Dortmund, 22nd March 2017. It was a moment all supporters of the German national team will remember, as they bade their final farewell to a player who had become of the team’s established personalities. While Lukas Podolski may never have been the pundits’ first choice selection, he will be indelibly linked with the transformation of the team’s fortunes, culminating in the glorious World Cup triumph in Brazil in 2014.
When the curtain fell to signal the glorious and emotional final act of what had been a thirteen-year story, it would also close another circle. Podolski was also the last member of the celebrated Class of 2006, the squad that had kick-started the revival of the Nationalmannschaft.
For many, Podolski was the class clown. A happy go lucky guy who lived something of a charmed life during the latter part of his international career. For some critics, he should never have come close to his final tally of 130 caps, a figure that sees him sit in third place on the all-time appearances list. Even this writer had been critical at various times, often pushing out the joke that there must have been some sort of secret pact between Podolski and Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw, a sneaky plot to see “Poldi” chip away and finally overhaul Lothar Matthäus’ record of 150 caps through a succession of five minute cameos off the substitutes’ bench.
The truth is that Podolski was all of this and more. Yes, he was the team’s court jester – and even the butt of the joke at times. Yes, there are more than reasonable grounds to suggest that he should never have remained in the squad for major tournaments, when arguably better players had been left at home. But to see things through this rather narrow channel would be missing the point. Podolski was first and foremost a team player, a man who could see beyond himself. A player who never sought applause, but who would simply get on with the game with that familiar beaming smile and little or no complaint.
Podolski had over the course of his career acquired the admiration and accolades that being an international star brings, but also a sense of genuine affection. For all of his tomfoolery, he always remained true to himself. With all of the fame and glory, he remained the same kid who had grown up on the streets of Bergheim near Cologne. Unlike many, the attention never went to his head. Authentic, grounded, humble, and with plenty of time to spare for his fans. Hours after his final match, he was still at the ground in his Nationaltrikot, signing autographs and posing for selfies.
Perhaps “posing” is the wrong word, for Poldolski had never been a poser. He is just, well, “Poldi”. Or “Prinz Poldi”. “Prinz Peng”. Or simply, “The Prince”.
From Poland to the Mannschaft
Born to Polish parents with German roots in the Upper Silesian city of Gliwice (Gleiwitz), Łukasz Józef Podolski moved to Germany aged two, settling in the Rhineland. The young Podolski, now known as Lukas, began to lay the foundations for what quickly turned into a deep affection for his new home. Having joined 1. FC Köln from local outfit FC 07 Bergheim as a ten year old, he graduated through the ranks of the famous Rhineland club.
On 22nd November 2003 at the age of eighteen, Podolski made his full Bundesliga debut against Hamburger SV at the Volksparkstadion. It would not be long until others came calling.
Despite going all the way to the final at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the German national team was an ageing and somewhat decrepit unit. Qualifying for Euro 2004 had been something of a struggle, with matters coming to a head following a goalless draw against Iceland in Reykjavík in September 2003. The Mannschaft would eventually make it to the finals, but it was clear that new blood was desperately needed.
In the late spring of 2004, Nationaltrainer Rudi Völler’s attention was drawn to the young 1. FC Köln starlet, and another talented youngster at FC Bayern München, Bastian Schweinsteiger. After years of turning to thirty-something journeymen, raw talented youth was finally seen as a viable option. In naming his squad for the Euros that summer, Völler picked twenty-two players, with the remaining slot allocated to one of the two youngsters.
Podolski had for a time weighed up the option of playing for Poland, but with the Poles not showing much interest at the time, it was a lot easier than it might otherwise have been for the teenager to make his decision. While he continued to retain close connections to the country of his birth, Podolski’s footballing loyalties were set.
Many have pointed to the World Cup in 2006 as marking the beginning of the “Poldi and Schweini” show, but the story would actually begin two years prior to that in the summer of 2004. In fact, one could look back a little further to the injury to VfL Bochum winger Paul Freier, who had been forced to withdraw from the Euros squad at the end of May. With an additional place in the squad now available, Völler decided not to look to the past for a replacement. Podolski and Schweinsteiger, both uncapped at senior level, made the final cut.
