promise you we will qualify for the next World Cup!” He made people scream the same way he did when he was scoring.
But it never happened. Under the new coach Waldemar Fornalik, Poland played without sparkle and Lewandowski had problems. In a 4-3-2-1 formation he had to fight against two or three opponents when receiving a pass. “I can run with the ball and I like running with the ball, but it’s good to have many options to solve the situation,” he said. The fans turned away and started to whistle their idol.
“The problem is that to qualify Poland will always need a goalscorer, and despite his huge quality Robert at that time was not the same player he is now,” explained Andrzej Dawidziuk, one of national team’s assistant coaches. “With him playing the way he plays now we would definitely have gone to Brazil. Obviously we would do other things differently as results say we made some mistakes, but it is true he is still becoming better and better.”
Lewandowski became Poland’s top club goalscorer in Europe, surpassing Włodzimierz Lubański’s 31 goals for Górnik Zabrze and KSC Lokeren. Adam Nawałka, the former national team midfielder, was hired by new Polish federation (PZPN) chairman, the one-time Juventus and Roma star Zbigniew Boniek, and decided to give Lewandowski the support he needed. He gave him the armband and built the team around the Bayern forward. The effects were immediate. Lewandowski created the most effective partnership of the qualifiers with Ajax’s young Arkadiusz Milik. After tough 2-1 win over Ireland at home, Poland could celebrate and Lewandowski got the mic once again. “I believe in this team, I love these guys,” he said. “But we know this is only a step. We haven’t achieved anything yet. I can promise you we will our best in France!” His 13 goals in qualifying, equaling David Healy’s record, were not the only reason to cheer him.
“I used to come here, where the Stadion Narodowy is. It’s where my dreams started,” Lewandowski said, recalling Communist Poland and the old Stadion Dziesięciolecia that stood on the same spot. Will Lewandowski be able to fulfil the dream this time? “I know him, and I know he will be prepared,” said Iwona. “When I listened to him I closed my eyes. And I heard my husband. The same way of speaking, the same strong mentality.” Words can’t describe how proud she is.
So, what’s the next move for the forward who now earns in ten minutes the monthly wage he received seven years ago at Znicz? The same wunderkind from nearby Warsaw, who thanks to football is now co-owner of a successful venture capital fund? “I can tell you one thing.” Kucharski decides to switch to mineral water. “And it’s the first time I will. If Robert signs for Real Madrid… I don’t say he will, but if — he would give this team more than Cristiano is giving them now. Not from the start, in his second season, when he settles. But he would.” He speaks slowly, collecting his words.
Kucharski still keeps the text message from José Mourinho, offering Lewandowski a contract while he was at Dortmund. “We had a gentlemen’s agreement with Bayern. For me, that meant more than the better money offered in Madrid, so I thanked them and finished negotiations in Bavaria.”
I tried to confirm this with Lewandowski. I called him late in the evening. “I like watching La Liga on TV,” he said, “but I also like watching the Premier League. Nothing to say, I enjoy my time at Bayern. You know how agents are…” He laughs. So, nothing to say. Or maybe I just didn’t ask the correct question.