On top of the world

Like most great players, as a child Robert Lewandowski just wanted to play football. But for this kid from the small town of Leszno near Warsaw, there was one skill above all he wanted to master: “I focused on my aim.” That aim is true and it has fired him to the top of the sport and multiple pages of the record books. Here, with his 100th Champions League game fresh in the memory, football’s deadliest No9 sits down with Joanna Kozak to reflect on a golden career that only shines more intensely with every goal he scores

PORTRAITS FC Bayern München

Interview
“I really had a lot of fun in that game,” says Robert Lewandowski, looking back on his landmark 100th Champions League match: a 5-2 win against Benfica in November that he decorated with a hat-trick, as if some celestial scriptwriter had intervened. Those were goals 79, 80 and 81 for the Bayern München striker in the competition, the man of the moment proving that he remains peerless in the centre-forward role. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (140) and Lionel Messi (125) have scored more, but neither at the prolific rate of 0.82 goals per game.

Lewandowski’s opener against Benfica could barely have been simpler: a far-post header from close range. He then set up Serge Gnabry for Bayern’s second and even had a penalty saved (his first spot-kick failure in the Champions League) before bursting into the box and deftly chipping the goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos to make it 4-1. 

Two goals and an assist – pretty good way to celebrate the big day. But not good enough for Lewandowski… so cue the hat-trick, his third another delicate lob over the onrushing Vlachodimos from Manuel Neuer’s defence-piercing pass. Job done. And the goals have only kept flowing since, his fifth Champions League treble duly racked up in just 11 first-half minutes of Bayern’s 7-1 demolition of Salzburg in the round of 16 – a knockout-phase record. Any thoughts of a potential upset after the 1-1 first-leg draw were quickly banished.

The level of Lewandowski’s dominance is astonishing; his command of the area complete. Gone is the shy 21-year-old I first met when he arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2010. I had been sent to cover him for Polish TV and attended his first training session; the summer signing from Lech Poznań didn’t speak German then. He was unsure, uncertain as he felt his way around a new world. It’s fair to say that few would have predicted he would come this far: Poland’s record marksman, a Champions League winner and an icon at Bayern, with a scoring record in Europe to surpass even the great Gerd Müller. 

I have followed Lewandowski’s career in Germany ever since. He’s still patient and charming, and just as happy to share a joke as we wait for the camera crew to set up. But this is a man who knows exactly what he has become. A king on the pitch – the player the press always wait longest for after a game.

Now that he’s 33, what hasn’t changed is his passion for the sport and the same desire to keep improving. He is obsessed with fitness, and nutrition in particular – motivated in large part by his wife Anna, a karate champion, personal trainer and nutritionist. A sleep coach will also help ensure Lewandowski staves off fatigue as his career continues well into his thirties. 

Who knows what feats are to come, but joining the elite 100 club is a milestone in itself. Just over 40 players have reached three figures in Champions League appearances, so I headed to Bayern’s Säbener Strasse training centre for an interview to mark the occasion. And when I caught up with Lewy, as he is known, the Polish goal machine was happy to tell the story of a footballer who, having already achieved greatness, clearly believes there is a long way still to go.

What role did football play during your childhood?

When I was young, I played football every spare minute; it was always on my mind. I focused on my aim. Everything I did was to achieve my dream and my goal of playing in the stadium when I grew up. I used to play tennis as well; I played at the court where my father worked as a coach. I really knew how to play. I also trained for athletics. I could run the 1,500m distance very fast, which also helped me with football: I could run longer and quicker than my team-mates. It was a wonderful time and all I wanted to do was play football with my friends, but my father [a Polish judo champion] insisted that I also did other sports. At school we would do gymnastics or play basketball and handball – everything except football. I didn’t understand it back then but now I appreciate it, because all these different sports helped me develop physically.

After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality.
“Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win”

When and how did your passion for football start?

I joined a club when I was eight, but I immediately played with kids who were two years older because there was no team for my age group. So, I always had to act smarter on the field than my team-mates, since I was a lot smaller and thinner than them.

Did your parents want you to become a doctor, or maybe a pilot? Or did they support your dream?

For my parents, who were both teachers at my school, it was important that I was good at school – not just at sports but also mathematics and other subjects. They simply wanted me to show I was a good boy. When you’re young, you do what you enjoy most. I loved football from the very beginning and I always wanted to become a footballer. Of course, I knew that school was important as well, which is why I always tried to get the best grades, which wasn’t very hard for me. Football, though, was always at the forefront of my mind and I thought about it all day.

You experienced a few setbacks as a young striker, like being released by Delta Warszawa. What impact did that have on you?

That situation made me stronger, not just as a football player but also a person. Of course, back then it was difficult for me as a younger player, especially as I had lost my father just one year before. Back then I felt like I had to decide between two paths. One option was to take football less seriously and just leave it, the other was to continue doing it and believe that they had simply made a mistake. It was a clear decision for me to continue focusing on football and to continue fighting. That situation made me stronger. I still profit from it today.

