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A few days ago, I woke up in bed, turned around and saw something strange lying next to me on the pillow.
You know when you wake up from a really good sleep and everything still seems like a dream? Well, my first reaction to seeing this thing was like, What? How did this get here?
I had some hazy memory of being at a ceremony and receiving an award. But it seemed too bizarre to be true.
Then I grabbed this thing and I thought, Wow … That wasn’t a dream. That was REAL.
They named you the best footballer in the world.
And you have taken the trophy with you to bed!
I really had to stare hard at that trophy to realise what I had achieved. Actually, no, that’s not entirely true. If I’m honest, I still haven’t completely realised it.
Kids from Poland are not supposed to be the best in the world.- Robert Lewandowski
Let me explain something about Polish people, and then maybe you will understand. Before the ceremony, I knew I’d had a great year with Bayern Munich. I knew I might win the award. Perhaps I even deserved it. But in Poland, we have this inferiority complex. We’ve never had anyone named the world’s best player. When you are a kid, you have no superstars to follow. The scouts always say things like, “He’s pretty skilled ... for a Polish kid.” So we have this feeling that no one is ever good enough — that none of us is ever going to make it to the top.
Kids from Poland are not supposed to be the best in the world. It’s just not supposed to happen. So when I received the trophy, I couldn’t believe it. I know that people think it’s a cliché, but my life really began to flash in front of my eyes. I could see my first steps with the ball, my first games on the muddy pitches, and all the people who had helped me get to this point.
It was like a movie. The whole drama played itself out in three acts, and I want to share this movie with you. Because I know that there’s at least one kid out there right now in Poland, or in another place where they don’t dare to dream, who will appreciate it.
The movie went something like this:
Act I: The Communion
When I was a kid, I had my first Communion at the local church. For those who aren’t familiar with the Catholic religion, this is a really special day. It starts with the mass at the church and then we celebrate with our families afterwards.
The trouble was, I had a game three hours after the mass, and it was really far away.
So ahead of the celebration my dad, Krzysztof, had a little chat with the priest. This was in my hometown, Leszno, a tiny village 40 minutes west of Warsaw, so my dad knew everybody there.
He said, “Listen, father, maybe we could start this thing off half an hour earlier? And perhaps cut off the last 10 minutes? You see, my son’s got a game.…”
Maybe that sounds a little crazy, but actually the priest knew me so well that he thought about it for a moment and then said, “Eh, sure, why not? We know how much he loves football. We’ll be quick.”
So the moment Communion ended, I made the sign of the cross, and my dad and I sprinted to the car and drove off! Haha!
And yes, of course we won the game ;-)
I think that story sums up my childhood. It also sums up my dad.
When I began playing football as a five-year-old, there were no teams for kids my age in Leszno, so I had to play with kids who were two years older. It was tough, because I was very shy and skinny, and two years is a big deal at that age. For many years I also played for a team in Warsaw, and I had to travel one hour each way to get to training.
If I didn’t have parents who were willing to drive me there, my football dream would have been over before it even began.
They were both P.E. teachers, and my dad happened to be my P.E. teacher. So after school he would drive me to training, wait two hours for my session to finish and then drive me home. The club had no changing rooms, so I’d often run around in the rain and come back into the car covered in mud. Then we’d drive through the dark and get home at 10 o’clock.
So yeah, it was a four-hour trip for my dad, just so I could train.
Some other parents thought he was crazy. They really did.
If I didn’t have parents who were willing to drive me there, my football dream would have been over before it even began.- Robert Lewandowski
I’m not kidding. I literally heard other parents ask my parents, “Why are you doing this?”
They never said it was because they wanted their kid to turn pro. Instead they would say it was because Robert has a dream and he loves this game. It was never like, “Oh, we have to do everything for Robert so that he’ll turn pro and reach the top and we’ll get rich.”
You know, a lot of parents put pressure on their kids to succeed. I have seen fathers stand on the sidelines shouting at 10-year-olds. That wasn’t good motivation when I was a kid. And it still isn’t. Because those parents don’t know what it’s like to be an athlete. They don’t get that your love for football has to come from the heart.
