Arsène Wenger recently described confidence as petrol for a footballer; if that’s true, then character is the oil well. Lukas Podolski has the smile of an assassin and a left foot that can turn a football into a comet. Fit and fresh after a frustrating spell on the sidelines, Arsenal’s wing-forward is ready to impose his irrepressible personality on the Premier League and the upcoming World Cup: for football is self-expression, and character is power.
By Paul MacInnes
Photography Mel Bles
Styling Max Pearmain
This article first appeared in Issue 6 of The Green Soccer Journal, March 2014
Lukas Podolski is bigger in the flesh. Not just in musculature — though he’s strapping enough in that regard, with biceps thicker than a pony’s neck — but in character too. As he warms up for our interview he’s shouting along with a selection of noughties hip-hop and R’n’B hits (he knows his Ja Rule, it turns out). When he sits down he takes great pleasure in barking ‘check-check, one-two, one-two’ into his microphone and, when it comes to answering the questions, not only does he appear to enjoy it, but he relishes certain words, too; the most obvious of which is ‘power’.
“It’s always good when a manager says good things about you,” he says, when I bring up recent remarks from Arsène Wenger that described the German international as ‘a natural finisher’. “But the important thing is we want the title at the end of the season. I will be one part of this team and I hope I will help the team with my goals, with my assists and with my power.” As he says the final word a smile comes over his face.
Podolski has a physical power. It’s one of the qualities that helped him to make his debut in the Bundesliga in 2003, when he was just 18 years of age. It helped him into the German national side at 19 and into their World Cup squad for the home tournament of 2006. He finished that tournament a fixture in the side and with the title of Best Young Player. Not a bad start to your career. But the power applies not just to his body and to his finishing, but to his will. Lukas Podolski has raised himself up by his bootstraps; an immigrant kid to a multi-million pound international with over a hundred German caps to his name.
Born in Gliwice, Poland, he moved to the then-West Germany at the age of two, something which was only possible thanks to his grandparents, themselves German. He grew up in the down-at-heel neighbourhoods of Cologne, where football was the common language. “Every day was about football,” he remembers now. “The important thing was not school or the work we had to do or anything like that. I was focused on football every day. I played outside with my friends on the local pitch. We only had one ball, one old ball, and we didn’t have goals so we’d create something and just play five against five or six against six. I think when I remember back it was a very good time for me because of my friends. We had a lot of people, not just from Germany but from outside, from Turkey, Albania, Tunisia and other countries. I miss that time, it was a beautiful time.” Did they play hard? “Of course, yeah! Dirty, hard and, you know, I lived in a poor area so there wasn’t a lot of money for footballs and equipment and stuff. Every day was hard but, again, it was a good time for me.”
Having been associated with FC Cologne since his early childhood (he joined his first team at the age of “five or six”), Podolski seems to fit the template of the modern professional footballer, coached to success practically from birth. This isn’t the way Podolski sees it himself, though. “You don’t really have a moment when you know you are going to make it,” he says. “When you are young you have dreams, but you are not a star, you are not a football player. Maybe you will have an injury or maybe your parents will come and go, ‘No football, you’ve got to go work’. My father was a professional footballer in Poland and he was always pushing me to play. I joined the club [Cologne] and he drove me every day to training, but still you never know. Every year as a kid, every day was about having fun, playing football, playing with your friends. The first time I saw the chance to break in was when I was 17. I was in the under-19 side at the time and the coach of the first team changed. The first or second day in his job, the new coach called me in and said, ‘You are now with us’. I said to myself: ‘You have got one week, give it your best shot’, and I did. I seized the chance, I put all my power in and then I was in the team. From this day I started my career.”
And from that day Podolski’s career went off like a rocket. In that first season, 2003-4, and despite Cologne being in the throes of an ultimately unsuccessful fight against relegation, he scored 10 times in just 19 games. He continued that form the following season in Bundesliga 2 – in fact, he improved on it – with 24 goals in 30 games. Cologne won an immediate return to the Bundesliga and Podolski was now the team’s star player. While Cologne struggled again (in the noughties they were pretty much the definition of a German yo-yo club), Podolski scored 12 league goals, an achievement that confirmed his pedigree and heralded a new chapter in his career; his involvement in the German national side and their swashbuckling performance in the home World Cup of 2006.