“I remember being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I always dreamed of playing and scoring in this competition”

Thankfully, Lech Poznań saw your potential. After two successful seasons there, you moved to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2010. How did that transfer come about?

It was a very difficult decision, but I knew I had to go abroad. Back then it was clear that the next step in my career would be to transfer to Borussia Dortmund. I wanted to show everyone I was the right striker, the right person, at the right club. I experienced a lot there and I showed everyone the player I wanted to be. I wanted to show I could be better and I achieved that. I’m really thankful for what I achieved playing for Dortmund, and for what we won. We created history for the club.

But things could have been very different. If not for a simple twist of fate, you might have been joining Blackburn Rovers…

There’s this story about a volcano. I remember it was in 2010, when I still played for Lech Poznań. The next step for me was to go abroad. The first thing I did at each club I got offers from was to visit the stadium, the city, the training ground… the lot. I’d just visited a club in Italy and I was on the verge of flying to England to visit Blackburn. But then there was this situation with the volcano [eruption in Iceland] and you couldn’t fly at all. For a week or two, the whole of Europe was shut off, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to fly to England. However, I must admit that it wasn’t my first choice anyway. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you visit and see how it all is: the stadium, the fans, the city. Perhaps that could’ve influenced my decision, but to be honest I wanted to join a club that played in the Champions League or Europa League. And at that time, it was Borussia Dortmund. Still, whenever I think about my transfer to Dortmund, I’m reminded of that volcano.

You made your Champions League debut for BVB in a 1-1 draw against Arsenal in 2011. Can you remember it?

Yes, I remember that first game and being on the pitch. Before that I’d just seen and heard the Champions League on television. The first time I was on the pitch, I must say I was a little disappointed that the anthem was not as loud as on TV! But it’s all part of it, being nervous, the adrenaline… I think my entire skin felt different. I thought: “Wow, this is real. This is not a dream. I’m not sitting on the sofa – I’m standing on the pitch to play in the Champions League.” It was a very special day for me. I had worked hard and fought to get to that moment to play in the Champions League.

What was it like to play in front of that yellow wall?

Those were always, and still are, really great moments. Going to Dortmund with their huge stadium and playing in front of their amazing fans, that was the first difficult step in my career because it was the first time I’d played abroad. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture – everything was new. It was a big challenge for me. The first three months were very difficult, especially the training under Jürgen Klopp. As a young player I wanted to show I could do it all, so I gave 100% in every training session. To be honest, it broke me a little and I needed the next two months to recover. It was a fantastic time and we did a great job to achieve the success we had. The first time I played at home felt awesome and I never expected 80,000 fans to chant my name. I had goosebumps and it makes me proud to think back to it. I’d only heard what it meant, what it’s like. With the yellow wall, you have 25,000 fans alone standing behind the goal; until then I’d only played in stadiums with 25,000 in total. It felt incredible and it’s exciting for every player. There are not many places in the world where you play with 25,000 in one stand behind the goal. For young players, like I was back then, it is really special. 

And then Bayern München. Tell us about that move…

We already knew at that point that it was high time to take the next step in my career. And we already knew that we wanted to go to Bayern. I wanted to go to Bayern because I wanted to compete at the highest level and to win the biggest trophies. When I found out that Bayern were interested in me, it became very clear to me that I wanted to go there. Also, on a personal level, it was like going one step higher on the ladder, and it was nice to see how things are handled at an elite club. For me, it was the logical next step. However, I was conscious that I needed to show even more. The very first day at Bayern I realised that, with the players around me, I would benefit a lot in every training session. After two or three months, I felt I’d already become a better player. Now we want to – and must – compete at the highest level and achieve everything possible. I’ve had a lot of coaches, including Pep [Guardiola] and many others, and I’ve taken as much from all of them as I can. 

Which coach contributed most to you winning the 2021 Best FIFA Men’s Player award?

I think every coach I’ve had in my career has taught me many things. First it was Jürgen Klopp [see panel, previous spread], then the first coach at Bayern was Pep. I learned many things from him. After my time with Pep, I saw football from another perspective. And, honestly, from a tactical point of view, I talked a lot with him, not only about my position, but also why we were playing the way we were actually playing. All these things made me change my thoughts about football completely; now I see football from another perspective. Then there was [Carlo] Ancelotti. He transmitted self-confidence. I gained a lot of self-confidence with him. He trusted me. He wanted me to carry responsibility on my shoulders, and to give even more than before. Those are things I learned from him. Then there was Niko Kovač – and Jupp Heynckes, of course. I learned a lot from him as well, not just from his experience as a football player but as a coach. That was a good time, honestly. And then Hansi Flick arrived. With him we achieved everything possible. We won everything there was to win and achieved everything we planned to achieve. It was a spectacular season. The way we were playing then was absolutely incredible.

