In Germany's densely populated Ruhr region, one city seems to blend right into the next -- and when you drive out of Dortmund, chances are you'll immediately find yourself in the old coal-mining town of Lünen. Professional soccer player Robert Lewandowski pulls up in front of a brick building here, switches off the engine of his SUV and unlocks the door to his kingdom.
They're all "lovestruck," says coach Jürgen Klopp. Yes, the entire squad at first-division Borussia Dortmund is crazy -- about their team. Top scorer Lewandowski's pad in Lünen is a case in point: From the living room wall, the man of the house greets visitors as a poster boy clad in the team colors of black and yellow. In the kitchen, there's a toaster that brands the team's initials "BVB" onto slices of white bread. And the club emblem is mowed into the lawn out back.
Lewandowski seems at home here in the heart of the industrial Ruhr region. However, Borussia's star striker isn't German. He comes from Poland, where he's widely revered and his omnipresent image generates millions in advertising revenues. Nike and Coca-Cola embellish their products with him, and in its March issue, the Polish magazine MaleMen immortalized Lewandowski as a muscle-bound model under the title: "Check Out What 20 Million Looks Like." The Polish striker's global market value is currently skyrocketing.
How does someone like that live between Dortmund and Lünen?
"Without a problem," says Lewandowski -- and orders a schnitzel with mixed vegetables in a restaurant after the waiter regretfully informs him that he can't have either pasta or salmon. Lewandowski is the only customer there. Between Dortmund and Lünen, lunch is eaten standing up, if at all. That's no problem for the Pole who, if necessary, hums along with the BVB hit song "Rubbeldikatz am Borsigplatz" at parties -- and delivers what's expected of him out on the pitch.
The Magical Trio from Poland
In 2010, Lewandowski went down in history as the most expensive transfer in Polish soccer history when Poznan traded him to Dortmund. Although initially ridiculed, the striker's playing has put his critics to shame.
He scored his 21st and 22nd goals of the season against Freiburg on the last match day of the Bundesliga season, and when Borussia Dortmund faced off against the traditional powerhouse Bayern Munich in the coveted German Football Association (DFB) Cup on May 12 in Berlin, he even pulled off a hat trick to take the title 5:2. Lewandowski's record now includes two championship titles with Borussia in just two years.
A key role in these achievements was also played by Jakub Blaszczykowski, aka "Kuba," and Lukasz Piszczek, who are both also members of the Polish national squad. Indeed, one of these three Eastern European players had their foot on the ball with over 60 percent of all BVB goals scored this past season. The German sports magazine Kicker ranks the three among the eight best players in the Bundesliga.
Meanwhile, back in Warsaw, the media is reveling in patriotic exuberance over "Polonia Dortmund." The three men under coach Klopp's tutelage now bear the hopes of an entire nation. On June 8, Poland will kick off the European Football Championship -- which it is co-hosting with Ukraine -- with a match against Greece in the Polish capital. It will be the first step on a difficult journey: In the global rankings, the host lags far behind its rivals in the championship, trailing just behind Sierra Leone.
Polish national coach Franciszek Smuda cautiously compares the level of play in Poland's league with that of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He says the country's soccer federation is to blame if Poland is eliminated after the group matches despite the efforts of the three players from Dortmund. In his view, the country that clinched third-place World Cup finishes in 1974 and 1982 is now paying a hefty price for a nationwide lack of "youth training."
The skills of talented young players are still honed at the Varsovia Warsaw soccer academy, on the very field where Lewandowski used to train. But the fact that the frail "Bobek," whom the coach once advised to eat "more bacon," eventually carved out a successful career for himself has more to do with "chance" and Lewandowski's ambition than with targeted support, says Marek Krzywicki, the academy's director. "Talents are not fostered in this country," he adds. "Short-term success is what counts in Polish soccer."
Lewandowski's childhood home stands on the edge of a forest in Leszno, a town just outside Warsaw. Residents are still amazed at what their prodigal son has achieved. But now he's playing for the Germans, of all people, who until now were primarily notorious for burning down the school and the parsonage here in 1939.
When asked about being the great hope of Polish soccer, Lewandowski says: "Well, we'll see." With a serious expression on his boyish face, he recounts how his teenage years and the initial stages as a soccer player in Poland were the real "school of hard knocks" for him. "I was the only man in the house," he says, explaining that he labored to bring home some money at an early age because his father died when he was 16.
Succeeding in the Face of Adversity
It's probably this type of life experience that these three Poles, who are otherwise so different, share in common. All of them stayed on track in circumstances that would have thrown others off. Kuba, for example, lost his parents when he was 11 after his father went to prison for murdering his mother. At 19, he was still playing in the fourth division. At 20, he was on the national squad. At 21, he was playing for Dortmund. When he arrived there, the teammate who would be his new roommate welcomed him with the words: "Oh, God, now I'll have to lock up my wallet." But Kuba asserted himself here and persevered -- and now he's the captain of Poland's national team.
His buddy Lukasz Piszczek was recruited to Berlin by Hertha BSC in 2004 and immediately loaned back out to Poland, where he found himself briefly stranded with the Polish club Zaglebie Lubin. For the equivalent of 2,500 ($3,100), Piszczek helped manipulate a match against KS Cracovia, a team from Krakow. His club manager at the time is now Poland's national coach, Smuda. Piszczek reported the offense himself, took his punishment and learned his lesson.
He is a friendly, well-mannered guy who, over a banana juice in Dortmund's Steakhouse Rodizio, leaves no doubt that his transformation into one of the best right backs in the league has not gone to his head. "We three Poles have learned a lot here in Germany in terms of speed, training and merchandising," Piszczek says. "But we are also promoting our country. With our performances, we disprove the usual prejudices against Poles."