“Like you say, it all happened quickly,” he says. “It was really quick. From the under-19s to the first team at Cologne and then I’d only played one season before I was straightaway into the national team. My first year was really quick, sometimes I think it was too quick because like everyone who scores goals I was suddenly taken right to the top. At the same time, 2006 was a great moment for me, one of the best moments in my career because the World Cup in your own country is something amazing. We had a bad Euros in 2004 and nobody expected us to win the World Cup in 2006. But as soon as we got to our training base we could see the country was behind us. People went crazy. We’d be on the bus driving through the streets just to training and crowds were everywhere. The people on the street, the people in the restaurants, the flags on the houses, everything. It was one of the best moments.”
Things got even better when the football began. Germany won all three of their group matches, including victory in the nigh-on derby match with Poland. This had a special significance for Podolski who, as a Polish-German, had been under pressure to prove his commitment to the national side. Both Podolksi and his strike partner Miroslav Klose were Polish-Germans and came under scrutiny for apparent split loyalties. Asked whether he spoke Polish or German with Klose on the pitch, Podolski replied with his typically sharp humour: ‘With our hands’. They both went on to give a strong performance against the Poles and laid those doubts to rest.
He was even spared from having to celebrate the winning goal, as he had been substituted by the time Oliver Neuville scored a 90th minute winner. (That moment was eventually to arrive, however — Podolski scored both goals against Poland in the rematch at the 2008 European Championships and afterwards gave emotional interviews to both German and Polish TV).
Germany topped Group A and progressed to a last-16 tie against Sweden. Within 12 minutes of kickoff the tie was over, thanks to two almost identical and (obviously) powerful strikes from Podolski. “Was it 12 minutes?” he asks. I confirm that it’s true. “Of course the two goals against Sweden were amazing, I remember the next day all the newspapers were crazy. I was young, we had an experienced team. Only me and, I think, Bastian Schweinsteiger were the young players in the team. You go into the tournament and you don’t have a lot of pressure because 2004 was so bad and we win the first match and the second and the third, then it’s the quarter-final and the semi-final and every step that you go forward the crowd gets more up for it. At that moment every game was important and I think that after the game against Argentina [a quarter-final which Germany won on penalties following a 1-1 draw] the crowd and the country believed that this was a good team and that maybe we could win the trophy. You know, when I look back it was great moments on the pitch and off the pitch. You never forget the World Cups.”
What came next, however, was the one period in Podolski’s career that he might prefer to forget; an £8m move to Bayern Munich. Cologne had been relegated again, making the prospect of their keeping hold of their star player difficult, even before the undisputed giants of German football declared their interest. “An offer came in from Bayern and, yeah, Bayern Munich is the best team in Germany,” he says matter-of-factly. “The offer came in and I said: ‘Yes, let’s go’.”
What he walked into was a period of massive upheaval at the club sometimes known, not entirely affectionately, as FC Hollywood. When Podolski arrived his coach was Felix Magath, but he was sacked by the winter break. The legendary Ottmar Hitzfeld came in until the end of the season but failed to qualify for the Champions League and the next year brought in a number of new players, including direct competition for Podolski in the form of Italian Luca Toni. At the end of the 2007-8 season, Hitzfeld was also replaced, this time by Podolski’s former national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
I ask him what first struck him about Munich after his move. “I think football is a lot of politics,” he replies without quite elaborating. “Every club every single day there’s a lot of politics. Munich had great players, they’re a great club and I had a great time there. Yeah, I didn’t play a lot but there were different reasons, a lot of coaches change, et cetera… When you look at the Bayern team now they have a great team, young players and young players who are keen. When I was there we missed out on the Champions League for one season. The team was not old, but there were a lot of old players. It was a good three years but I wanted to play more there. I think it’s a great club, a big club. And when you play for a big club like Bayern and Arsenal you learn a lot. You see the professionalism of course of the players on the pitch and it’s different from Cologne or other teams in Germany. I learned to fight against big players and I also travelled a lot. Whether in the Champions League or the Europa League it was my first time of seeing different countries. To me it was a good time. I still have a lot of good friends there now.”