You won every trophy going with Bayern in 2019/20 and scored a staggering 55 goals in 47 games. Talk us through that amazing season.

It wasn’t exactly easy at the beginning of the season. We didn’t start very well, didn’t play well. Then Hansi Flick arrived and everything changed. Victory after victory, we worked amazingly well. With the football we played, every opponent was afraid before the game. And we won every single match in the Champions League. That was historic. Never before had any team won every single game, from the group stage to the final. But we did. But it was not only about winning all the matches: the incredible thing was how we won them. In the group stage, we beat Tottenham 7-2. In the quarter-finals it was 8-2 against Barcelona, and we won the semi-final 3-0 [against Lyon] as well. And then the final against PSG… Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win. Our self-confidence was extremely high. Of course we respected our opponents, but deep down we felt – and knew – we just had to win it. 

How did it feel when you knew you’d done it?

After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality. With all the difficult moments I’d had before, I finally saw and realised why I’d been working so hard to be successful. The Champions League is something very special. If I think back to that time when we won all the trophies, there are just no words to describe it. It was everyone’s dream. We won the cup, the league and the Champions League in one season. It was an incredible year. What we achieved was a huge story, not just for me or for Bayern but for the whole of football, and that makes it really special. 

You marked your 100th appearance in the Champions League by scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 win against Benfica. How proud does it make you feel to have joined that select band of Champions League centurions?

I’m very proud. I remember very well being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I’d always dreamed of playing in the Champions League and scoring in this competition. Today I’ve played 100 matches in the Champions League and scored over 80 goals. That means a great deal to me. Every game feels very special. These are matches that everyone around the world watches, and that’s a bonus that makes me very proud. I still have a very special feeling ahead of every Champions League game. I never thought I’d play so many matches in the Champions League and score so many goals. That day [of my 100th match] I got three goals. It felt incredible and I’m very proud. I really had a lot of fun in that game. I’m delighted about everything I’ve achieved, every goal I’ve scored in the Champions League, but also about every match I’ve played in. It’s the dream of every player to play so many Champions League games.

Insight
'Klopp was like a father to me'

Robert Lewandowski on a special relationship that took him to the next level 

“The first months [under Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund] were difficult for me because of his fame and everything he expected of me back then. As a young player I always wanted to show I was the best, that I could manage anything. After one month, it was too much for me. I’d already noticed my body was exhausted, that I didn’t feel as fresh any more, not quite optimal. Besides the training, everything else had to be organised as well like finding a new apartment, documents, etc. All these things required a lot of energy because I always wanted to do everything myself. 

“After three months I was simply exhausted. It took me another three to get back to full strength. But once I was able to manage the pressure and tempo during training and games, I knew I was moving forward and that it was all up to me to show my talent and potential. 

“Jürgen Klopp, the coach – the man – did so much for me. I learned so much from him. I learned what he’s like as a person. I took a great step forward and what we experienced together stays with me even to this day. 

“Given what we spoke about, I came to realise that Jürgen was not only a coach but like a father to me. I lost my own father when I was 16 and when I got to know Jürgen, he became the only man I could speak to as if I were speaking with my own father. For a couple of years, I didn’t have any men to talk to. 

“I remember a particular moment, in my second season at Dortmund after a Champions League loss against Marseille. I wanted to speak to him and understand what he expected from me, and I got the feeling that my German was good enough to be able to speak to him alone. I didn’t know what I wanted to hear from him. I thought we’d talk for 10–15 minutes; I think we ended up speaking for nearly two hours. A couple of days after our chat, we played in the Bundesliga and I scored my first hat-trick and made an assist. We won 4-0. In my career, that was the time when everything changed and pushed on.”

Lewandowski’s opener against Benfica could barely have been simpler: a far-post header from close range. He then set up Serge Gnabry for Bayern’s second and even had a penalty saved (his first spot-kick failure in the Champions League) before bursting into the box and deftly chipping the goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos to make it 4-1. 

Two goals and an assist – pretty good way to celebrate the big day. But not good enough for Lewandowski… so cue the hat-trick, his third another delicate lob over the onrushing Vlachodimos from Manuel Neuer’s defence-piercing pass. Job done. And the goals have only kept flowing since, his fifth Champions League treble duly racked up in just 11 first-half minutes of Bayern’s 7-1 demolition of Salzburg in the round of 16 – a knockout-phase record. Any thoughts of a potential upset after the 1-1 first-leg draw were quickly banished.

The level of Lewandowski’s dominance is astonishing; his command of the area complete. Gone is the shy 21-year-old I first met when he arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2010. I had been sent to cover him for Polish TV and attended his first training session; the summer signing from Lech Poznań didn’t speak German then. He was unsure, uncertain as he felt his way around a new world. It’s fair to say that few would have predicted he would come this far: Poland’s record marksman, a Champions League winner and an icon at Bayern, with a scoring record in Europe to surpass even the great Gerd Müller. 