On June 6th, two days after Podolski’s nineteenth birthday, both players made their first appearance in the Nationaltrikot against Hungary in Kaiserslautern. Schweinsteiger appeared first, on as a 46th minute swap for Miroslav Klose. Three minutes short of half an hour later, Podolski replaced Fredi Bobic. When he ran onto the pitch, he became the third youngest player to represent the Mannschaft in the postwar era, after Uwe Seeler and Olaf Thon. It was not the most auspicious of debuts, with Germany already two goals down and heading for a dispiriting defeat at the hands of the Hungarians – then coached by Lothar Matthäus.
Podolski in action during his debut for the Mannschaft, against Hungary in June 2004
The summer tournament in Portugal was a massive disappointment for Völler’s men. A bright start in their opening match against old rivals the Netherlands was blunted by a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser, and a dismal goalless draw against first-time Euro finalists and group minnows Latvia had left the Mannschaft teetering on the brink. An early goal in the final game against the Czech Republic offered a slim sliver of hope, but two Czech goals ensured group stage elimination for the second Euros in succession.
Schweinsteiger had made two starts off the bench before lining up for the first time against the Czechs. Podolski, meanwhile, would have to wait a little longer. After sitting out the first two matches, he made his first competitive appearance as a 46th substitute for Torsten Frings.
Rudi Völler would tender his resignation immediately after the defeat, but he had left his legacy.
From the fringe to the front line
The appointment of Jürgen Klinsmann as Nationaltrainer following Völler’s resignation placed even more emphasis on rebuilding and redevelopment, with Podolski turning into one of the key investments. After scoring ten goals in twenty matches in his first full senior season for Köln, the young winger-cum-striker went from strength to strength.
The Billy Goats had been relegated at the end of the 2003/04 season, but rather than take the easy way out and sign for a bigger team, Podolski chose to stick with his home city club. It all worked out perfectly. While there were some eyebrows raised about a second division player being picked for the Mannschaft, Podolski simply let his shooting boots do the talking.
Rather than just being thrown into the deep end as Germany looked to gather momentum on the road to their own World Cup in 2006, Podolski was gently eased into the team. His first goal in the Nationaltrikot came in a friendly against Thailand in Bangkok, and he quickly turned that into a brace. His first start came in Celje against Slovenia, where he also scored a twenty-seventh minute winner.
Second division player or not, Germany had found a genuine diamond. Happy just to play football, Podolski only got better. The goals started to flow, and his decision to stay with Köln had proved to be a wise one. The youngster’s lethal left boot laid waste to opposition defences, with a record of twenty-nine goals in thirty-two matches as die Geißbocke stormed back into the top flight.
This form carried over onto the international stage, and by the time of the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup the twenty year old had established his position in the pecking order. Podolski would start all four of Germany’s games in the mini tournament, scoring three goals as the Mannschaft finished in third place.
As the team built towards the World Cup finals on home soil, Podolski was a core member of the team and a guaranteed starter. Despite playing in the 2. Bundesliga, it had taken the young Kölner just over a season to transform himself from a raw talent on the fringe of the team to a tournament mainstay.
German hopes had not been high ahead of the tournament and Klinsmann always appeared to be one bad result away from getting the sack, but against all expectations the team turned a major corner. This was not the stodgy Germany of old, but a squad of young and talented tyros playing attractive football and having fun at the same time. Central to it all were players like Podolski and Schweinsteiger.
On the pitch, Podolski was living up to all expectations. After getting his tournament off the mark in the third group match against Ecuador in Berlin, he followed this with a stunning brace against Sweden in the first knockout round. Poldi’s exuberance was matched with a growing maturity, more so than in the fractious quarter-final against Argentina. Called to take a penalty in a tense shootout, the twenty-one year old hammered his kick home with the confidence and aplomb of a seasoned veteran.
