Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich and the Bitter End

Robert Lewandowski does not, in his own words, like to make “too much show.” He is, and always has been, a touch more impassive than the average superstar. He does not greet his goals, the ones that have come for so long in such improbable quantities, with a roar, or a leap, or a scream. Instead, he grins. For the really good ones, he might go so far as a beam.

He is the same off the field. Lewandowski is warm, smart, immediately likable, but his charisma is more subtle, more steady than that possessed by his peers, the finest players of his generation. He does not have the bombastic streak of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He does not relish the spotlight quite like Cristiano Ronaldo.

His Instagram account encapsulates it. There are, of course, occasional glimpses of yachts and supercars and picture-postcard tropical vacations — he is still a millionaire soccer player, and it is still Instagram — but they are interspersed with images of Robert Lewandowski, the purest striker of the modern era, pushing a child’s stroller at Legoland, and Robert Lewandowski, serial German champion, tickling a small dog.

The impression he has cultivated, over the years, is of a player who regards all of the attention, all of the glamour, all of the noise not as an unavoidable consequence of his work, or even as an unwelcome distraction. Instead, he has always treated it as an active hindrance. Lewandowski’s job is to score goals. He is good at it, and he is good at it because he takes it extremely seriously.

All of which has made the last two weeks something of an outlier. For perhaps the first time in his career, at the age of 34, Lewandowski has suddenly gone rogue.

It started last month, not long after the ticker-tape that accompanied Bayern Munich’s 10th straight Bundesliga had been cleared away, when he declared — publicly — that he wanted to leave the club where he has spent eight seasons, the peak of his glittering career, immediately. “What is certain at the moment is that my career at Bayern is over,” he said.

That was unexpected enough, the silent, reluctant superstar suddenly leveraging all of his renown, all of his influence, all of his clout to make as much noise as possible. But it did not end there. Instead, Lewandowski has doubled down, again and again. He has insisted that he does not want to “force” his way out of Bayern. As ever with Lewandowski, his actions speak for themselves.

In a series of interviews — at almost any given opportunity — he has chastised Bayern for its lack of “respect” and “loyalty,” its apparent refusal to find a “mutually agreeable solution,” its failure to “listen to me until the very end.” He said that “something inside of me died, and it is impossible to get over that.”

Perhaps most seriously, he intimated that his treatment might make other players reluctant to join the club. “What kind of player will want to go to Bayern knowing that something like this could happen to them?” he asked. Of all the sideswipes, all the jabs, that felt the most damaging, the most irretrievable. “I want to leave Bayern,” he has said, in various formats, over and over. “That is clear.”

From the outside, it is not immediately apparent why that should be, why Lewandowski — with a year left on his Bayern contract — would have taken such a provocative path in order to secure his release.

After all he has achieved in Germany — eight league championships in a row at Bayern, to go with two he won at Borussia Dortmund, a Champions League title, sundry domestic cups, and more than 40 goals across all competitions in each of the last seven seasons — he would be forgiven for wanting a change of scenery, a different challenge, to end his career at Barcelona, say. His approach, though, suggests something deeper is at play.

As is traditional, soccer has tried to answer that question by imbuing trivial details with tremendous narrative power. A few weeks ago, a report in the German outlet TZ revealed, Lewandowski had exchanged angry words with Julian Nagelsmann, Bayern’s young coach, when it was suggested that the latter might like to change his striker’s positioning when competing to win headers.

Lewandowski, not unreasonably, pointed out that his career statistics rather suggested that he knew what he was doing. Yet when the inevitable meta-analysis of the incident was conducted, it was concluded that not only did Lewandowski not respect Nagelsmann — whose playing career extended no further than his teens — most likely the rest of the Bayern squad did not, either.

It is not with Nagelsmann, though, that Lewandowski’s relationship has collapsed. Such encounters are not exactly rare. Nagelsmann is, by all accounts, broadly popular with Bayern’s players, who admire his verve and his ideas, even if they remain slightly skeptical about his effectiveness after his first season.

Instead, the problem has its roots elsewhere in Bayern’s hierarchy. Amid the blizzard of words produced first by and then about Lewandowski, the most incisive came from his agent, the not-exactly-wildly-popular Pini Zahavi. “He hasn’t felt respected by the people in charge for months,” Zahavi told the German outlet Bild. “Bayern didn’t lose the player Lewandowski. They lost the person, Robert.”

