Euro 2020: How Lewandowski’s drive to become a world-class striker was kick-started by tearful setback

Long before he was a global superstar and one of the most lethal goal scorers in soccer history, Robert Lewandowski was just a 17-year-old kid from Poland who was too short and too scrawny, and who showed up one afternoon to learn that his club didn’t want him anymore.

What does Lewandowski remember from that day at Legia Warsaw in 2006, the day he thought his career might be over before it started? The hurt, certainly. And the anger. But what he also remembers is the person who actually delivered this painful, difficult news to him: the office secretary.

Not a coach. Not a technical director. Not some kind of academy executive who sat with him and softly, kindly explained the club’s thinking before wishing him well.

The secretary.

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“That was crazy — it was like two to three weeks before the finish to the season, and the secretary, she told me that I am a free player after this season,” Lewandowski told ESPN. “I was too young to understand that it should work another way, that it should be something from the owner or the trainer or the sports director. For a boy who doesn’t understand how the business of football works, that was very tough.”

Lewandowski ultimately used the setback as motivation — within a few years he was starring for Borussia Dortmund before moving to Bayern Munich, and he’ll captain Poland again in the Euros beginning Monday against Slovakia — but being cut from Legia was part of a period in his life that showed him the power of his inner strength.

After hearing the news from the Legia secretary, Lewandowski, fairly stunned, ran out to the parking lot. His mother was waiting there because Lewandowski didn’t yet have a driver’s license, and she hugged her son as he cried on her shoulder. The emotion wasn’t only about the team; Lewandowski had lost his father a year earlier and was feeling an incredible pressure to fill in the space left behind. Being cut loose by his club only made him feel more helpless.

“I didn’t want to show my mother how difficult it was for me,” he said. “I wanted to be the guy — I wanted to be the man. But I was only 17.”

That feeling has stayed with Lewandowski, he said, and it’s part of what continually drives him forward. Since joining Bayern in 2014, Lewandowski has scored an absurd 203 goals in 219 games, and he has won four straight Golden Boot awards in Germany.

This past season may have been his finest. Lewandowski scored 41 goals, breaking Gerd Muller’s record for most in a Bundesliga season that had been set in 1971-72. Even more staggering is that Lewandowski achieved the mark in 29 games after missing nearly a month with a knee injury.

Lewandowski hurt his knee while with Poland on March 28, and by the time he got back to the Bundesliga, there were only four games remaining in the season. He would need to score six goals to break the record.

Initially, Lewandowski thought he had no chance; he figured the injury had ruined everything and he might as well focus on getting healthy for the Euros. But then he scored a hat trick against Borussia Monchengladbach, and suddenly everything felt possible again.

“That was the first real moment when I knew that, OK, I’m close,” he said. “This record — no one was close for 50 years. For me, it’s just something amazing.”

As excited as he was about the record, Lewandowski knows that this summer’s challenge will be quite different. The transition from playing with Bayern to playing with Poland is one that he is used to by now, but there’s also no denying the significant differences. With Bayern, Lewandowski is one in a catalog of stars, part of a superclub where just about everyone in the room is an accomplished international. Lewandowski is a focal point, for sure, but he’s hardly the linchpin.

With Poland, it’s the opposite: Lewandowski is by far the most accomplished player on the team, and his stature is such that even he can’t fail to notice how everyone’s eyes, including his teammates’, are on him.

“I know that so many people watch what I do, how I’m feeling, how I’m acting,” Lewandowski said. “That’s why I’m always open — if they want to come and ask me about everything, it doesn’t matter if it’s football life or private life or what I do before the game, after the game during time at home. I know that my experience can be something I give to my teammates as well, and if they find something interesting to them, they can take it.”

Lewandowski was quick to say, too, that while he may be at the heart of the national team, success isn’t necessarily reliant on him producing gaudy statistics. Four years ago, Poland was a surprise quarterfinalist at the Euros in France, but Lewandowski didn’t even have a shot on target until the round-of-16 game against Switzerland (he scored the first penalty in the shootout that sent the Poles through).

As exhilarating an experience as that unlikely run was for Lewandowski and Poland, it was muted after the disappointment of the World Cup in Russia two years later, when Poland finished last in its group. Lewandowski said he plans to draw on both experiences in preparation for this Euros, when Poland — with a new coach in Paulo Sousa — will be looking to reassert itself in a challenging group with Spain, Sweden and Slovakia.

For someone who plays with a club team that enters nearly every game as a favorite, Lewandowski embraces the underdog mentality that comes with leading Poland.

“For Poland, when we are thinking about the big tournament, it’s not so easy to play there,” he said. “But we are there. We are there and we will be trying to do our best.”

He shrugged.

“For sure, we are not favored to win something, but we fight — we try to do our best and our fans will be proud of us,” he said. “I don’t know where exactly we will go, but for sure we want to get out of the group stage playing. Then we’ll see what is happening.”

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