I have followed Lewandowski’s career in Germany ever since. He’s still patient and charming, and just as happy to share a joke as we wait for the camera crew to set up. But this is a man who knows exactly what he has become. A king on the pitch – the player the press always wait longest for after a game.

Now that he’s 33, what hasn’t changed is his passion for the sport and the same desire to keep improving. He is obsessed with fitness, and nutrition in particular – motivated in large part by his wife Anna, a karate champion, personal trainer and nutritionist. A sleep coach will also help ensure Lewandowski staves off fatigue as his career continues well into his thirties. 

Who knows what feats are to come, but joining the elite 100 club is a milestone in itself. Just over 40 players have reached three figures in Champions League appearances, so I headed to Bayern’s Säbener Strasse training centre for an interview to mark the occasion. And when I caught up with Lewy, as he is known, the Polish goal machine was happy to tell the story of a footballer who, having already achieved greatness, clearly believes there is a long way still to go.

What role did football play during your childhood?

When I was young, I played football every spare minute; it was always on my mind. I focused on my aim. Everything I did was to achieve my dream and my goal of playing in the stadium when I grew up. I used to play tennis as well; I played at the court where my father worked as a coach. I really knew how to play. I also trained for athletics. I could run the 1,500m distance very fast, which also helped me with football: I could run longer and quicker than my team-mates. It was a wonderful time and all I wanted to do was play football with my friends, but my father [a Polish judo champion] insisted that I also did other sports. At school we would do gymnastics or play basketball and handball – everything except football. I didn’t understand it back then but now I appreciate it, because all these different sports helped me develop physically.

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After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality.
“Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win”

When and how did your passion for football start?

I joined a club when I was eight, but I immediately played with kids who were two years older because there was no team for my age group. So, I always had to act smarter on the field than my team-mates, since I was a lot smaller and thinner than them.

Did your parents want you to become a doctor, or maybe a pilot? Or did they support your dream?

For my parents, who were both teachers at my school, it was important that I was good at school – not just at sports but also mathematics and other subjects. They simply wanted me to show I was a good boy. When you’re young, you do what you enjoy most. I loved football from the very beginning and I always wanted to become a footballer. Of course, I knew that school was important as well, which is why I always tried to get the best grades, which wasn’t very hard for me. Football, though, was always at the forefront of my mind and I thought about it all day.

You experienced a few setbacks as a young striker, like being released by Delta Warszawa. What impact did that have on you?

That situation made me stronger, not just as a football player but also a person. Of course, back then it was difficult for me as a younger player, especially as I had lost my father just one year before. Back then I felt like I had to decide between two paths. One option was to take football less seriously and just leave it, the other was to continue doing it and believe that they had simply made a mistake. It was a clear decision for me to continue focusing on football and to continue fighting. That situation made me stronger. I still profit from it today.

“I remember being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I always dreamed of playing and scoring in this competition”

Thankfully, Lech Poznań saw your potential. After two successful seasons there, you moved to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2010. How did that transfer come about?

It was a very difficult decision, but I knew I had to go abroad. Back then it was clear that the next step in my career would be to transfer to Borussia Dortmund. I wanted to show everyone I was the right striker, the right person, at the right club. I experienced a lot there and I showed everyone the player I wanted to be. I wanted to show I could be better and I achieved that. I’m really thankful for what I achieved playing for Dortmund, and for what we won. We created history for the club.

But things could have been very different. If not for a simple twist of fate, you might have been joining Blackburn Rovers…

There’s this story about a volcano. I remember it was in 2010, when I still played for Lech Poznań. The next step for me was to go abroad. The first thing I did at each club I got offers from was to visit the stadium, the city, the training ground… the lot. I’d just visited a club in Italy and I was on the verge of flying to England to visit Blackburn. But then there was this situation with the volcano [eruption in Iceland] and you couldn’t fly at all. For a week or two, the whole of Europe was shut off, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to fly to England. However, I must admit that it wasn’t my first choice anyway. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you visit and see how it all is: the stadium, the fans, the city. Perhaps that could’ve influenced my decision, but to be honest I wanted to join a club that played in the Champions League or Europa League. And at that time, it was Borussia Dortmund. Still, whenever I think about my transfer to Dortmund, I’m reminded of that volcano.

You made your Champions League debut for BVB in a 1-1 draw against Arsenal in 2011. Can you remember it?

Yes, I remember that first game and being on the pitch. Before that I’d just seen and heard the Champions League on television. The first time I was on the pitch, I must say I was a little disappointed that the anthem was not as loud as on TV! But it’s all part of it, being nervous, the adrenaline… I think my entire skin felt different. I thought: “Wow, this is real. This is not a dream. I’m not sitting on the sofa – I’m standing on the pitch to play in the Champions League.” It was a very special day for me. I had worked hard and fought to get to that moment to play in the Champions League.