The source of that tension can be found in Bayern’s ill-concealed, and ultimately futile, pursuit of Erling Haaland. Hasan Salihamidzic, a decorated player in Munich at the turn of the century now installed as the club’s sporting director, had earmarked Haaland as Lewandowski’s eventual replacement. When it became clear to Lewandowski that the club was contemplating his demise even as he closed in yet another record-breaking season, he felt an unspoken covenant had been broken.

It may not soothe Lewandowski’s ego, but it would be remiss of Bayern not to be considering who will, at some point, step into his shoes; no matter what order you eat your meals in, at some point time comes for us all. Where Salihamidzic erred was in allowing his vision to become public; or, more accurately, in allowing it to become public and then not succeeding in signing Haaland. All of a sudden, Bayern had a disaffected superstar and no replacement.

That may have ramifications beyond Lewandowski’s immediate future: As he has made abundantly clear, barring an unlikely change of heart, that will now lie elsewhere. “Breakups are part of football,” he said.

For Bayern, though, that may only be the first issue. For a club that has spent the last decade collecting trophies so serenely that it has become possible to imagine a world in which it wins the Bundesliga in perpetuity, this is a delicate time. Not in terms of its domestic primacy — that, sadly, is now hard-wired into the system — but most certainly in its attempts to compete in Europe.

Bayern has been able to ride out the rise of the petro-clubs, Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain, better than the likes of Juventus, Barcelona and to some extent Real Madrid not only because of its commercial potency, its operational expertise and its corporate appeal, but because it functions essentially as a Bundesliga Select XI.

Every year, Bayern has cherry-picked the best talent from the rest of Germany — often using the lure of guaranteed trophies and an inevitable place in the latter stages of the Champions League as leverage to pay a lower price — to fill out its roster. This has a twin benefit: It weakens domestic competition, and enables Bayern to match, and occasionally to overcome, the arriviste elite elsewhere.

Lewandowski, plucked on a free transfer from Dortmund, stood as a symbol of that approach when he arrived; at the moment of his departure, he may well signal the need for its abandonment. The Bundesliga’s clubs, after all, have never wanted to sell to Bayern, and now, given that Germany is the cash-soaked Premier League’s bazaar of choice, they do not have to. English teams pay more, and they do not insist on beating you twice a season afterward.

Bayern will, instead, have to plot another course. It may have to start to offer more lucrative salaries — its approach for Liverpool’s Sadio Mané suggests that realization has arrived — and it may even need to identify other markets, other demographics, from which to source its recruits.

It will have to do that at a time when its institutional knowledge is in the hands of Oliver Kahn, an intelligent, imposing figure but still relatively inexperienced in his role, and Salihamidzic, whose record in the transfer market was mixed even before his part in the impending loss of Lewandowski.

Bayern has weathered the changes in soccer’s ecosystem by sticking, unabashedly, to an approach that produced results, and by entrusting its fate to a grizzled, respected set of executives. For a decade, it has worked. Without much fuss, without too much show, Bayern Munich has constructed the most successful period in its history. The public, toxic departure of Lewandowski is the first hint of rust at the heart of the big red machine.

You may not have noticed — you may, in fact, have taken very deliberate steps to avoid it — but, even deep into June, soccer refuses to be stopped. As well as a raft of exhibition games and qualifying matches for the next African Cup of Nations, there have, at the time of writing, already been two rounds of Nations League games in Europe.

And the good news is, if you missed them, there are two more to come: After a long, arduous season that came on the back of another long, arduous season and a sprawling European Championship, Europe’s elite men’s players will finally get a vacation starting on June 15.

All of this was deemed necessary, of course, because someone decided to squeeze a World Cup into the middle of the traditional European season. They did it for entirely honorable reasons, though, so that’s all fine. Likewise, it is hard to begrudge the coaches of the planet’s various national teams for feeling that they might like to have at least a bit of time working with their players before they decide who will, and who will not, be part of their plans for Qatar in November.

The decision to plow on with the Nations League, though, feels counterproductive. The tournament is UEFA’s nascent pride and joy — at least at the international level — and, when the season’s schedule was being mapped out, it made clear that it was not prepared to place it on hiatus in order to afford the players a rest. Doing so, the organization worried, would stifle all the momentum the event had built.