Even when I was young, there were already some people who believed I was too small and skinny to make it. Haters, as the kids say now! But my parents always encouraged me to think for myself, to ignore what other people were saying.
They would always tell me this one thing, and it took me years to understand what they meant.
They would say, “Robert … trust your instincts.”
It’s a good lesson for a striker, or for anyone really.
Act II: The Rejection
When I was 16, my father died after a long illness. I still find it very hard to describe how difficult it was for me. When you are a boy, there are certain things you can only talk to your dad about. Stuff about growing up and becoming a man.
After he died, I often wanted to talk to him about these things. There were so many times that I wished I could just call him on the phone. Even for 10 minutes. But I couldn’t.
My mum tried to help me as much as she could, and I have a lot of respect for what she did for me. She had to be both a mother and a father.
At that time I was playing for Legia Warsaw II, the reserve team of one of the biggest clubs in Poland. We were playing in the third division. About a year later, in 2006, my contract was about to expire, and the club had to decide if they wanted to extend it for another year.
Unfortunately, I had just suffered a serious knee injury, and some people at the club didn’t think I’d ever get back to my best. It was a horrible time, and I asked the club what they were going to do. They didn’t even bother to send the coach or the technical director to tell me. They sent the secretary … who told me that they were going to let me go.
It was one of the worst days of my life. My dad was gone. Now my career was falling apart. After I got the news, I walked back to the car where my mum was waiting. She could immediately tell that something was wrong. And I just couldn’t help it ... I began to cry. I told her what happened.
She was so strong. She said, “O.K., so we have to work. There’s no use thinking about the past. We have to do something.”
So she got in touch with Znicz Pruszków. Same division. Much smaller club. They had actually wanted to sign me a couple of months earlier, and I had been like, No chance. Why would I leave Legia to go to Znicz Pruszków?
But now I was just happy that they still wanted me. I went there and began my recovery, and I was in such a bad state that I couldn’t even run properly. One of my legs would lag behind the other, as if I had a block of cement around my ankle. It looked comical, you know?
Imagine if I had listened to the haters. Maybe that injury would have stopped me. Think about it: The big talents were already playing for clubs like Bayern and Barça and Manchester United.
And here I was in the Polish third division, trying to remember how to run.
For sure, I learned a lot from all the uncertainty and the misery. I had to work a lot on my confidence. And I needed a lot of time to get back in shape. But when I did, I began scoring in game after game.
Four years later, I was being bombarded with offers to leave Polish football.
There were so many rumours, so many people telling me what to do. I could have gone to so many places. But I remembered what my parents had told me: “Trust your instincts.”
Deep down, I always knew where I wanted to go.
Germany was calling me.
Act III: The Bet
I once made a bet with Jürgen Klopp.
It was 2010, and I had been a few months at Borussia Dortmund. Honestly, it was so tough. When I arrived I could barely speak a word of German. I knew danke. Thank you. I knew scheisse. The weather was rainy and grey. And with Klopp, the intensity in training was very, very high.
I was desperate to make my mark, and Jürgen wanted to challenge me.
So in the first few months we made a little bet.
If I scored 10 goals in a training session, he’d give me 50 euros.
If I didn’t, I’d give him 50 euros.
The first few weeks, I had to pay up almost every time. He was laughing. But after a few months, the tables turned. I was the one raking in the cash.
So one day he said, “Stop! O.K.! That’s enough. You’re ready now.”
But in truth, I wasn’t. Matches are very different from training.
That season, I was often coming off the bench. I played more in the second half of the season, but then as a number 10, behind the striker. My favourite position was as a number 9. Still, I have to say thank you to Jürgen for those six months. I learned so much about how to play deeper and how players were supposed to move behind the striker.
When the second season began, I was still struggling. I also felt that Jürgen wanted something from me, but I didn’t understand exactly what. So after a really bad defeat to Marseille in the Champions League — I think we lost 3–0 — I went to see him. I said, “Jürgen, come on. We have to speak. Just tell me what you expect from me.”
I can’t remember everything he told me — my German still wasn’t the best — but through the few words I knew and from his body language, we understood each other. We had a great chat.