What was it like to play in front of that yellow wall?

Those were always, and still are, really great moments. Going to Dortmund with their huge stadium and playing in front of their amazing fans, that was the first difficult step in my career because it was the first time I’d played abroad. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture – everything was new. It was a big challenge for me. The first three months were very difficult, especially the training under Jürgen Klopp. As a young player I wanted to show I could do it all, so I gave 100% in every training session. To be honest, it broke me a little and I needed the next two months to recover. It was a fantastic time and we did a great job to achieve the success we had. The first time I played at home felt awesome and I never expected 80,000 fans to chant my name. I had goosebumps and it makes me proud to think back to it. I’d only heard what it meant, what it’s like. With the yellow wall, you have 25,000 fans alone standing behind the goal; until then I’d only played in stadiums with 25,000 in total. It felt incredible and it’s exciting for every player. There are not many places in the world where you play with 25,000 in one stand behind the goal. For young players, like I was back then, it is really special. 

And then Bayern München. Tell us about that move…

We already knew at that point that it was high time to take the next step in my career. And we already knew that we wanted to go to Bayern. I wanted to go to Bayern because I wanted to compete at the highest level and to win the biggest trophies. When I found out that Bayern were interested in me, it became very clear to me that I wanted to go there. Also, on a personal level, it was like going one step higher on the ladder, and it was nice to see how things are handled at an elite club. For me, it was the logical next step. However, I was conscious that I needed to show even more. The very first day at Bayern I realised that, with the players around me, I would benefit a lot in every training session. After two or three months, I felt I’d already become a better player. Now we want to – and must – compete at the highest level and achieve everything possible. I’ve had a lot of coaches, including Pep [Guardiola] and many others, and I’ve taken as much from all of them as I can. 

Which coach contributed most to you winning the 2021 Best FIFA Men’s Player award?

I think every coach I’ve had in my career has taught me many things. First it was Jürgen Klopp [see panel, previous spread], then the first coach at Bayern was Pep. I learned many things from him. After my time with Pep, I saw football from another perspective. And, honestly, from a tactical point of view, I talked a lot with him, not only about my position, but also why we were playing the way we were actually playing. All these things made me change my thoughts about football completely; now I see football from another perspective. Then there was [Carlo] Ancelotti. He transmitted self-confidence. I gained a lot of self-confidence with him. He trusted me. He wanted me to carry responsibility on my shoulders, and to give even more than before. Those are things I learned from him. Then there was Niko Kovač – and Jupp Heynckes, of course. I learned a lot from him as well, not just from his experience as a football player but as a coach. That was a good time, honestly. And then Hansi Flick arrived. With him we achieved everything possible. We won everything there was to win and achieved everything we planned to achieve. It was a spectacular season. The way we were playing then was absolutely incredible.

You won every trophy going with Bayern in 2019/20 and scored a staggering 55 goals in 47 games. Talk us through that amazing season.

It wasn’t exactly easy at the beginning of the season. We didn’t start very well, didn’t play well. Then Hansi Flick arrived and everything changed. Victory after victory, we worked amazingly well. With the football we played, every opponent was afraid before the game. And we won every single match in the Champions League. That was historic. Never before had any team won every single game, from the group stage to the final. But we did. But it was not only about winning all the matches: the incredible thing was how we won them. In the group stage, we beat Tottenham 7-2. In the quarter-finals it was 8-2 against Barcelona, and we won the semi-final 3-0 [against Lyon] as well. And then the final against PSG… Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win. Our self-confidence was extremely high. Of course we respected our opponents, but deep down we felt – and knew – we just had to win it. 

How did it feel when you knew you’d done it?

After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality. With all the difficult moments I’d had before, I finally saw and realised why I’d been working so hard to be successful. The Champions League is something very special. If I think back to that time when we won all the trophies, there are just no words to describe it. It was everyone’s dream. We won the cup, the league and the Champions League in one season. It was an incredible year. What we achieved was a huge story, not just for me or for Bayern but for the whole of football, and that makes it really special. 

You marked your 100th appearance in the Champions League by scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 win against Benfica. How proud does it make you feel to have joined that select band of Champions League centurions?

I’m very proud. I remember very well being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I’d always dreamed of playing in the Champions League and scoring in this competition. Today I’ve played 100 matches in the Champions League and scored over 80 goals. That means a great deal to me. Every game feels very special. These are matches that everyone around the world watches, and that’s a bonus that makes me very proud. I still have a very special feeling ahead of every Champions League game. I never thought I’d play so many matches in the Champions League and score so many goals. That day [of my 100th match] I got three goals. It felt incredible and I’m very proud. I really had a lot of fun in that game. I’m delighted about everything I’ve achieved, every goal I’ve scored in the Champions League, but also about every match I’ve played in. It’s the dream of every player to play so many Champions League games.

