In May 2019, the Allianz Arena crowd was awash with emotion as joy and sadness pulled at opposite ends of the heartstrings.
Club legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery starred in their last home game for Bayern Munich, a 5-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt that secured their seventh championship in a row. Club president Uli Hoeness was one of many supporters crying in the stands amid the general outpouring of love, gratitude and regret that greeted the iconic duo’s departure. Even Robert Lewandowski, a man who can rarely been accused of excess sentimentality, appeared deeply moved.
“I almost had tears in my eyes,” Bayern’s Polish striker told TV channel Sport1 a few months later. “To receive such a send-off, at this club, is definitely a dream of mine.”
Well, dreams change.
After eight fantastically successful years, Lewandowski has bid the Bavarian capital his own quiet, private farewell, leaving in the dead of summer rather than on a crisp spring afternoon in front of 75,000 supporters, bouquet of flowers in hand.
The 33-year-old is to sign a four-year contract with Barcelona after the Catalan club agreed to pay €45million (£38.3m, $45.4m), in a deal rising to €50m with potential add-ons.
Lewandowski’s stealthy departure feels sadly out of step with his extraordinary body of work for the club (344 goals in 375 games in all competitions) but then again, star players don’t always leave Bayern on commensurate terms.
Franz Beckenbauer’s farewell in 1977 was cool and business-like as financial disagreements over his transfer to the original New York Cosmos of the old NASL, problems with the tax authorities and unsavory tabloid headlines about his private life forced him to up sticks to the US.
Bayern felt sufficiently guilty over their treatment of Der Kaiser that they arranged a belated testimonial for him… 33 years later.
The late Gerd Muller, whose then-record 40-goal season in 1971-72 was finally bettered by Lewandowski, to much fanfare, a year ago left in even more ignominious circumstances, three months before the end of the 1978-79 season.
The club’s greatest ever goalscorer was substituted by coach Pal Csernai eight minutes before time with Bayern 2-0 down to Frankfurt. A couple of days later, he was off to America too, joining Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Muller never played in Germany again.
As these precedents show, an icy parting of the ways doesn’t necessarily impact on a player’s historical standing; Beckenbauer and Muller will forever be universally adored legends at Bayern. Whether Lewandowski makes the same grade is less clear.
For all the goals he has scored and trophies he has won (the Bundesliga in all eight seasons, along with one Champions League, three German cups and a Club World Cup), he’s never struck up much of a connection with Bayern, the supporters and Munich.
Described as a “unique machine” by team-mate Manuel Neuer in light of his phenomenal physical shape and reliability, Lewandowski’s seemingly-computerised dependency delivered for the club on an industrial scale but never truly touched the soul of the Bayern constituency the way mere humans did
He simply wasn’t interested in such matters. A devoted self-optimiser who reached a world-class level through hard work and game intelligence rather than God-given talent, Lewandowski didn’t have time for fraternisation. He never hid the fact that goals were his sole motivation from him either, to the point that whoever’s shirt he was wearing at the time he scored them might have felt almost incidental to him.
Lewandowski freely admitted Real Madrid nearly hijacked his protracted move to Bayern from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2014.
After two seasons under Pep Guardiola and one year with Carlo Ancelotti failed to bring the Champions League trophy he coveted above all else, Lewandowski went public with his frustrations.
He also blamed his team-mates for missing out on the leading goalscorer trophy on the last day of the season in 2016-17, finishing one behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had replaced him as Dortmund’s main man. (Aubameyang scored twice in Dortmund’s final-day 4-3 win over Werder Bremen, Lewandowski contributed only an assist to a 4-1 defeat of Freiburg.)
“I was not happy with the way the team helped me (in the last game), I was angry and disappointed about the team’s attitude,” he said.
Lewandowski wasn’t shy about showing his misgivings on the pitch either. Wingers’ failure to find him was often greeted by an ostentatious shake of a head.
In 2018, he hired Pini Zahavi as his agent, with a view to facilitating a move to Spain’s La Liga. But uncharacteristically poor performances against Real Madrid in a 2017-18 Champions League semi-final defeat killed any chance of a transfer. Rival interest from Chelsea in England was met with Bayern intransigence.
But when further attempts to engineer a move came to nothing, a remarkable transformation seemed to happen at the start of 2019-20.
Lewandowski was suddenly much more of a team player, staying behind after training to help and advise Bayern’s youngsters, and playing a far less egotistical game.
“For a long time, I wanted to score many goals. Now he wants to score goals to win games, with the team,” team-mate Thomas Muller said of his fellow forward’s newly-found collective streak. “You can’t praise him enough, and couldn’t be happier that he’s taken that step.
“He can almost take delight in making an assist now. He’s very involved in the game now—perhaps better so than before. He’s always chipped in with his goals and his quality, but what we’ve seen happen this year is extra-special.
Club sources felt Lewandowski’s transformation could be explained by the fact he had at last stopped fretting about a transfer.
He became even better as a result, and so did Bayern — finally winning the Champions League in the pandemic-enforced eight-club mini-tournament UEFA cobbled together that August in Portugal’s capital Lisbon.
Lewandowski, overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for so long, was desperately unlucky that the Ballon D’Or was not awarded that season, again because of COVID-19, but he did win the first of two consecutive FIFA Player of the Year awards to mark yet another milestone.
The following year saw him break Muller’s single-season scoring record, a barely-believable feat made possible by the concerted effort of the team.
But last season, interests diverged once more. Bayern were sounding out Erling Haaland over a move from Dortmund and were thus unprepared to offer Lewandowski a lengthy new contract. The player reacted by saying something “had broken” inside him, and openly agitated for a move.
Relations inside the dressing room had also deteriorated. While Lewandowski and head coach Julian Nagelsmann had differing ideas on tactics, a number of players were resentful that everything at Bayern seemed to revolve around the centre-forward. They will miss his goals from him, if not the drama.
Many Bayern fans, one suspects, will feel the same.
Lewandowski’s hard-nosed professionalism isn’t the only reason they have failed to fully warm to him, though.
Strangely enough, for the best Bundesliga player of modern times, his enduring excellence has made a relatively small mark on Bayern’s psyche. Part of that has to do with timing.
Their decade of uninterrupted domestic dominance, it’s important to remember, started two seasons before he arrived under Jupp Heynckes, with whom Bayern won the treble in 2012-13 while playing Mario Mandzukic up front. The club then pulled further away from their German competition with false-nine fan Guardiola in charge the following year.
Lewandowski’s arrival for 2014-15 encouraged Guardiola to reconsider his ideas of how a team should play, and made Bayern’s national hegemony unassailable.
Eight more titles in a row have been largely inevitable but the law of diminishing returns meant that every goal and every league win was slightly devalued by the next.
Meanwhile, a combination of freak injuries and poor team performances saw Lewandowski never score that one, unforgettable, pivotal goal in the Champions League — the competition that really mattered to him and his club.
Truth be told, he was even largely peripheral in the three one-off knockout ties Bayern won in Lisbon, even including that 8-2 hammering of Barcelona.
His lack of emotional impact on and off the pitch can, of course, not detract from the objective, sustained brilliance of his performances, nor his historic achievements. But it does explain why his legacy in Munich, unlike that of “Robbery” and the greats from the ’70s, will remain contested.
For a man of such monumental numbers, Lewandowski leaves behind rather little love.
(Top photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)