Sadly, the alternative may be even worse. The Nations League is being played out to a backdrop of complete indifference from fans and barely-concealed irritation from the players; Kevin De Bruyne, for one, has made it clear he thinks it is a complete waste of his, and everyone else’s, time. All of a sudden, the Nations League has become exactly what it was meant to replace: a series of meaningless games that are met with apathy or resentment.

It seems that there is a broad range of views among the On Soccer Newsletter community about the fiasco that marred last month’s Champions League final, and I’ll do my best to represent them.

Let’s start with Christopher Smith. “At the African Cup of Nations, there was a stampede at the Olembé Stadium in which eight people died,” he wrote. “I don’t recall seeing anything like the indictment of France and UEFA being leveled at Cameroon and C.A.F. In fact, at least in your newsletter, this event doesn’t seem to have merited a mention at all.”

These are valid points. I would suggest that there was plenty of condemnation of both Cameroon and African soccer’s authorities, but I would agree that UEFA attracted more. This is not an easy sentiment to express, but I suspect that is simply because the Champions League final is a far more high-profile event. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it is (most likely) the determining factor.

That the Olembé tragedy did not appear in this newsletter was an oversight, but I would at least direct you to the coverage of both the disaster and the tournament elsewhere in The Times.

Others focused, instead, on the tension between the French authorities’ version of events near Paris and the experiences of the fans themselves. “My only thought is how close we came to another Hillsborough,” wrote Alicia Lorvo. “The fans were traumatized at what was supposed to be a happy, fun event. The people who were there with real tickets must be compensated. France must be forced to hold an independent inquiry. The situation is intolerable.”

Teresa Olson, sadly, was not surprised. “It was not the fans, but the utter indifference to accommodating the sellout crowd effectively,” she wrote. “We had the same experience during the Women’s World Cup in 2019. Gates were not opened until there was physically no way they could process everyone, and there was complete indifference as to whether the fans could get to their seats in time for the games.”

It is important to remember that, I think: The way the Champions League final was policed is not unusual in France. The authorities followed their playbook, with one slight twist, explained by Javier Cortés. “With all due respect, most of us still think that English fans are (for the most part) unbearably arrogant who tend to violence once they have a few beers in their bellies,” he wrote. “English fans are generally not well-liked outside their islands.”

Or inside them, as it happens. Nobody enjoys criticizing the English more than the English, Javier, and there is no question that the behavior of some English fans on foreign trips can be abominable. That clearly played into the thinking of the French authorities.

The counterargument would run that Liverpool has been to two other Champions League finals in recent years, in Kyiv and Madrid, with no trouble at all. Problems do not trail in its fans’ wake. More important, that line of argument prompts the question as to whether funneling all of these risk factors into one place, and then locking them outside of a stadium, is really the best way to allay your worst fears. I’d suggest that it is not.

Larry Machacek saw the situation along similar lines. “I conjure up images of drunk and cocaine-fueled young men, particularly the one with a flare lodged in a personal space, and the stories of Italian fans kicked in the head,” he wrote. “A few bad apples can and do tarnish the lot. France has successfully hosted many major sporting events and will continue to do so. How about advising readers of the outcomes of last year’s Euro 2020 fiasco at Wembley? Are there any profound learnings from the U.K. you would recommend?”

My instinct on the first point is similar to my response to Javier: I’m not sure there is any evidence of gaggles of Liverpool fans engaging in the sort of mayhem we saw in London, and I’m not convinced that it is fair to decree them guilty until they have arrived. Doing so belies an ignorance of the differences between fans’ following a club and (a minority of) fans who follow England. They aren’t the same people, and they don’t behave in the same way.

On the second, it is indisputable that what happened at Wembley last year was no more or less appalling than what happened in Paris. The problem, in both cases, was with the manner of response: Where the French were too heavy-handed, the English were too laissez-faire. There was no attempt to control the crowd whatsoever until it was too late.

The lesson, then, is that neither of those approaches work, and that UEFA needs to recognize that. It should have a sense of best practices for how these occasions are managed, and central to it should be the principle that fans, wherever they are from, are welcome guests to be treated with respect, rather than a problem to be faced.


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