Insight
'Klopp was like a father to me'

Robert Lewandowski on a special relationship that took him to the next level 

“The first months [under Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund] were difficult for me because of his fame and everything he expected of me back then. As a young player I always wanted to show I was the best, that I could manage anything. After one month, it was too much for me. I’d already noticed my body was exhausted, that I didn’t feel as fresh any more, not quite optimal. Besides the training, everything else had to be organised as well like finding a new apartment, documents, etc. All these things required a lot of energy because I always wanted to do everything myself. 

“After three months I was simply exhausted. It took me another three to get back to full strength. But once I was able to manage the pressure and tempo during training and games, I knew I was moving forward and that it was all up to me to show my talent and potential. 

“Jürgen Klopp, the coach – the man – did so much for me. I learned so much from him. I learned what he’s like as a person. I took a great step forward and what we experienced together stays with me even to this day. 

“Given what we spoke about, I came to realise that Jürgen was not only a coach but like a father to me. I lost my own father when I was 16 and when I got to know Jürgen, he became the only man I could speak to as if I were speaking with my own father. For a couple of years, I didn’t have any men to talk to. 

“I remember a particular moment, in my second season at Dortmund after a Champions League loss against Marseille. I wanted to speak to him and understand what he expected from me, and I got the feeling that my German was good enough to be able to speak to him alone. I didn’t know what I wanted to hear from him. I thought we’d talk for 10–15 minutes; I think we ended up speaking for nearly two hours. A couple of days after our chat, we played in the Bundesliga and I scored my first hat-trick and made an assist. We won 4-0. In my career, that was the time when everything changed and pushed on.”

Lewandowski’s opener against Benfica could barely have been simpler: a far-post header from close range. He then set up Serge Gnabry for Bayern’s second and even had a penalty saved (his first spot-kick failure in the Champions League) before bursting into the box and deftly chipping the goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos to make it 4-1. 

Two goals and an assist – pretty good way to celebrate the big day. But not good enough for Lewandowski… so cue the hat-trick, his third another delicate lob over the onrushing Vlachodimos from Manuel Neuer’s defence-piercing pass. Job done. And the goals have only kept flowing since, his fifth Champions League treble duly racked up in just 11 first-half minutes of Bayern’s 7-1 demolition of Salzburg in the round of 16 – a knockout-phase record. Any thoughts of a potential upset after the 1-1 first-leg draw were quickly banished.

The level of Lewandowski’s dominance is astonishing; his command of the area complete. Gone is the shy 21-year-old I first met when he arrived at Borussia Dortmund in 2010. I had been sent to cover him for Polish TV and attended his first training session; the summer signing from Lech Poznań didn’t speak German then. He was unsure, uncertain as he felt his way around a new world. It’s fair to say that few would have predicted he would come this far: Poland’s record marksman, a Champions League winner and an icon at Bayern, with a scoring record in Europe to surpass even the great Gerd Müller. 

I have followed Lewandowski’s career in Germany ever since. He’s still patient and charming, and just as happy to share a joke as we wait for the camera crew to set up. But this is a man who knows exactly what he has become. A king on the pitch – the player the press always wait longest for after a game.

Now that he’s 33, what hasn’t changed is his passion for the sport and the same desire to keep improving. He is obsessed with fitness, and nutrition in particular – motivated in large part by his wife Anna, a karate champion, personal trainer and nutritionist. A sleep coach will also help ensure Lewandowski staves off fatigue as his career continues well into his thirties. 

Who knows what feats are to come, but joining the elite 100 club is a milestone in itself. Just over 40 players have reached three figures in Champions League appearances, so I headed to Bayern’s Säbener Strasse training centre for an interview to mark the occasion. And when I caught up with Lewy, as he is known, the Polish goal machine was happy to tell the story of a footballer who, having already achieved greatness, clearly believes there is a long way still to go.

What role did football play during your childhood?

When I was young, I played football every spare minute; it was always on my mind. I focused on my aim. Everything I did was to achieve my dream and my goal of playing in the stadium when I grew up. I used to play tennis as well; I played at the court where my father worked as a coach. I really knew how to play. I also trained for athletics. I could run the 1,500m distance very fast, which also helped me with football: I could run longer and quicker than my team-mates. It was a wonderful time and all I wanted to do was play football with my friends, but my father [a Polish judo champion] insisted that I also did other sports. At school we would do gymnastics or play basketball and handball – everything except football. I didn’t understand it back then but now I appreciate it, because all these different sports helped me develop physically.

After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality.
“Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win”

When and how did your passion for football start?

I joined a club when I was eight, but I immediately played with kids who were two years older because there was no team for my age group. So, I always had to act smarter on the field than my team-mates, since I was a lot smaller and thinner than them.

