The trouble with age is that the brain speeds up but the body slows down.” With that quote, Sir Anthony Dowell, the former dancer and then artistic director of the Royal Ballet articulated a central dilemma of not just the performing arts, but sport too. In a World Cup year, a handful of notable players are endeavouring to deny, or at least delay, the inevitable ageing process.
European champions Real Madrid have Luka Modrić, 37, conducting their midfield and, when fit, Karim Benzema, almost 35, on the verge of winning the Ballon d’Or as the world’s outstanding striker and player of 2022.
Paris St Germain, and Argentina, have Lionel Messi, 35. And Barcelona, performing a defiant high-wire act with bankruptcy, have Robert Lewandowski starting a new chapter in his striking career after passing his 34th birthday in August. Lewi, the Pole who Germans dubbed “der Körper” – “The Body” – because of his highly physical workouts and controlled calorie intake, walked out on Bayern Munich this summer to conquer fresh fields.
His transition from the Bundesliga to La Liga appears seamless. New employers, a different milieu, but the same No 9 on his back and the same habit of scoring in every game. And, as fate would have it, a rapid return to Munich in the Champions League, leading the opposition against the team where he eclipsed records set a lifetime ago by FC Bayern’s scoring phenomenon Gerd Müller.
Some Bavarians haven’t taken Lewandowski’s defection well. They forget how their club poached him from Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in 2014 by persuading Lewandowski to wind down his contract and move to Munich on a free transfer. For two seasons, Dortmund had “stolen” Bayern’s crown, but with The Body leading their line, FC Bayern have won it ever since.
That makes Lewandowski a 10-time Bundesliga champion, with a personal tally of 447 goals in all competitions for the two clubs. But unlike Miroslav Klose, who became a national hero and a World Cup top scorer by giving up his Polish birthright to lead Germany’s attack, Lewandowski hung onto his Polish shirt.
The Warsaw-born striker, now on 76 goals and 132 caps for his country, leads Poland to a World Cup in Qatar where, fitness permitting, he will lead out Poland against Mexico, then Saudi Arabia, then Argentina in November.
Lewi has startled Xavi Hernández, the midfield mastermind who has returned to rebuild a Barça that somehow paid £35m for the No 9 and have splashed out hundreds of millions more in other transfers and wages in what is either a resurrection or financial sleight of hand.
“I run out of praise for him,” Xavi said last week. “Reading the space, pressing, a leader, a winner… Lewi has it all.”
Bayern knew it, how could they not? But the Bavarians courted Erling Haaland before he opted for Manchester City, and in doing so had no right to accuse Lewandowski of defecting for one more huge challenge in his remarkable journey from a scrawny youth at Lech Poznań to the complete No 9 he is today.
Lewandowski’s bodybuilder physique is not entirely his own work. His wife, Anna, is a formidable karate champion, and a renowned nutritionist, advising athletes around the world. Her husband’s obsession with preparation, from beetroot juice with cinnamon or cayenne pepper, to hours lifting weights in his home gymnasium, rivals Cristiano Ronaldo for self-dedication.
Lewi, once a plane ride away from joining Blackburn Rovers until the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud grounded air traffic in 2010, is possibly less of a genius and less of a narcissist than Cristiano Ronaldo, but he does know his body.
He shares with the late Gerd Müller an instinct, backed by sheer endeavour and concentration, for being in the right place at the right instant. And doing the simple thing of applying either foot, head, or any part of the anatomy with which it is legitimate to score goals.
He seems to have seamlessly changed his shirt from Dortmund yellow to Bayern red to Barcelona burgundy. In his absence, the Bavarian club is blooding one wonderful teenager, Jamal Musiala (19) with another, Mathys Tel, who at 17 years and 136 days last Saturday became the all-time youngest scorer for the Bavarians in the Bundesliga.
Yet these youngsters, along with Thomas Müller, Sadio Mané, Leroy Sané, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman cannot muster the goals that Lewandowski guaranteed. Their talents are tremendous, their energy unquestioned, but in the last three Bundesliga games they have between them squandered the better part of 73 shots and Bayern, almost unprecedentedly, have drawn those three games.
Lewi? He cuts his cloth in Catalonia almost as if there were no new teammates or tactics or adaptation to assimilate. In his first six games he has taken just 20 shots, scored nine goals, and completed a Champions League hat-trick.
Business as usual for the adaptable Pole. Age, it appears, is not yet a factor, either for Lewandowski or for his agent, Pini Zahavi, who many thought had retired to Tel Aviv after being an adviser to Roman Abramovich in London for many years.
Zahavi apparently negotiated over £17m on the side for himself for assisting Lewandowski’s escape from Bavaria. He is 79 years old, but there is something about money that tends to keep the wealthy forever young