As Bayern Munich’s uncompromising, methodical, and callous march to their 8th consecutive Bundesliga title continued yesterday with a 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen. It was highlighted by their geriatric duo. Thirty-year-old Thomas Muller broke the Bundesliga record for assists with his 20th (this season has seen Muller add the third trick of assists to his repertoire, joining scoring and screaming). And Robert Lewandowksi, also over 30 at 31, notched his 30th goal of the German season. It is the third time Lewandowski has collected 30 goals in the Bundesliga, and he’ll add more than a few more goals before it’s all over.
For some perspective on the accomplishment, only one other player has scored 30 goals in Germany’s top league this century (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyand for Dortmund four years ago). Thirty goals has been reached in England’s Premier League only five times this century. No one’s done it in Italy since 2000, and it’s only been done once in 60 years there. Spain has the only other two players to score 30 goals three times or more in a season in recent history. You might have heard of them:. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
That’s with whom Lewandowski walks.
And yet, Lewandowski has never finished higher than 8th in the Ballon D’or voting, an award that Ronaldo and Messi have bogarted for a decade. So why hasn’t Lewandowski gotten his own Nike campaign worldwide? Or at the very least, why isn’t his name even close to Ronaldo’s or Messi’s or a host of Premier League stars in the soccer consciousness?
There’s a host of possible reasons, with no particular rating or order. One might be European success. Whereas Ronaldo and Messi have been appearing in Champions League finals for a decade or so (seven of 11 finals had either Madrid or Barcelona from 2007 to 2018), Lewandowski only appeared in a final in 2013 with Borussia Dortmund, where his numbers were merely bonkers instead of other-worldly (66 goals in his last three seasons there). Lewandowski’s Munich teams have only gotten to the semifinal stage. None of this is fair to Lewandowski, who has poured in a simply indulgent 48 goals in 57 Champions League games for Munich.
International success might be another. Messi has appeared in World Cup and Copa America finals. Ronaldo’s Portugal won Euro 2016 and saw a World Cup semifinal. Lewandowski’s Poland has only been a sometimes qualifier for major tournaments, only escaping the group stage once (Euro ‘16, to the quarters, where they lost to Ronaldo’s Portugal on penalties in a match that rivaled a Chekov festival for its lack of action and abundance of ennui).
Perhaps it’s the lack of glitz of the Bundesliga. While it’s current TV contract here in America is better than La Liga’s, and Munich is one of the biggest clubs in the world, they still don’t have the cachet of Madrid or Barcelona. As the Bundesliga moves from Fox to ESPN next season, and La Liga continues to be on the Wild-And-Crazy-Guys-As-A-Channel BeIn Sports, that may change.
Still, Barcelona and Madrid are seen as the home of stars. When it wasn’t Messi or Ronaldo, it was Zidane or Figo (for both) or Raul or Ronaldinho or the other (better) Ronaldo (also for both). Munich, in a very German way, are seen as more of a whole, a machine, a team. Lewandowski is just the sharp end of it, no more important than the rest.
Maybe that’s it. Munich are so far ahead of the competition in Germany that perhaps Lewandowski is seen as just benefitting from being at the head of a superior team. But the gap from the rest of the Bundesliga to Munich is no greater than the gap from the rest of La Liga to Barcelona or Madrid, or from Serie A to Juventus has been (though that one’s shrinking).
Just because there happened to be one other team in their strata doesn’t mean Ronaldo or Messi didn’t benefit from playing in teams that were far out ahead of the competition most every week (though again, that’s holding less and less true of Barcelona these days).
Munich have had great teams before Lewandowski, and yet no one has scored at the rate he has since Gerd Muller (it should also be noted that Lewandowski has scored those 30 goals in a 34-game season, whereas Messi and Ronaldo always had 38-games).
It certainly can’t be Lewandowski’s style. While Ronaldo has sunk more and more into being a poacher who merely finishes off chances from 10-yards out or less later in his career, Lewandowski can do it all. He’s got pace, touch, is powerful in the air, finds space geniously, and can beat keepers from long range. He holds up play to bring others into it and can contribute or inspire the most elegant moves. He’s the complete center forward.
Maybe most impressive about Lewandowski is that he seems to be getting better at age 31. It was at 31 that Ronaldo began to transform into merely a poacher and saw his numbers drop to their current levels (though he only had one way to go, obviously). This is Lewandowski’s best season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already decamped for the safe environs of PSG and Ligue 1 by 31. The original Ronaldo was retired. Thierry Henry never scored 20 goals again after age 27. Even Germany’s greatest scorer, Muller, never topped 30 after 30.
Perhaps Lewandowski’s recognition will come now. Whenever the Ballon D’or is handed out, his only competition would seem to be Messi. Madrid doesn’t have a standout star this time around, Liverpool’s success has been more of a collective (and Virgil van Dijk hasn’t been as good as he was last season), and Ronaldo isn’t even Serie A’s leading scorer.
It would be overdue for perhaps this generation’s leading central striker.