Podolski celebrates his and Germany’s opening goal in the World Cup second round match against Sweden
Like the rest of the team and the other remaining 82 million Germans, Podolski would experience the ultimate heartache in the semi-final defeat against Italy. But rather than feel down, this young team simply picked themselves up and kept the growing smile on the face of German football. A 3-1 win in the third-place playoff against Portugal secured a deserved first international medal for the young Podolski, who was also presented with tournament’s best young player award.
The confidence and stylish swagger of the young team in 2006 symbolised the real start of the national revival, and showed the watching world the new face of German football. Light years away from the bickering of 1974 and the boorishness of 1982, this was a German team that endeared itself not just to home supporters, but those from abroad as well.
There was the driven skipper, Michael Ballack. There was the intelligent central defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder, the latter a man who once played the clarinet in a local old peoples’ home. Then there was the Mannschaft’s equivalent of Beavis and Butthead, “Poldi” and “Schweini”. With their comic antics and general goofball behaviour, the two were the stars of the film Deutschland: ein Sommermärchen, which told the story of the team’s camaraderie and success behind the scenes.
Shinier pathways were now opening for the Prince, and in the summer of 2006 he secured a move to German champions FC Bayern München. It was all set to be a match made in heaven, but things would not work out as planned. Podolski struggled to find his scoring touch in the Bavarian capital, and having arrived with something of a fanfare would spend a lot of his time on the substitutes’ bench.
For the national team however, it was a different story. The player struggling in the Bundesliga continued to bang in the goals in the famous white Trikot, and it appeared that nothing could stop him scoring. The Euro 2008 qualifying group was a rich goal mine for Poldi, who bagged four in the Mannschaft’s record-breaking 13-0 win over San Marino in Serravalle before netting a brace against Slovakia in Bratislava.
Despite scoring just ten goals in forty-one starts for Bayern in 2007/08, Podolski remained a fixture in the team that been handed by Klinsmann to his assistant Joachim Löw. The coach clearly knew how to get the best out of the now twenty-three year old; he truly was Jogi’s Jung. On what was an emotional evening against Poland in the opening game of Euro 2008, Podolski was back in the goals with a well-taken brace, which was followed by another against Croatia.
On what was an emotional evening, Podolski scores his first goal against Poland at Euro 2008
In both the quarter- and semi-finals, Podolski turned provider. Showing off his blistering place down the left, he delivered pin-point crosses for old pal Schweini as Portugal and then Turkey were put to the sword. The final against Spain would prove to be a damp squib for Jogi’s Jungs however, with Fernando Torres’ first-half winner separating the two teams.
Even with the game going against his team, the twenty-three year old Podolski would show great maturity when others might easily have lost their heads. When David Silva appeared to aim a subtle head-butt at him in an off the ball incident midway through the second half, he could have chosen to hold his face and fallen to the floor. Instead, he merely gestured to the referee and laughed it off.
Had Silva got close to someone other than Podolski, Germany might have been playing against ten men for the remaining twenty-five minutes. But such cynicism had never been part of his nature. While giving one hundred percent every time he stepped out onto the pitch, football remained a game that was played fairly.
Podolski continued to perform on the international stage, but his form for Bayern remained patchy. In 2009, he was on his way out of Munich, but not to another big rival or overseas. Instead, he returned home to Cologne. His first season back in the Rhineland was far from productive, but when he pulled on that magical white German shirt he was like a different player. Poldi would find the back of the net only three times in thirty-one outings for die Geissbocke, but during the same period would score five goals in eight matches as the Mannschaft geared up for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Poldi’s African Summer
The qualifying campaign saw Podolski finish with five goals, but perhaps the biggest story was the that of “The Slap”. During the qualifier against Wales in Cardiff, Podolski appeared to have taken umbrage to something Ballack had said to him, and responded with what looked like a light clip around the ear. The 2-0 win was overshadowed by the story of the Ohrfeige, and much was made of it even though both players had drawn a line under the incident almost immediately.
It was perhaps the one significant occasion where Podolski had let things get to him on the pitch, and he was quick to admit that he had been an “idiot”.
