Robert Lewandowski faces brutal reality at Euro 2024 to leave complicated Poland legacy

Robert Lewandowski had the air of a man contemplating what might have been and considering what comes next. When the final whistle blew, he ran his hands through his hair. He then stood in the centre of the Olympiastadion pitch, gazing into the skies. A ruminative trudge around to acknowledge the Poland fans followed.

He knew his Euro 2024 was in effect over before France and the Netherlands drew to confirm Poland’s exit. With something at stake, his competition comprised of half an hour on the pitch, bringing one booking, for a stray arm, no shots, and defeat to Austria. Lewandowski had spent the first half as a whisperer, going along the dugout to impart his wisdom. It was all he could do.

Or all he was allowed to, anyway. The oddity after a match that Ralf Rangnick had billed as a play-off was that Lewandowski did not start it. The presumption was that the thigh injury that ruled him out of the defeat to the Netherlands was the reason. Until manager Michal Probierz revealed: “Yes, he was fully fit and he has practised with the team.”

The decision to begin with Lewandowski in reserve, he said, was made in consultation with the forward and the Poland medical team. It backfired. Poland hampered themselves for an hour by keeping him back. “We hoped he could break through the Austrian defence in the second half,” Probierz said.

Instead, Austria scored six minutes after Lewandowski’s introduction. They won 2-0 during his time on the pitch. The temptation is to think that it will be a miscalculation that costs Probierz his job.

But the likelihood is that, apart from Poland’s meeting with France, Lewandowski will not be seen on this stage again. The logical assumption is that such thoughts were crossing his mind, that the conclusion of Poland’s Euro 2024 will mark a bigger end. There is no guarantee that Poland will qualify for the World Cup, especially if Lewandowski’s powers are waning; Europe will have 16 spots and Poland are the first of 24 teams to be cast out of this tournament. His 40th birthday falls the month after the final of Euro 2028. For the constants of these competitions, whether Luka Modric or Cristiano Ronaldo or Lewandowski, there can be glimpses of footballing mortality.

Robert Lewandowski of Poland looks dejected after the team's defeat (Getty Images)
Robert Lewandowski of Poland looks dejected after the team's defeat (Getty Images)

Unlike such contemporaries, his achievements on the international stage are individual feats. Lewandowski is the greatest-ever Polish footballer. Whether that makes him the greatest for the Poland national team is a separate issue. He has obliterated national records, with 151 caps and 82 goals. But the legends of Poland’s halcyon days – Grzegorz Lato, Zbigniew Boniek, Kazimierz Deyna – enjoyed more success in tournament games. Of Lewandowski’s 82 goals, five have come in European Championships, only two in World Cups. Lato got seven in the 1974 World Cup alone.

And if that is an illustration of the merits of his teammates, if the probability is that Lewandowski was in a stronger collective in the days of Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski and Grzegorz Krychowiak, his barrel load of goals have not made this a golden era for Poland. As he joined Wojciech Szczesny in becoming the only Polish players to appear in six major tournaments, this is set to become his fourth group-stage exit.

Poland's Robert Lewandowski looks dejected after the match (REUTERS)
Poland's Robert Lewandowski looks dejected after the match (REUTERS)

It feels forgivable in Euro 2024’s toughest pool; when Poland, who only qualified via the play-offs, looked the weakest side. But over a decade and more, it is probably underachievement. Population is not the only measure of potential, but Austria’s is a quarter of Poland’s. Other failings have been more chastening – Poland floundered as hosts in Euro 2012, underperformed in the 2018 World Cup and failed to even qualify in 2014 – whereas this, especially with Lewandowski missing the opening game, felt less surprising.

But given the importance of goalscorers, it feels they have squandered the Lewandowski years. There was a case for anointing him the best player in the world in 2020: had the Ballon d’Or been awarded then, he would have been the favourite even if, had Euro 2020 been played then, his prospects may have rested on Poland’s fate.

Robert Lewandowski (C) of Poland and Nicolas Seiwald (R) of Austria in action (EPA)
Robert Lewandowski (C) of Poland and Nicolas Seiwald (R) of Austria in action (EPA)

Now, though, there are reasons to suspect that, finally, he is a lesser force. Only Gerd Muller has ever scored more in the Bundesliga. Germany has seen no more prolific import. But, in the context of a different team and a different league, his returns are lessening in Spain.

He has gone from averaging over a goal a game in each of his last three seasons at Bayern Munich to just over one every two for Barcelona this year. A 26-goal campaign would be a career-best tally for many a player; it was Lewandowski’s lowest return in nine years. He has another two years left on his lucrative contract at the Nou Camp; they are factors why international retirement may not be imminent. But the prospect grows that Lewandowski has a lone tournament game left for Poland, and as he looked around the Olympiastadion, the probability is he knew it.