Did your parents want you to become a doctor, or maybe a pilot? Or did they support your dream?

For my parents, who were both teachers at my school, it was important that I was good at school – not just at sports but also mathematics and other subjects. They simply wanted me to show I was a good boy. When you’re young, you do what you enjoy most. I loved football from the very beginning and I always wanted to become a footballer. Of course, I knew that school was important as well, which is why I always tried to get the best grades, which wasn’t very hard for me. Football, though, was always at the forefront of my mind and I thought about it all day.

You experienced a few setbacks as a young striker, like being released by Delta Warszawa. What impact did that have on you?

That situation made me stronger, not just as a football player but also a person. Of course, back then it was difficult for me as a younger player, especially as I had lost my father just one year before. Back then I felt like I had to decide between two paths. One option was to take football less seriously and just leave it, the other was to continue doing it and believe that they had simply made a mistake. It was a clear decision for me to continue focusing on football and to continue fighting. That situation made me stronger. I still profit from it today.

“I remember being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I always dreamed of playing and scoring in this competition”

Thankfully, Lech Poznań saw your potential. After two successful seasons there, you moved to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2010. How did that transfer come about?

It was a very difficult decision, but I knew I had to go abroad. Back then it was clear that the next step in my career would be to transfer to Borussia Dortmund. I wanted to show everyone I was the right striker, the right person, at the right club. I experienced a lot there and I showed everyone the player I wanted to be. I wanted to show I could be better and I achieved that. I’m really thankful for what I achieved playing for Dortmund, and for what we won. We created history for the club.

But things could have been very different. If not for a simple twist of fate, you might have been joining Blackburn Rovers…

There’s this story about a volcano. I remember it was in 2010, when I still played for Lech Poznań. The next step for me was to go abroad. The first thing I did at each club I got offers from was to visit the stadium, the city, the training ground… the lot. I’d just visited a club in Italy and I was on the verge of flying to England to visit Blackburn. But then there was this situation with the volcano [eruption in Iceland] and you couldn’t fly at all. For a week or two, the whole of Europe was shut off, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to fly to England. However, I must admit that it wasn’t my first choice anyway. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you visit and see how it all is: the stadium, the fans, the city. Perhaps that could’ve influenced my decision, but to be honest I wanted to join a club that played in the Champions League or Europa League. And at that time, it was Borussia Dortmund. Still, whenever I think about my transfer to Dortmund, I’m reminded of that volcano.

You made your Champions League debut for BVB in a 1-1 draw against Arsenal in 2011. Can you remember it?

Yes, I remember that first game and being on the pitch. Before that I’d just seen and heard the Champions League on television. The first time I was on the pitch, I must say I was a little disappointed that the anthem was not as loud as on TV! But it’s all part of it, being nervous, the adrenaline… I think my entire skin felt different. I thought: “Wow, this is real. This is not a dream. I’m not sitting on the sofa – I’m standing on the pitch to play in the Champions League.” It was a very special day for me. I had worked hard and fought to get to that moment to play in the Champions League.

What was it like to play in front of that yellow wall?

Those were always, and still are, really great moments. Going to Dortmund with their huge stadium and playing in front of their amazing fans, that was the first difficult step in my career because it was the first time I’d played abroad. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture – everything was new. It was a big challenge for me. The first three months were very difficult, especially the training under Jürgen Klopp. As a young player I wanted to show I could do it all, so I gave 100% in every training session. To be honest, it broke me a little and I needed the next two months to recover. It was a fantastic time and we did a great job to achieve the success we had. The first time I played at home felt awesome and I never expected 80,000 fans to chant my name. I had goosebumps and it makes me proud to think back to it. I’d only heard what it meant, what it’s like. With the yellow wall, you have 25,000 fans alone standing behind the goal; until then I’d only played in stadiums with 25,000 in total. It felt incredible and it’s exciting for every player. There are not many places in the world where you play with 25,000 in one stand behind the goal. For young players, like I was back then, it is really special. 

And then Bayern München. Tell us about that move…

We already knew at that point that it was high time to take the next step in my career. And we already knew that we wanted to go to Bayern. I wanted to go to Bayern because I wanted to compete at the highest level and to win the biggest trophies. When I found out that Bayern were interested in me, it became very clear to me that I wanted to go there. Also, on a personal level, it was like going one step higher on the ladder, and it was nice to see how things are handled at an elite club. For me, it was the logical next step. However, I was conscious that I needed to show even more. The very first day at Bayern I realised that, with the players around me, I would benefit a lot in every training session. After two or three months, I felt I’d already become a better player. Now we want to – and must – compete at the highest level and achieve everything possible. I’ve had a lot of coaches, including Pep [Guardiola] and many others, and I’ve taken as much from all of them as I can. 

Which coach contributed most to you winning the 2021 Best FIFA Men’s Player award?