Proving himself again to be a fine tournament player, Podolski was on target again in Germany’s opening World Cup finals win 4-0 win over Australia, but in the following match against Serbia he became the first German player to miss a penalty in any World Cup finals match since Uli Hoeness in 1974. He then scored his second of the tournament as a rampant Mannschaft tore England apart in the first knockout round.
Podolski sees his penalty saved by Serbia’s Vladimir Stojković in the group phase at the 2010 World Cup
Another assist in the quarter-final capped off the 4-0 quarter-final demolition of Argentina, but it was old foes Spain who again ended German dreams in the last four. Podolski would be rested for the third place match against Uruguay, a 3-2 win that would take his medal tally in major tournaments to three.
When one examines the statistics, 2010 would mark the beginning of the end of Podolski’s influence on the pitch for the Mannschaft. Having scored at a rate of around a goal every other game for most of his career, the combination of both injuries and the rapid development of younger players would led to his becoming a fringe player during the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. Podolski would still score three goals as Germany eased their way into the finals, but by then his role was more of a squad player, often coming on late in the second half as an impact substitute.
The Record Breaking Centurion
Podolski was in the squad that was selected for the finals in Poland and Ukraine, and would make his hundredth international appearance in the final group match against Denmark. At just twenty-seven years and thirteen days, he had surpassed Franz Beckenbauer to become the youngest centurion in the long and rich history of the German national team. But this was not enough for Podolski, who also found to back of the net to help propel the Mannschaft into the knockout stages.
It would be his last goal in a competitive international.
On his hundredth game for the Mannschaft, Podolski celebrates his goal against Denmark at Euro 2012
Köln had been relegated, and the summer of 2012 saw Podolski finally leave Germany to join Arsenal in the English Premier League. While he did up his goal scoring rate, he would never really set things alight in England, and it was clear that he was past his peak. Then there was a brief and barren loan spell in Italy with Internazionale. Nevertheless, he remained part of Jogi Löw’s plans for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Podolski may no longer have been a first-choice starter for the Mannschaft, but the records continued to come. On 29th May 2013, he broke another. In a friendly against Ecuador in Miami, he scored after just nine seconds. It was fastest ever goal for the German team in a full international, and the second-fastest in history. As the old adage goes, you just couldn’t put a good man down.
The Crowning Glory
During the 2014 World Cup, Podolski would spend only fifty-three minutes on the pitch as Germany stormed to the their fourth star in Brazil. However, his influence behind the scenes was far more noteworthy. With the squad thousands of miles from home and in the middle of an intense competition, the presence of the court jester served to lighten the mood and bring the team closer together. In 2006, the young Poldolski had been represented the happy heart of the Mannschaft. Eight years later, it was no different.
While the coach was being scrutinised and the team were being placed under pressure by the media, Podolski’s approach would take a different tack. Shortly before embarking on their South American adventure, members of the team had been sitting quietly and fielding questions from the press. Podolski, meanwhile, literally chose to take matters into his own hands. Sneaking up on an unsuspecting journalist, the team’s resident prankster grasped him in a bear hug before dumping him unceremoniously in the swimming pool.
Everybody including the soaking wet journalist would see the funny side, and perhaps the most memorable sight was that of Podolski scuttling away from the scene of the crime like a naughty six year old.
While his appearances in Brazil were no more than a series of short cameos off the bench, Podolski was both a motivator and unofficial mascot behind the scenes. His bright personality kept team spirits up, and he was more than willing to partake in press conferences and meet local people. His unbridled enthusiasm and sunny disposition made him the perfect ambassador for the team, something that was not lost on the coach.
Podolski would play no part in the final itself, but his beaming face would appear on what was probably the most widely circulated image from the post-match celebrations in Rio. After the photographs of Mario Götze’s winning goal, the biggest hit on social media was the selfie with Podolski and his old partner in crime, Bastian Schweinsteiger. Needless to say, it went viral pretty quickly.
In 2006 they were simply “Poldi” and “Schweini”. In 2014 they were World Cup winners
In his sixth major tournament, Podolski had claimed his fourth medal. Crucially, this time it was a gold one. Class clown and court jester he may have been, but he was now also a world champion. Not many could lay claim to that.