Was he at all disappointed with the way it turned out at Munich? “Yes, because at the end Jupp Heynckes was my coach [in an interim capacity] and I played a lot of matches when he was coach. I remember when he arrived he came over to me and asked, ‘Why are you leaving?’, but it was too late by then. I had signed for Cologne already. Had Heynckes come in four weeks earlier and said, ‘I will keep you at the club, you are my man’, maybe I would have stayed in Munich, but it was too late.”
Podolski returned to Cologne on a wave of hometown fervour. There was a public campaign to raise money for his transfer (a bizarre online effort as part of which punters were encouraged to buy the pixels of a photographic portrait) which gained the support of no less a Cologne supporter than Michael Schumacher. What followed was, by Podolski’s own standards, a barren campaign. In the 2009-10 Bundesliga season he scored only three goals (though one was an equaliser against Munich). “It was not a good season,” he says of that time. “I played shit in a lot of matches. I think things aren’t easy when you come from a big club to a lower division club or a struggling club because the set-up is different, the players. There was a lot of pressure on me; people were saying, ‘Podolski’s coming now, we’re going to win the title’. It was not a good season the first season, but the second and the third were good for me and I was happy. I was happy to return to my city, Cologne, to my friends and family. It goes back to what I was saying before, you try to enjoy your football and not focus on the pressure. It helps, though, when you have a lot of friends, when you have a family, you’ve got to look out for them as well.”
“[In Cologne] There was a lot of pressure on me; people were saying ‘Podolski’s coming now, we’re going to win the title.’”
In 2012, Cologne were relegated once again and when it came to making his next move, family was one of Podolski’s prime considerations. “I was ready to stay in Cologne — I’d signed there for four or five years and they wanted to build a team around me,” he says, “but in the end we got relegated and I was looking for a new club. I didn’t want to stay in Germany, because of Cologne, and then the offer from Arsenal came up. I spoke with Arsène Wenger but I also took my family over, to look at the training ground and the stadium. They had a good feeling, I had a good feeling. When I look back it was a great decision for me, the best decision I could have made. It’s a great club with a fantastic atmosphere and obviously I love the people in England. They are very friendly and respectful.”
Podolski’s first season at Arsenal was a distinct success in an otherwise difficult season. Assuming the club’s number nine shirt, he’s still asked largely to play on the left of an attacking three, rather than straight through the middle.
He scored his first goal for the club in their first league win of the season, a 2-0 away victory at Liverpool. In the Champions League he scored both home and away against Montpellier, his goal in the former fixture helping the Gunners through to the last-16 of the competition. He also netted the winner against Stoke, which, as we all know, is an effective barometer for how well a foreign player has adapted to the unique challenges of our top flight. He ended the season with an impressive total of 16 goals and 11 assists.
This season has proven more complicated, largely thanks to a hamstring injury sustained in the early parts of the season during a Champions League qualifier against Fenerbahçe. Perversely, his place in the team has been further challenged by the arrival of another German international, Mesut Özil. Brought in to play directly behind a number nine, Özil’s arrival not only brought extra competition for places, but brought Arsenal’s football back to a more intricate style of passing. That said, as the season has progressed, the picture has changed again and the need for direct forwards in the Arsenal side has become apparent. Podolski’s power has continued to prove itself a useful weapon in Arsenal’s armoury.
Podolski speaks fondly of the club and the atmosphere within the squad. “We have a great spirit. In the dressing room and on the bus, you know, we do a lot of things together.”
He’s also full of praise for Arsène Wenger: “He’s a very good guy and an amazing coach.” But it’s the competition within the Premier League which excites him the most. “I only knew the Premier League from the TV,” he says. “I always loved it because when you watch the games they’re more powerful, there’s more speed and there’s more competitive teams. When I went to Arsenal I finally saw it on the pitch. It’s the best league in the world, for me, the speed, the power, the fans, the stadiums. It’s similar to Germany but of course you have five, six, seven teams who fight for the title. In Germany you have Munich and Dortmund, but then you have a break.”