I think every coach I’ve had in my career has taught me many things. First it was Jürgen Klopp [see panel, previous spread], then the first coach at Bayern was Pep. I learned many things from him. After my time with Pep, I saw football from another perspective. And, honestly, from a tactical point of view, I talked a lot with him, not only about my position, but also why we were playing the way we were actually playing. All these things made me change my thoughts about football completely; now I see football from another perspective. Then there was [Carlo] Ancelotti. He transmitted self-confidence. I gained a lot of self-confidence with him. He trusted me. He wanted me to carry responsibility on my shoulders, and to give even more than before. Those are things I learned from him. Then there was Niko Kovač – and Jupp Heynckes, of course. I learned a lot from him as well, not just from his experience as a football player but as a coach. That was a good time, honestly. And then Hansi Flick arrived. With him we achieved everything possible. We won everything there was to win and achieved everything we planned to achieve. It was a spectacular season. The way we were playing then was absolutely incredible.

You won every trophy going with Bayern in 2019/20 and scored a staggering 55 goals in 47 games. Talk us through that amazing season.

It wasn’t exactly easy at the beginning of the season. We didn’t start very well, didn’t play well. Then Hansi Flick arrived and everything changed. Victory after victory, we worked amazingly well. With the football we played, every opponent was afraid before the game. And we won every single match in the Champions League. That was historic. Never before had any team won every single game, from the group stage to the final. But we did. But it was not only about winning all the matches: the incredible thing was how we won them. In the group stage, we beat Tottenham 7-2. In the quarter-finals it was 8-2 against Barcelona, and we won the semi-final 3-0 [against Lyon] as well. And then the final against PSG… Everything is possible in a final, but that day we just knew we were going to win. Our self-confidence was extremely high. Of course we respected our opponents, but deep down we felt – and knew – we just had to win it. 

How did it feel when you knew you’d done it?

After the Champions League title we were crying with happiness. We had a lot of fun and simply felt happy about what we’d achieved. One special moment for me was just after the final whistle. I realised my dream had become a reality. With all the difficult moments I’d had before, I finally saw and realised why I’d been working so hard to be successful. The Champions League is something very special. If I think back to that time when we won all the trophies, there are just no words to describe it. It was everyone’s dream. We won the cup, the league and the Champions League in one season. It was an incredible year. What we achieved was a huge story, not just for me or for Bayern but for the whole of football, and that makes it really special. 

You marked your 100th appearance in the Champions League by scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 win against Benfica. How proud does it make you feel to have joined that select band of Champions League centurions?

I’m very proud. I remember very well being at home and watching the Champions League on TV. I’d always dreamed of playing in the Champions League and scoring in this competition. Today I’ve played 100 matches in the Champions League and scored over 80 goals. That means a great deal to me. Every game feels very special. These are matches that everyone around the world watches, and that’s a bonus that makes me very proud. I still have a very special feeling ahead of every Champions League game. I never thought I’d play so many matches in the Champions League and score so many goals. That day [of my 100th match] I got three goals. It felt incredible and I’m very proud. I really had a lot of fun in that game. I’m delighted about everything I’ve achieved, every goal I’ve scored in the Champions League, but also about every match I’ve played in. It’s the dream of every player to play so many Champions League games.

Insight
'Klopp was like a father to me'

Robert Lewandowski on a special relationship that took him to the next level 

“The first months [under Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund] were difficult for me because of his fame and everything he expected of me back then. As a young player I always wanted to show I was the best, that I could manage anything. After one month, it was too much for me. I’d already noticed my body was exhausted, that I didn’t feel as fresh any more, not quite optimal. Besides the training, everything else had to be organised as well like finding a new apartment, documents, etc. All these things required a lot of energy because I always wanted to do everything myself. 

“After three months I was simply exhausted. It took me another three to get back to full strength. But once I was able to manage the pressure and tempo during training and games, I knew I was moving forward and that it was all up to me to show my talent and potential. 

“Jürgen Klopp, the coach – the man – did so much for me. I learned so much from him. I learned what he’s like as a person. I took a great step forward and what we experienced together stays with me even to this day. 

“Given what we spoke about, I came to realise that Jürgen was not only a coach but like a father to me. I lost my own father when I was 16 and when I got to know Jürgen, he became the only man I could speak to as if I were speaking with my own father. For a couple of years, I didn’t have any men to talk to. 

“I remember a particular moment, in my second season at Dortmund after a Champions League loss against Marseille. I wanted to speak to him and understand what he expected from me, and I got the feeling that my German was good enough to be able to speak to him alone. I didn’t know what I wanted to hear from him. I thought we’d talk for 10–15 minutes; I think we ended up speaking for nearly two hours. A couple of days after our chat, we played in the Bundesliga and I scored my first hat-trick and made an assist. We won 4-0. In my career, that was the time when everything changed and pushed on.”

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