They told him he was too thin and must eat more bacon sandwiches. Now Robert Lewandowski is the ultimate
Real Madrid’s players had been left on their knees, but as Robert Lewandowski made his way off the Bernabeu pitch, he was about to discover that their president was made of sterner stuff.
Heading down the tunnel, the Borussia Dortmund striker found his path to the away dressing room blocked by the familiar figure of Florentino Perez. He was not about to budge.
Standing bolt upright and fixing Lewandowski with a stare that never wavered, he nodded towards a nearby open door and beckoned his side’s tormentor through it.
Once inside, the pair sat either side of a table and pleasantries were dispensed with as Perez got straight to the point. ‘If you are leaving Dortmund, there is only one club you should sign for,’ he said.
‘I want you here, leading our attack next season. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.’
In the wake of Dortmund’s Lewandowski-inspired demolition of Real in the Champions League semi-final, a story also surfaced of Chelsea-bound Jose Mourinho texting an invitation for the 24-year-old Pole to join him at Stamford Bridge.
While that one remains unverified, senior officials at the Bernabeu have confirmed that Perez did, indeed, usher Lewandowski into a side room off the players’ tunnel and deliver a sales pitch on behalf of his club.
If that isn’t proof enough of Lewandowski’s rise to prominence, he felt sufficiently sure of himself to leave the impromptu 15-minute discussion without giving one of Europe’s most powerful figures the assurances he was after.
Bayern Munich remain his club of choice, though there are still serious doubts about whether Dortmund will cave in and sanction a second high-profile defection to their fiercest rivals, following the recent activation of Mario Gotze’s £31.5million escape clause. They may stand firm and make Bayern wait until he becomes a free agent in another 12 months.
Decision time: Real Madrid president Florentino Perez (right) wants Lewandowski to join him in Spain, but Jose Mourinho believes the Poland striker would be a good fit at Chelsea
Either way, the sight of Real, Bayern, Chelsea and Manchester United waiting in line for Lewandowski to make up his mind says everything about why most eyes will be on him when Dortmund take on Bayern in Saturday’s Champions League final at Wembley.
He became the first to score four goals in a European Cup semi-final, and that remarkable salvo against Real at the Westfalenstadion came as no surprise to Jurgen Klopp after the way their paths first crossed three years ago.
In a policy that has echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson’s thoroughness, Klopp likes to spend time with transfer targets before signing them, usually in the relaxed environment of his own home, and an hour or so with Lewandowski was enough to convince him Lech Poznan’s £4m asking price was not excessive.
‘It does not matter how good a player is, if his character is not right or I sense he will not fit in, we do not sign him,’ said the Dortmund coach. ‘Robert was polite, courteous and, above all, eager to learn. It was soon clear he wanted to reach the top, and that was all I needed to know. I was already convinced he had the talent to do it.
‘At first sight, I could tell he was the most interesting player to come out of Poland for 20 years. The potential was there and could easily be developed, if he had the right attitude. That is exactly what has happened.
‘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 not his enemy.’
Physique appears to be the only part of the package that didn’t come naturally, judging by the assessment of his coach at Polish junior side UKS Varsovia Warszawa.
‘His legs were like sticks, and I was always scared others would break them,’ said Krzysztof Sikorski.
‘I always felt one hefty challenge could snap them, because he was so thin. I kept urging him to put some weight on and eat more bacon sandwiches. I was always on at him about that.
‘It didn’t stop him being a prolific scorer, though. I remember one season we scored 158 goals, and he got half of them. I hoped then he might go on to play in the Polish First Division, but I never imagined he would end up scoring four against Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final.’
His goals for Varsovia earned him a move to KS Delta, and a first professional contract on £75 a week. That was followed by a first transfer fee, as Znicz Pruszkow paid Delta £1,000 and saw him justify the outlay by topping the third division and second division scoring charts in successive seasons.
Firing Poznan to the Polish title a year later with 18 league goals was enough to bring him to Klopp’s attention and begin a tutelage that has enhanced the reputation of both player and manager.
A friend of Klopp’s described the brand of leadership that has had such a stunning effect on Dortmund’s fortunes.
‘Jurgen is so good with young players,’ he said. ‘He is 45, but he speaks their language. They see him not just as a coach but a friend, someone they can rely on and who will stand by them and defend them to the hilt, no matter what. They relate to him. What happened at Real Madrid when Jose Mourinho dropped Iker Casillas and cold-shouldered him would be unimaginable here. Jurgen explains everything person to person, and no-one has ever had a bad word for him.
‘When Shinji Kagawa left to join Manchester United, he cried on Klopp’s shoulder in the locker room for half an hour. Eventually, Jurgen said, “Why not stay, if you are so upset?” Kagawa replied it was too good an opportunity to miss, but he really didn’t want to go. That is the effect the manager has on his players.
‘They all get on, and that is not by chance. He is so thorough about vetting them and is renowned for inviting them into his home before signing them. He will sit and chat for ages, to be sure they will blend in. As a result, the players are all friends off the pitch. They go out together to the cinema and restaurant and even visit each other’s homes for a PlayStation session.
‘Quite a few of them live not only in the same block of apartments but on the same floor. They are a very tight-knit group, and, of course they are very good players. Jurgen has an eye for that.
‘He spotted Lewandowski in Poland and brought Lars Bender from a German second division club to mould him into a regular for the national team. There are examples of that everywhere you look.
‘Lewandowski is very popular with the German public and media. He drives a Mercedes, but there is nothing else about him you might associate with high-earning footballers. He is always polite, never arrogant, prefers normal clothes rather than anything flash, and never loses his patience when he keeps being asked about his future.
‘That has been going on for 12 months now, but he has this incredible ability to shut it all out of his mind every time he steps on the pitch and concentrate on scoring for Dortmund. That shows how single-minded he is.’
Lewandowski’s coach at Poznan will be tuning in to the final and expects to be left open-mouthed once more.
‘There were no arguments from us when he left for Dortmund, because he had done everything in Poland,’ said Jacek Zielinski.
‘I always believed he would thrive there, but, even so, I never expected to see him destroy a team like Real Madrid. I was watching, thinking, “This is not really happening, it can’t be”.
‘A lad I worked with was bringing a team like Real Madrid to their knees, and it just seemed unreal.
‘His level that night was out of this world, and I’m hoping for more of the same in the final.’