An hour after playing his 130th and last game for Germany, and after scoring the winner with a trademark left-booted hammer, Lukas Podolski made an impromptu appearance on a sports chat show, still wearing his full kit complete with captain’s armband and boots. Still buzzing from the night’s events, he stood there with muddied knees and a wide smile spread across his face as the bemused technician fitted a microphone under his sweaty, grass-stained shirt.
That he had taken the time to gatecrash the show, long after his media duties were over, goes some way to explaining the extent of the heartfelt send-off he had received on the pitch earlier in the evening.
After the referee blew the final whistle on Podolski’s Germany career, he walked slowly around the whole of the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, not only applauding fans and aiming thumbs ups and waves into the crowd, but regularly clambering up on to the railings to dish out handshakes and high fives. His team-mates kept their distance, respectfully allowing him to enjoy his moment. However, it soon became clear that this was going to be more than an obligatory lap of honour, and they left him to it.
As the rest of the team warmed down, were debriefed and showered, Poldi stayed out there, draped in flags, taking selfie after selfie with fans young and old. Whether the words or actions came from the fans, his fellow professionals, commentators, TV presenters, studio guests, or Joachim Löw, one thing was clear: Lukas Podolski is an extremely popular man and one who will be missed on the international scene.
He has a mixture of jovial local-boy-done-good with steely determination and professionalism. He may be a model professional, but he wouldn’t look out of place bouncing up and down in the Sudkurve at his beloved FC Köln. In fact, Podolski is so popular in some quarters, that there is a danger of his international career being seen as one big nice guy show. But 130 caps and 49 goals put him third in his country’s appearance list and fourth on the all-time goal scorer chart – and we’re talking about Germany here.
Born in Poland, Podolski moved to Germany with his parents as a young child. The family settled in Bergheim, a town a few kilometers away from Cologne, a city with which Podolski shares a reciprocated love. He may not have been born in Cologne, but he took his first footballing steps in the region, first with the local youth team in Bergheim before switching to the youth set up at FC Köln, eventually forcing his way into the first team during the 2003-04 season aged 18.
The young striker with blond highlights and a rocket of a left foot came into a struggling side, and despite hitting 10 goals in 19 games a record for an 18-year-old in the Bundesliga – Podolski’s maiden season at his boyhood club ended in relegation. It soon became clear that the second tier of German football was no place for a player who had already begun his international career, winning his first cap after coming on as a substitute in a home defeat against Hungary and then travelling to Portugal as part of the Euro 2004 squad. Podolski and Köln tore through the 2. Bundesliga, finishing as champions with the forward ending the season as the top scorer with 24 goals in 30 games.
Back in the big time Podolski hit double figures again, but the team struggled and, once again, were relegated – this time without their star striker. Now an established member of Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad, Podolski had agreed to join some of his national team-mates at Bayern Munich after the upcoming World Cup in Germany.
Aside from Brazil 2014, obviously, the 2006 tournament on home soil has to go down as the highlight of Podolski’s international career. The squad and fans revelled in the wave of patriotism that swept through Germany as the team delivered victory and drama in equal measure on their way to an epic semi-final with Italy. For his part, Podolski was one of the stars and his double act with Bastian Schweinsteiger on and off the pitch became one of the lingering images of the summer.
By now Podolski was an important part of the Germany set up, making Poland’s decision to not call him up a couple of years previous, where he was already performing in the Bundesliga, look unfortunate.
Germany had to settle for third place in 2006 but Podolski was voted the tournament’s best young player and was ready to hit the ground running in Munich. But he struggled at the Allianz Arena. Felix Magath had signed Podolski but the Bayern coach didn’t see him as a starter – a completely new situation for a player who was used to being one of the first names on the teamsheet. Generally, all wasn’t well at the club and, despite coming off of back-to-back domestic doubles, Magath and Bayern finished an almost unimaginably low fourth in the league.
The club reacted swiftly. Hitzfeld replaced Magath before the end of the season and in the summer came heavyweight signings including Franck Ribéry, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose – the latter two providing more competition for Podolski. The future didn’t look good, especially as he hadn’t been able to recreate his Köln form in Münich, scoring only five times in a bitty season.
The club brushed themselves down and bounced back instantly. The new investment paid dividends as they swaggered back to the top of the league, winning another double. It was Luca Toni, though, who was leading the line, finishing his first season in Germany as top scorer. Podolski watched on from the sidelines as his role as benchwarmer restricted his tally to a handful of goals.