I ask him about his favourite Premiership player. I say he can’t name himself. He smiles at the joke but can’t resist the rejoinder: “This season? I wasn’t playing for four months.” He takes a moment to think a bit longer about the possible candidates. The first name to come out of his mouth is a forward, albeit one with a different approach to the game.
“I think Suárez is a good player this season,” says Podolski. “He can score goals, he’s had a lot of assists as well. He’s always dangerous when he has the ball but he’s equally dangerous when he does not. When you have a player like this you always feel like you can create something. What is it, 23 goals in 18 matches or something like that? What can you say?”
He has another point he wants to make though, keen to stick up for players elsewhere on the pitch. “You can’t say Suárez is the best player overall,” he says. “You always have to look at the position. So for me the Ballon d’Or is really a prize for offensive players. You cannot choose the best player in the world because every position is different. When you look at defenders you look at someone like Per Mertesacker because he’s played a good season. Or for a midfield player you look at Aaron Ramsey or when you take a striker you can take Suárez or Sergio Agüero.” I note that he doesn’t list an Arsenal player in that particular department.
At the time of writing, Podolski could be embarking on the six biggest months in his career. Arsenal are currently in the thick of a heated title race, while Germany are one of the favourites to win this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. “This season there are four, five or six teams which are fighting for the title. Arsenal are one of these teams,” he says, straightforwardly. “It’s really tough. You see, when you lose one point or you lose one game you might drop a place. Every game’s important, every game is like a final for us and you must keep fighting to the end. You must do your own work on the pitch, get the three points and then focus on the next game. I hope I can score a lot of goals this season, create some chances for other players in my team and help my team to stay at the top.”
Just read those remarks and you can see why Podolski is such a useful addition to the Arsenal squad. Not just for his skills (and his power), but for his calm, his confidence, his experience. At just 28 years of age, Podolski has 111 caps for the German national team. As a golden generation of young talent has come to the fore (a long way away from that squad of 2006) Podolski has remained a constant presence, perhaps not starting as often but always available to coach Jogi Löw.
So the final question has to be; what about this summer, will the German team deliver on its promise and win the World Cup in football’s spiritual home?
“This tournament could be very special,” he says. “It’s like 2006 or ‘96 in England and now 2014 in Brazil. We have a good team and I feel old when I see the team now. We have a lot of great young players, in every position we have two or three great players. I think it comes from the academies at the clubs. When you see the English national team I don’t see young players at 18, 19 or 20 and when you see our team you see lots of young players. Also we have a coach who has been with us since 2005/6 and so I think these are the key things. You have a team and staff who stick together for nine or ten years and every year you bring new players out and with the old players – that’s a good mix.
“I feel old when I see the [Germany] team now.”
That coach is Jogi Löw, part of a new generation of managers (the most heralded being Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola) who blend an intensive application of tactics with the ability to apparently liberate their players on the pitch. “I think it’s not easy because when you meet as the national team,” says Podolski, “you only have a couple of days to create something. I think the focus, when you go into a cup, the focus is on the fitness as well as the tactics. These are the key things and we do a lot of tactical things with the national team. But he is a good guy though as well, he speaks with you, he tells you what you can do better, what is not so good and we watch a lot of videos to get it right… I think that the spirit together is great and the team, we have a lot of fun together and these are the key things.
“We know we have a great team and we know we can fight for this cup. There will be other teams who want the title, it’s not all about Germany. When you lose in the semi-finals at two tournaments [against Italy in 2006 and Spain in 2010] everyone says, ‘What is this?’, but the point is that you never know with football. We have a good team but we’re not alone on the pitch, we play against good sides. There’s a lot of good teams at this World Cup as well so it’s not easy but people think ‘Ach, Germany are the favourites’, and when they’ve lost there’s something broken. But sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. This is just sports.”
With that final flourish of his deep baritone, Lukas Podolski breaks out into another smile. He’s come a long way, but there’s a fair chance he’ll go a bit further yet.