In Celebration of Lukas Podolski, Germany Legend and Professional Enigma
Though Lukas Podolski seems like a fairly straightforward character, his career has been one of paradox and contrast. Here, we celebrate the mercurial talents of an enigmatic star.
Lukas Podolski's career as a professional footballer has been one of paradox and contradiction. This is something of a contradiction in itself, in that Lukas Podolski is by all accounts a remarkably uncomplicated man. Sporting his trademark gormless grin and a haircut that looks like something he got in a high-street barber some time after his FC Köln debut in 2003 – and then just went with over and over again, every few weeks for the next decade and a half – Podolski was allegedly once described by a youth coach as "not exactly the brightest in the head", a remark which it should be said caused considerable indignation in Germany. Whether or not there was any truth to that particular assessment of his cognitive abilities, Podolski often appears to have a simple, almost childlike, approach to football: preferably receive the ball somewhere in the final third and, with minimal additional movement, leather it into the back of the net.
While it has generally served Podolski well to have so simple a modus operandi, this approach is also distinctly limited. While he has rarely been short of goals in his career, and has notched some spectacular strikes along the way, true greatness in the modern game requires proficiency in more than one field. Compare Podolski at club and international level to the likes of Thomas Muller, Miroslav Klose and perhaps even someone like Mario Gomez, and his all-round contribution on the pitch lags behind in several areas. That doesn't quite explain how, barring Klose, Podolski has made more appearances and scored more goals than any of them, and indeed many of Die Mannschaft's all-time greats.
When assessing how Podolski has achieved legend status with Germany, one has to make a stark distinction between his club contributions and his showings for the national team. One of the great contradictions of his career is that, while he has often underachieved at club level, Podolski has almost always been able to step things up on the international stage. For most players, it is the other way around, with many struggling psychologically with the pressures and emotions of representing their country, even if their domestic form is fantastic. Likewise, it is rare that a footballer plays a bit part for his club but nonetheless continues to be selected for his national team, considering that domestic form is one of the most important criteria on which selection is judged.
With Podolski, however, it seems that the normal rules of football do not apply. When he makes his final appearance for Germany on Wednesday evening – starting the game as captain for the first time as they take on England at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund – he will win his 130th cap for Die Mannschaft, well ahead of several acclaimed contemporaries including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer and Philipp Lahm. One does not make this many appearances for Germany without huge talent and in-game intelligence, nor does one score more goals than Jurgen Klinsmann, Rudi Völler and Karl Heinz-Rummenigge as little more than a one-trick pony. Nonetheless, in the time that Podolski has earned this distinguished international record – and won the World Cup, let's not forget – he has also floundered at several clubs, not least Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Inter Milan.
This unusual state of affairs can in part be put down to coaching and management. Podolski has a famously good relationship with Germany boss Joachim Löw, who ahead of Wednesday's match in Dortmund has hailed the 31-year-old as "one of the greatest players ever to come out of Germany." There is another contradiction here in that Podolski was actually born in Gliwice, Poland, and was supposedly keen to play for his country of birth until he was overlooked in his breakthrough season by then-coach Pawel Janas. Germany snapped him up in the meantime, and he has been coached by Löw one way or another in the entire 13 years since making his senior international bow. For anyone who has watched and compared Podolski's performances for club and country, is it clear that Löw gets something extra out of him that other managers struggle to provoke.
Podolski was never going to become the ideal German footballer, but he somehow managed to find something more for the national team than he did for his club sides, barring perhaps his beloved Köln. Over the course of his first half decade with Die Mannschaft, Löw deployed him as a winger, a forward and a left midfielder, and Podolski showed a versatility for his country which he was accused of lacking first at Bayern, then throughout his time with Arsenal and during his barren loan spell in Milan. Again, this suggests that rather than being inherently limited, Podolski was always able to adapt his game with the right sort of communication and instruction. Joachim Löw understood this better than Podolski's club coaches, and so the Germany boss found a more complete solution to the conundrum of harnessing Podolski's skills.
That said, there are other contradictory elements of Podolski's career that make him seem like a genuine enigma. His positional issues at club level were strange and inconsistent, especially considering that he showed with Germany that he could, in theory, do it all. During two successful spells with Köln he thrived as a star striker, but when he moved to Arsenal he struggled as an out-and-out forward, even after several attempts to cultivate this position for him. Having arrived in the aftermath of the departure of Robin van Persie, many fans thought Podolski would be a more natural successor than Olivier Giroud. Strangely, though, Podolski made very little impact up front, and so found himself shunted out to the left wing where – despite his decent goal return – he struggled with his defensive duties and often found himself in a peripheral role.
One might put this down to divergent tactical systems, or some arbitrary difference in pace and physicality between the Bundesliga and the Premier League. In reality, it was hard to put one's finger on precisely what Podolski's problem was, and why exactly he failed to excel. Some said he was too slow, but so fundamental a shortcoming would surely have hampered him at international level (incidentally, he also holds the record for the fastest goal ever scored by the German national team). Some claimed that he wasn't visible enough, but would inevitably find themselves eating their words when he proceeded to score a box-office volley or a jaw-dropping goal from long range. Some decided that he had neither the concentration nor the application required to kick on, which seemed exceedingly harsh for a player who was deemed good enough to earn transfers to such high-profile clubs. There was perhaps a kernel of truth in this, however, in that international tournaments require rather less stamina than a full domestic season, and certainly during Podolski's time at Arsenal his fitness was not the best.
Whatever the true source of Podolski's intermittent club struggles, the contradictions do not end there. Having come through the youth ranks at FC Köln and grown up in the city, Podolski has often used his time off to return to the Rhineland and regularly professes his love for the area. In that sense he is of a homely disposition, and yet he is also an intrepid internationalist who has played in England, Italy and Turkey with Galatasaray, this at a time when many of his Germany teammates have been more than happy to stay in the Bundesliga. Having just finished his spell in Istanbul, he is now set for a transfer to Japan to play for J-League side Vissel Kobe. The cultural difference will no doubt represent a formidable challenge for Podolski to overcome, but his willingness to take on that challenge hardly seems characteristic of a man who lacks intuition, versatility or brains.
One of the most interesting contradictions of Podolski's career is the fact that, despite receiving plenty of criticism and being called up on his shortcomings, he departs Europe as a cult hero at almost every club he has played. While he has never been immune from censure in Germany, his retirement from international football has been met with a similar cultish acclaim. Perhaps that's down to his beaming grin, boyish sense of humour, perceived dopiness and strange likeability, or perhaps it's down to his thumping left foot and eye for an abundantly memorable goal. Then again, like all the best cult heroes, perhaps there is something we don't quite get about Lukas Podolski. He retires from Germany duty with a remarkable international legacy, and leaves many of us scratching our heads.