Troubles in the Polish Soccer Establishment
Still, all this isn't enough to make someone like Jan Tomaszewski happy. He was the goalkeeper in the legendary 0:1 loss against Germany in a rain-soaked 1974 World Cup semifinal match. Today, he is a member the Polish parliament, the Sejm, in Warsaw. With nearly biblical wrath, he is going after Grzegorz Lato, a former teammate and current president of the Polish Football Association (PZPN), as well as other individuals with positions connected with the world of Polish soccer.
"Unbelievable things happen in this country," Tomaszewski angrily says. "Corrupt officials and players simply continue on as if nothing has happened." Someone like Piszczek, for example, has no business starting in the Polish lineup, he says. And what about Association President Lato, the top scorer in the 1974 World Cup? Based on video footage, a businessman accuses him of accepting bribes, though Lato denies the allegation.
Are these merely vain cockfights among the heroes of yesteryear? Amid all the internal squawking and squabbling at the soccer association, there's one man who will have to keep his nerves under control: national coach Franciszek Smuda, called "Franz" because he hails from Upper Silesia, a historically contested region that returned to Polish control after World War II.
Franz may have three blockbuster players from Dortmund on the squad, but he also has a fair share of aggravation. Some find fault with him because he speaks German better than Polish. Others criticize him for saying one thing one day and another thing the next. Still others rant that he is recruiting "dyed foxes," in other words, players who have a Polish grandmother in the family tree but can only speak a few words of the language. As they see it, such players should not be allowed to wear the Polish jersey.
Although Lewandowski agrees with this sentiment, Smuda says he sees nothing wrong with traveling across the country like a suitor in search of reinforcements. He realizes that three champion players from Dortmund buttressed by Wojciech Szczesny, the goalkeeper for Arsenal London, won't be enough to build a team capable of competing.
Problems and PrideThe national coach's official journeys abroad speak volumes about the dismal state of Polish soccer. In April, for instance, Smuda took a short trip to Germany. His first visit was to a police station in which Slawomir Peszko, a midfielder with FC Cologne being considered for the national team, had to spend the night after going on a bender. Then he had to deal with the problems of potential national players Sebastian Boenisch (Werder Bremen, red card) and Adam Matuszczyk (Fortuna Düsseldorf, transfer for disciplinary reasons). Finally, he joined 80,719 other fans in the stands to watch the match between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
What Smuda saw there made up for many disappointments: how Piszczek and Kuba worked the right side of the pitch; how Lewandowski reacted stoically when one of his shots hit the woodwork whereas Bayern Munich striker Mario Gomez was pulling his hair out in frustration; and how Lewandowski ultimately used his left foot to find the net for the decisive 1:0 goal.
Lewandowski has become "even stronger physically" in Germany, Smuda says with pride, adding that Kuba and Piszczek have also improved. Anyone who saw how the three Poles left the team hotel only a few hours before the big match against Bayern Munich and strolled unmolested behind coach Klopp through the working-class neighborhood of Dortmund-Barop would guess that their extraordinary performances could have something to do with the extraordinary degree of calmness and composure within the BVB club.
A Dream Team in Danger of Dissolving
Like Lewandowski, Kuba lives in Lünen, and Piszczek lived there until recently. A Polish priest lives in the town. A former foreman from the "Minister Achenbach" coal mine heads the local chapter of the BVB fan club. And the granny from next door has been known to ask Kuba "Are you planning on robbing the deli counter?" when he dashes into the local supermarket wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap.
Dortmund and the surrounding area have been a Polish stomping ground since the days of the German Kaiser. They immigrated here to work in the coal mines and steel mills, and the names of their descendents, such as Tilkowski and Kwiatkowski, now adorn the Borussia hall of fame. The priest of the Polish Catholic mission in Dortmund has 32 Lewandowskis in his registry. They now often see their namesake, the Borussia striker, attending Mass in St. Anna's Church.
All that's missing now is a Polish flag flying over the BVB training facility. To the great amusement of many, Klopp has recently taken to yelling "Rusz dupe!" ("Move your ass!") as an occasional demonstration of his proficiency in Polish. Even the groundskeeper is from Poland and known for circulating jokes about his own countrymen. ("What do you call a Pole with no arms? Someone you can trust.")
Money and Love
On the other hand, it's only been six months since the last Kuba crisis, when he wanted to leave the club because he was being outshined by the young Mario Götze. A flurry of reports concerning advances by Real Madrid have recently leaked from people around Piszczek. And a Lewandowski agent in Warsaw recently cranked up the rumor mill concerning his client.
For the time being, though, they're still posing for group photos as the dynamic trio -- together with older fans from the home country or alongside a battalion of U-11 players from Krakow with their dolled-up soccer moms, who lay siege to the training ground and ask for souvenir pictures. On such occasions, Kuba usually stands in the foreground and Lewandowski on the outside.
Although the youngest, Lewandowski is the most popular of the three back home. He is a scorer with a strong personality, and he makes a dashing couple with Anna, his fetching fiancée, who took bronze in the 2009 Traditional Karate World Cup. They don't want to be peddled as "Poland's Beckhams," as they both say in the garden of their brick house in Lünen. But they have an eye on their market and advertising value.
Lewandowski says he would never consider accepting a deal such as the reported 24 million, four-year contract signed by his fellow Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios, who transferred to the backwater Chinese Super League. He's careful to point out, though, that this has nothing to do with soccer romanticism: "Declarations of love to a specific team are ridiculous," he says, "because a day could just as easily arrive when the club suddenly no longer wants the player."
What is for certain, though, is that the three Dortmund Poles will be playing out of more than just a sense of patriotism when the 2012 European Football Championship kicks off on June 8. They'll also be showcasing their abilities to the world of soccer. "Each of us is, of course, also playing for his market value," Lewandowski says.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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