Bayern striker is a national obsession and tonight all of Poland look to their talisman
The history books of Irish football could file it away as a great tragedy, a missed opportunity, lost souls.
The fact that three of the greatest athletes to lace up a pair of football boots on this island never got to play at a major finals for the national team: John Giles, George Best and Liam Brady would have cast-iron places in any all-time all-Ireland XI but were all denied the chance to play at a finals tournament.
Ahead of a pretty daunting test against Spain on their home patch of Seville this evening, Poland have a different kind of problem. They have an all-time great, a legend of the modern game, someone whose goals gets the national team to a major finals ... but who then rarely plays well.
At the end of a season where he shattered a Bundesliga goalscoring record that had stood for 50 years, it should be hard to find fault with Robert Lewandowski. But Euro 2020 is anything but a happy place, for Poland but particularly for Lewandowski. And the frustration is that, unless there is some sort of stirring revival against Spain, it looks as if one of the top strikers in Europe has failed on the big stage with the national team. Again.
Irish fans were denied the sight of Giles, Best and Brady on the big stage: Poland has got to see Lewandowski in four major finals but most of the time, they’ve only seen a pale, ersatz version. And the worry now is that the weight of expectation of the nation, his own frustration of playing with players who are inferior to his usual team-mates at Bayern Munich, and the burden of the captaincy have all combined to drag him down. And also drag down Poland.
It’s not a new feeling. This is Lewandowski’s fourth finals with Poland but he has only played well in one of them, Euro 2016, where they only lost on penalties to eventual winners, Portugal. He’s played 12 games in major finals tournaments but scored only two goals, one good summer in a 15-year international career.
A columnist in Przeglad Sportowy, Poland’s well-respected national sports daily newspaper, teed up today’s game with Spain by saying that Lewandowski should be dropped. A year ago that would have been seen as a toxic mixture of heresy and insanity. He’s played more games (120) and scored more goals (66) than any other player in Polish history and has just scored a record 41 goals in one season for Bayern. Undroppable.
The suggestion is not ludicrous as close watchers of the national side wonder if the team would play better without his overbearing presence in the side which – some feel – intimidates other players. Others wonder if Lewandowksi’s game suffers with the burden of captaincy, with his flop at the 2018 World Cup finals now repeated at Euro 2020.
Former international Tomasz Hajto feels it’s a mixture of both, as he noted a row on the pitch between Lewandowski and team-mate Bartosz Bereszynski after the loss to Slovakia as evidence. “Lewandowski can overwhelm some players with his personality, mentally shut them down. They will be afraid to make a decision,” he said. “They think, if I make a mistake again, Robert will come and tell me I am doing wrong.”
Another ex-Poland player, Jacek Zielinski, said on TV that Lewandowski was “ostentatious” in his public rebukes of team-mates in the Slovakia game.
Since that defeat to Slovakia, most criticism has fallen on the trio of coach Paulo Sousa (many Poles can’t wait for the unconvincing Portuguese coach to leave), Grzegorz Krychowiak (for his red card) and Wojciech Szczesny (fluffed attempts to save), as some public opinion has been kind to the captain.
“Most fans understand he didn’t get help from his team-mates against Slovakia. He had to go back to the middle of the pitch for the ball – that’s not his game,” says reporter Kuba Cimoszko.
Others were less convinced. “The entire team failed, everyone is criticised, and the name of Robert Lewandowski appears most often among the culprits for this failure,” said the sportowefakty.pl website.
A glittering club career has not been mirrored with the national team. Lewandowski only came into the Poland side after their weak effort at Euro 2008 (he scored his second international goal in 2008, against Ireland in Croke Park). He and Poland missed out on the 2010 World Cup, then qualified for Euro 2012 as co-hosts but the tournament was a flop, for Lewandowski (just one goal in three games) and the team (two draws and a defeat).
Lewandowski was superb in qualification for the Euro 2016 finals where Poland came through their group, knocked out Switzerland and only lost to Portugal (Lewandowski put them ahead in what was a 1-1 draw) in a penalty shoot-out. Their success was put down to his selfless play, as defenders focused so much on him that team-mates were given space to thrive.
That was not repeated at the 2018 World Cup, where Lewandowski was toothless in defeats to Senegal and Colombia and he failed to score in three games at the finals in Russia.
This summer, the widespread view was that Poland were a one-man team. Stop Lewandowski and you stop Poland. It sounded too simplistic but there’s a great deal of truth in it. “We knew what Poland’s strongest point was. I think we eliminated Lewandowski very well and that was the reason for our success,” Slovakia's Ondrei Duda said after their 2-1 win over the Poles on Monday.
Lewandowksi is a national obsession in Poland, it's hard to think of a public figure in Irish life who has as much of a hold on the country as ‘Lewy’.
The fact that his wife Anna, who is a constant presence in the tabloids and social media, chose not to attend the games at Euro 2020 but instead take the kids to Majorca for a sun holiday has been much debated.
As they face up to Spain tonight, in Poland a nation holds its breath, looks to their captain and asks if he can dig deep and deliver them from an early exit.
Let down by their talisman before, Poland can only pray he has one more summer in him, or else a great career in the red and white shirt will again be marked with the stamp of failure.