Not even the appointment of Jürgen Klinsmann, a Podolski fan, in his third season in Munich helped turn things around, and an increasingly frustrated and unhappy Podolski announced his return to FC Köln, his club. It seemed like the obvious move for the but it isn’t often that a struggling Bundesliga team is able to buy a 23-year-old German international from Bayern Munich, and it took some huffing and puffing to get the transfer over the line. A price of around €10m was agreed, representing little or no profit for Bayern, and the sum was split and packaged in numerous ways to make it possible for Köln to finance the switch, including the proceeds of a friendly match between the two sides, and a crowdfunding-type scheme involving FC Köln fans.
Podolski’s frustrations and lack of progress at Bayern hadn’t gone unnoticed by Joachim Löw. He had continued to put his faith in the forward, using him throughout the Euro 2008 qualification campaign and in the tournament, where he scored three times. But he wanted to see his players on the pitch every week. Podolski’s move back to Cologne would hopefully give him a full season of first-team football leading up to the 2010 World Cup, with Germany looking to build on their runner-up finish in the European Championship.
His six goals in qualification and two in the tournament kept up his international scoring ratio. But, despite being a solid performer, he was never really in line to be the team’s talisman, often playing second fiddle to the prolific Miroslav Klose or, in this tournament in particular, Thomas Müller.
His first season back in Cologne saw him back on the pitch but not really among the goals, but things improved and he was made captain, leading the club to a respectable midtable finish the following campaign. Now back in the habit, Podolski went on to have arguably his best season since the heady days of 2006 as he scored 18 league goals – but, as in his first spell at the club, his time ended with his own achievements being belied by the team’s relegation. Dropping down to the 2. Bundesliga again was unthinkable and his stellar performances throughout the season had attracted Arsène Wegner’s attention, and Podolski swapped the Rhine for the Thames.
By this time, Podolski had represented his country almost 100 and scored 43 goals. And although his number of starts for Germany had been curtailed by the continued brilliance of Müller and the emergence of players such as Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Andre Schürrle, if fit, Podolski was in the squad and could always be relied upon.
Playing mostly off the left, Podolski had a productive time at Arsenal, scoring 19 goals and providing 14 assists in 60 league matches, as well as scoring eight goals in 12 Champions League games. But, despite being popular with fans and players, Podolski was again unable to attain the level of importance and status he enjoyed at Köln and was ultimately not quite what Wenger was looking for. The Emirates bench beckoned, followed by a six-month loan spell at Inter.
Rather than being a fresh start, Poldi’s move to Milan produced more of the same. Nerazzurri boss Roberto Mancini didn’t seem to fancy Podolski and his first-team chances were kept to a premium. But, just as his Arsenal career was declining, there was the summer of 2014. He signed off for the season as an FA Cup winner and went to Brazil with his country, by now one of the most experienced players in the squad, with more than a 100 appearances. He played a minimal part on the pitch during the tournament but his presence in the squad is not be underestimated, and his celebrations in Rio and back home in Berlin were the high point of a love affair that had begun in the heady summer of 2006.
Things were winding down on the international front and Podolski had accepted his peripheral role in Löw’s team but his club career was far from over. After all, he was yet to turn 30. So after London and Milan, Podolski pitched up in Istanbul at Galatasaray. As is his style, Podolski threw himself into the challenge and has been a success in his two seasons, scoring a goal every other game and even hit the winner against Fenerbahce in the Turkish Cup final last year.
And now, after winning cups and leagues in three countries, competing at the sharp end of international tournaments and lifting the World Cup, the Podolski story is set to continue with a new chapter in Japan, with Vissel Kobe. Regardless of what people think of his move to the J League, Podolski has always moved to play football. He has never been afraid to leave big clubs, move countries, or go on loan to get games – which is not a given when players can easily sit on the bench and be rewarded handsomely. More than that, he managed to do it with a smile on his face. And, if you think about it, how many footballers do you see who genuinely look like they’re enjoying themselves?
Thomas Müller said jokingly after the England game that the fairytale ending was all a bit cheesy. He’s right of course. Popular striker becomes captain for the night and signs off in front of a capacity crowd by scoring the winner against an old enemy with a screamer into the top corner. It’s all a bit Roy of the Rovers, but who could begrudge a happy ending to a man who plays the game with a smile?
The Guardian Sport