The Mannschaft’s funniest press spokesperson
After three years in London Podolski joined Galatasaray in Turkey, and before long he was setting records there too. In a 6-2 win for the Istanbul side against Akhisar Belediyespor, he scored five goals.
For the German team and Jogi Löw, Podolski remained ready and willing for as long as he was having fun playing football. His regular place in the team had long been taken by younger, fitter and faster players, but he continued to remain in the fold. There were many raised eyebrows when his name made the final squad list for Euro 2016, but there was always going to a place for him if both he and the Nationaltrainer felt that he was up to the task. The coach clearly valued his presence, as did those around him.
Podolski’s only appearance in France was an eighteen minute cameo off the bench against Slovakia in the second round when the game had already been won, but his biggest impact in France would come at a press conference where everybody was talking about Jogi Löw’s rather embarrassing “scratch and sniff” moment. While some might have gone on the defensive, Podolski chose to make light of the situation with a typically humourous off the cuff quip.
“About eighty percent of the guys in this room have scratched their balls at some point or another”.
Cue hoots of laughter from the listening press corps, that familiar goofy grin and equally familiar loud laugh. If Podolski was in the squad just for moments like this, it surely was worth it.
Podolski grins at a team press conference, next to a more serious looking Jérôme Boateng
After Germany’s elimination in the semi-finals against hosts France, the thirty-one year old finally decided to call time on his international career. He knew that his time was up, and that he was quitting while ahead.
With Bastian Schweinsteiger also choosing to hang up his international boots, the plan had been to give both players their final send-off against Finland in Mönchengladbach the month after the finals. An injury to Podolski would set this back however, and while “Schweini” was able to say goodbye to the fans as planned, “Poldi” would have to wait until the following year and the friendly against England in Dortmund.
The story could not have ended any better. After the pre-match presentations and obligatory speeches, Podolski’s final match in the Nationaltrikot could have been scripted by a professional writer. He had started out as a raw teenager, had broken records and had become a World Cup winner, and now here he was rounding off his international career with a final blistering strike from that famous left foot.
Podolski gets a final embrace from Nationaltrainer Jogi Löw after making his way off the pitch in Dortmund
As the ball thundered past helpless England ‘keeper Joe Hart and the crowd roared their approval, it was the perfect fairytale ending. When he led the team out as captain for his final match, Podolski had scored forty-eight goals for the Mannschaft, including a number of spectacular blockbusters. At that moment that it crashed into the back of the England net, number forty-nine was arguably the best of the lot.
As the hero of the evening made his way off the pitch six minutes from time to rightly milk the applause from the German fans, the noise in the ground was deafening. In a move some would see as cheesy but many considered inspired, the PA system blasted out the theme from Gladiator. We had been entertained.
An All-Round Good Egg
While Lukas Podolski provided plenty of entertainment on the pitch and just as much off it, he never courted controversy. There were the jokes, quips and the occasional childish pranks, but no stories of kebab throwing, an inability to locate a hotel toilet or drunken high jinks. When he was involved in a minor car accident on the way to training in 2011, he was less concerned about himself than the occupants of the other vehicle.
Happily married with a young son and daughter, most of his spare time is spent either with his family or working with a number of charitable projects including the Lukas Podolski Stiftung, founded in 2010. He remains close to the city of Cologne where he is considered as big as treasure as the famous cathedral, while also retaining a close relationship with the country of his birth.
Many players have been admired, but Podolski is genuinely loved. The more you see him or read about him, it is easy to understand why. Podolski has written a book, Dran Bleiben! (“Hang Tough!”) but it is not about his own achievements. Instead, he uses it to talk about his social commitments. On his own personal website, he describes himself as a “high flyer who keeps his head on the ground”. It is the perfect one-line summary of a genuine role model and all-round good egg.
Poldi and Jogi. Tschö, and thank you for the memories!
130 matches. 49 goals. World Champion. Lots of memorable moments. Thank you for everything, Lukas. We will miss you.