From training on a basic dirt pitch to earning his first top-scorer titles, Robert Lewandowski experienced highs and lows during his early years in Warsaw that made him the star he is today.
The Bayern Munich striker dubbed 'LewanGOALski' by fans is fresh from of breaking Gerd Mueller's decades-long German league record by scoring his 41st Bundesliga goal of the season in the final moments of the past campaign.
Years before his Bayern teammates nicknamed him 'The Body' for his honed physique, Robert was "small and scrawny, the tiniest in the group," said Krzysztof Sikorski, who coached Lewandowski at the Varsovia youth club in the Polish capital.
But the now 32-year-old had "the biggest heart and the most talent. The smartest of them all," Sikorski told AFP just before his death in 2018.
The future pillar of the national team got his start at this small schoolboy club that at the time only had rudimentary facilities, with dirt and sand instead of a proper pitch.
A goal machine from an early age, Lewandowski joined the Legia Warsaw reserve team at 17, but was dropped after a serious injury, with management calling him "too weak, too gentle" according to Sikorski.
Lewandowski was on the verge of depression in 2006 when he joined Znicz Pruszkow, a third division club in the Warsaw suburbs.
"He was dejected," said then Znicz president Sylwiusz Mucha-Orlinski, recalling the day the young striker came to sign up with his mother.
"We have his mother to thank," said Mucha-Orlinski, a former weightlifter still known by everyone at Znicz as "The Boss".
Fortune soon smiled on Lewandowski, who regained his usual composure and stability in Pruszkow.
"The first five matches he spent on the bench, but he worked hard and before long he'd often be the one to secure our victory... We knew that with him we could even beat the best," said Daniel Kokosinski, Lewandowski's former teammate and a Znicz coach today.
Lewandowski finished his first season the top striker in the third division. The following year he won the honour again, this time in the second division, and later almost made it into Poland's top tier with Znicz.
He has always been "self-possessed, modest and conscientious... very focussed on football," Kokosinski recalled.
"When we would go out to party a little, he would rarely join us," he said.
Mucha-Orlinski remembers Lewandowski "alone on the training field, busy honing his shots, strikes."
"Success didn't just appear out of the blue. He earned it," Mucha-Orlinski told AFP.
After two seasons, "three quarters of the clubs in the first division were fighting over him," he said with pride.
Lewandowski moved to Lech Poznan in 2008. His career took off when he moved to Germany two years later. He became the best striker in the Bundesliga while playing for Borussia Dortmund and now Bayern Munich.
Lewandowski made his mark on the European scene by scoring all four goals for Dortmund in a 4-1 rout of Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Since joining Bayern in 2014, Lewandowski has scored 294 goals in 329 games.
In 2020-21, he was the architect of Bayern's 31st German league championship win, their ninth consecutive Bundesliga title.
Lewandowski has netted over 500 goals for his clubs and country since starting his career.
In September 2015, during Bayern's 5-1 win against Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, Lewandowski claimed four records in just under nine electrifying minutes: the league's fastest hat-trick, four- and five-goal salvos and most goals by a substitute.
Voted FIFA's best male player of 2020, the goal-scoring sensation also won the European Golden Shoe, beating out Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
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