Lukas Podolski is considering the notion of pressure, which has become the match-day companion of the stressed-out Arsenal fan in recent times. The club's summer signing from Köln, though, tells a story that illustrates the true definition of a thumping heart.
June 2006, Germany's World Cup and 72,000 are crammed into Berlin's Olympic stadium to see the host nation's quarter-final against Argentina enter a penalty shootout. Podolski steps forward to take Germany's third kick, with his team 2-1 up. "It was four miles to the penalty spot," he says, and each step brought a louder beat. Podolski, though, kept his nerve; the kick was low and true and as history dictates in these matters, the Germans won on penalties.
The striker has a back-catalogue of stressful situations. "I had the pressure when I started my career at 18 at Cologne, when people were saying: 'Ah, Podolski, the new hero of Cologne.' You have World Cups, you have special games and you have important games for relegation. You have a lot of pressure in football."
Podolski endured three relegation battles over his two spells at Köln; each was harrowing and unsuccessful. He has the experience of playing at Bayern Munich and, also, that of being a full Germany international for the past eight and a half years. He has started in all bar one of Germany's ties at the previous four major tournaments, when the Nationalmannschaft have been finalists once and semi-finalists three times. It is incredible to think that Podolski is 27. He has 106 caps and his 44 international goals have been bettered by only five Germans: (in order) Gerd Müller, Miroslav Klose, Rudi Völler, Jürgen Klinsmann and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Prince 'Poldi' can barely move in Germany, particularly his native Cologne, without drawing attention and as he reflects on his new life in London, where he "can go outside" and do things like travel on the top deck of a bus with his young son, Louis, it is easy to wonder whether English football fans comprehend the scale of Podolski's celebrity, although their politeness is appreciated.
"It's not like in Germany, where people are coming all together to take a picture or get an autograph," Podolski says. "It's crazy for me. The problem in Germany is that people don't respect you when you are out with your family. They take pictures and even when you say 'No' they take, take, take. In England, when you say 'No', they understand this. People in England have a lot of respect. It is relaxed here."
Podolski is unruffled by Arsenal's stuttering start in the Premier League. To him, this is not a high-anxiety situation. "Judge us after 38 games," he says, and not 15, when the team sit five points off third place. "We want to reach the Champions League [places] and we have the quality," he adds. "We've played a lot of matches where we were the better team but we only got one point. These are the matches we want to win and we will do this.
"Now we don't speak about the title because we are 15 points behind, but football changes very quickly. We must fight and win the next matches and when we win three or four in a row, it makes a difference. The pressure is normal when you are a big club and you are not on the top. It's like at Manchester City or Chelsea. They are out of the Champions League and everybody looks at them. We are calm. The pressure is one thing but you must also have fun in football."
Podolski describes himself as a "street footballer" and the free-spiritedness of his formative years, when he would play five-on-five with his friends until it went dark and his mother dragged him inside, has never left him. "When you are young and you play football you must play in the street," he says. "When you go to a club at the age of five and the coach says you must pass this, eat this, drink this … it's not a life. Young people must train for themselves, play football every day and not have three coaches, with each one saying this and this."
Podolski talks with boyish enthusiasm about the pre-match buzz that he still gets when "you see the stadium, you put the shirt on, your boots … it's a special feeling". He loves to express himself, ideally in a central position, but he is at pains to say that he is happy to work off the left flank, where Arsène Wenger has used him at Arsenal so far, even if he is not a typical winger with the ability to trick his way past a full-back.
Wenger has demanded that he puts in the hard defensive yards, which has never been Podolski's strongest suit, and he has needed to come to terms with a remorseless schedule of matches every three or four days; he is in the squad for Saturday's visit of West Bromwich Albion, despite a hamstring injury scare. At Köln, with no European football, he played "on Saturday to Saturday, so all week we are training, but here it is very different".
It is about to become more different. Podolski has grown accustomed to the Bundesliga's winter break; now he must steel himself for the Premier League's festive chaos and, perhaps, an unusual first – training on Christmas Day. "We had two weeks off in Germany and you are watching the English football," Podolski says. "This was something special for English football because all of the world is having a break and they are watching you … sitting on holiday, in the sun, watching English football. But you play football for the matches and I love to play matches."
Podolski trades on the feelings he gets from people; he offers the impression that his heart can rule his head and he is far removed from the stereotype of the clinical German. He was born in Gliwice in Poland yet his parents emigrated with him in 1987 to Bergheim, near Cologne, when he was two, after they were given Aussiedler status as his paternal grandparents had been German citizens. Life in their tower block was tough.
"You must have a feeling and from the first day that I come to Arsenal I feel very comfortable," Podolski says. "It's not only to go to a club and you win three championships and you are the king of the world. When you go to a club, you must feel comfortable, like it's a family."
Podolski's sentimental side is illustrated by his continued support of Bergheim, the small local club that he joined at the age of eight, and his decision to rejoin Köln in 2009, after three ill-starred years at Bayern Munich. Podolski burst to prominence as an 18-year-old with Köln in 2003-04, scoring 10 goals, albeit in a relegation season, to win inclusion as the youngest member of Germany's Euro 2004 squad. He stayed at the club to help lead them back to the Bundesliga at the first attempt but the following season the team were relegated again.
He chose to return to Köln because they were his club, in his city. He had offers from England and elsewhere in Germany but Köln were in his heart. "I thought I would help to create something there," he says. "They promised to build a team around me, they promised a lot of things, but in the end they did nothing." Köln were relegated from the Bundesliga last season, despite Podolski scoring 18 goals.
Podolski is reluctant to talk about the Bayern years, just as he is the infamous altercation with Michael Ballack, when he slapped the then Germany captain across the face during a World Cup qualifying tie against Wales in April 2009. Ballack had criticised Podolski for not working hard enough and he would call for him to be thrown out of the team. Podolski, though, said sorry and Joachim Löw, the manager, stuck with him. "It's all done with Ballack, finished," Podolski said. "We are not fighting together like this."
Podolski had arrived at Bayern after being named as the best young player of the 2006 World Cup, and the coming star could not understand why he was not a regular starter. Perhaps his youth did not help and the series of managerial changes certainly did not.
But the critics claimed that he lacked the mentality to succeed at Germany's biggest club and when he went back to Köln it was painted as a return to his comfort zone, where he would once again be the main man.
The narrative that has trailed Podolski to Arsenal calls for him to cut it at a Champions League club and as part of the collective sum. He says that he did not know Robin van Persie would leave for Manchester United, which was a disappointment but he "signed for Arsenal, not Van Persie".
There have been flashes of Podolski's class, most memorably with the Van Persie-esque volley against Montpellier, and he has settled easily in the dressing-room. Jack Wilshere is a new friend; Per Mertesacker, his Germany team-mate, is a neighbour in Hampstead while Ray Parlour, the former Arsenal player, is teaching him rhyming slang.
A trivial item on his to-do list is to invite his good friend Michael Schumacher, the just-retired former Formula One champion, to the Emirates for a game. More importantly, he intends to get Arsenal's season on track.
Lukas Podolski and other members of the Arsenal squad are donating a day's wages on Saturday as part of the club's dedicated matchday for The Arsenal Foundation. Money raised will be used to fund education and sport projects that transform young people's lives. "I like the tradition Arsenal has with helping the community and in particular providing education for young children, it's a basic right that everyone should have in life and it's important that we contribute off the pitch as well as on it," says Podolski. For more information visit www.arsenal.com/thearsenalfoundation. To donate, text AFCF12 plus your donation (eg £1) to 70070.
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image: © wonker