Three days later, I scored a hat trick and assisted another goal against Augsburg. We won 4–0, and that was the turning point for me. It was a mental thing, a hang-up of some sort. And I think it had something to do with my father.
At the time I didn’t think about it. But now I realise that my conversation with Jürgen was like one of those I wish I could’ve had with my dad. One of those I had not been able to have in many, many years. I could talk to Jürgen about anything. I could trust him. He is a family man, and he has so much empathy for what goes on in your private life.
Jürgen was not only a father figure to me. As a coach, he was like the “bad” teacher. And I mean that in the best sense of the word.
Let me explain. Think back to you when you were in school. Which teacher do you remember the most? Not the one who made life easy for you and never expected anything from you. No, no, no. You remember the bad teacher, the one who was strict with you. The one who put pressure on you and did everything to get the best out of you. That’s the teacher who made you better, right? And Jürgen was like that.
He was not content to let you be a B student, you know? Jürgen wanted A+ students. He didn’t want it for him. He wanted it for you.
He taught me so much. When I arrived at Dortmund, I wanted to do everything quickly: strong pass, one touch only. Jürgen showed me to calm down — to take two touches if necessary.
It was totally against my nature, but soon I was scoring more goals.
When I had that down, he challenged me to speed it up again. One touch. BANG. Goal. He slowed me down to speed me up. It sounds simple, but it was genius, really.
Jürgen wanted A+ students. He didn’t want it for him. He wanted it for you.- Robert Lewandowski
Jürgen never forgot that we were humans first and footballers second. I remember one time we were in the dressing room after having a weekend off. And, you know, the classic trick when a player has been out drinking is to eat a lot of garlic the morning after, so that your breath doesn’t stink of alcohol. So Jürgen came in before training and began sniffing around.
He was like a hunting dog. Sniff, sniff. Sniff, sniff….
Finally, he said, “I smell … something … is it garlic?”
Of course he knew that it was. And we knew that he knew. But he just left the question hanging in the air and walked away without saying a word more.
It was silent for a moment, and then we all looked at each other and started laughing. Hahaha!
The lesson: Never try to fool Jürgen Klopp. The man’s too smart!
Of course, Jürgen was not the only one who helped me get better. When I moved to Bayern, I learned so much from coaches like Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and now Hansi Flick. Just playing for Bayern is an educational experience really, because the demands are so high, and the club culture is so professional — you are forced to raise your standards, and you do. Still, I could not have performed the way I have without help from those close to me. And the most important one has been my wife, Anna.
We met at university while I was playing for Znicz Pruszków. She studied nutrition and physical education. When I was about 26, we began to look at how to use her knowledge to improve my diet and my mental approach to the game. We spoke about every problem. Again I realised something that I wish they would teach all young footballers: Whenever you open up about your problems instead of burying them inside, they instantly became easier to solve.
That was a big, big step up in my development as a footballer — and as a human being.
When I look back at everything that has happened in my life — when this movie plays in my mind, I realise how lucky I was. You never win titles alone. Every trophy I have ever held in my hands — or taken to bed with me — they were won by all the teammates who helped me get better. I would also include my childhood friends. My coaches. My sister. The priest who let me leave my Communion early. My mum, who was there for me when I was at my lowest point.
And, of course, my dad. He never lived to see me become a professional footballer, although I’d like to think that he is now watching all of my games from a higher place — from the best seat in the house. He was the one who put the ball at my feet, and who never let me forget why I played football.
Not for trophies. Not for money. Not for glory.
No. We play because we love it.
Thank you, Dad.
The final scene of the movie that played in my head … it was with him.
This was a memory from before I had achieved anything.
Before anyone knew my name outside of our village.
Before I had won any titles or done anything at all.
The memory won’t make any sense to you.
Or perhaps it will.
It’s early in the morning and my father is driving me to a match somewhere on the other side of Poland, and we’re just talking about football or about school or about nothing at all.
We’re sitting in the car together, and I’m looking out the window at the trees passing by, just getting excited for another match. What I’m going to do. How I’m going to score. How it will all be.
That’s it. That’s the memory. The best memory.