Bundesliga club FC Cologne started off strong in the Bundesliga with two victories. Both wins came despite mediocre performances from star striker Lukas Podolski. Now the 20-year old has a problem.
Lukas Podolski has had little reason to cheer with Cologne
Lukas Podolski plays with passion for the club he grew up with, FC Cologne. He wore his loyalty to the team on his sleeve by sticking with it when the side was relegated after the 2003/04 season. He could easily have jumped ship and moved to a contender in the first league, and no one would have held it against him.
But he stayed on and -- thanks primarily to his 24 goals -- one year later, Cologne was back in the top division. Podolski wanted to show that the team on the Rhine could return to its glory days of the 1970s and 1980s. The problem he has is that he alone must carry the team. That might be possible in the second division but not in the top flight of German soccer.
Dortmund's Lars Ricken (l) was also a player with great expectations
Borussia Dortmund midfielder Lars Ricken (photo), also a player with plenty of promise at the start of his career, has shown sympathy for 'Prince Poldi.' After Cologne lost last Sunday 2-1 in Dortmund, a game in which Ricken found the net twice and Podoloski failed to score, the 29-year-old Ricken stood by the Cologne striker.
"He's the first person who has to defend himself when Cologne loses. It was a lot easier for me because I could hide behind the numerous international players on our squad," Ricken said.
Too large a burden on a young man's back
Expectations are high for a young standout, like Ricken in the 1990s and Podolski now.
Ricken played on Dortmund squads that shined with stars like Matthias Sammer, Michael Zorc, Stefan Reuter and Jürgen Köhler. He scored the spectacular goal, a 30-meter (33-yard) lob against Juventus Turin, that sealed Dortmund's only Champions League title in 1997 and secured Ricken the Goal of the Year Award. Ricken was under heavy pressure to succeed. He never panned out and was relegated to the B-squad. But he managed to make it back into the Borussia starting squad this season.
'Prince Poldi' could hold court anytime with German soccer supporters
Lukas Podolski's success, in contrast to a midfielder like Ricken, has been measured strictly by goal production. On the German national squad, Poldi has scored 10 goals in 15 matches, the best goal per game average on the team. But in four Bundesliga encounters, he has kicked just one goal.
"It doesn't matter if I shoot three goals for the national team or not, the pressure is always great," he said after the Dortmund loss and in reference to his gala performance against South Africa just four days before.
Is success all that counts?
On the national squad, Podolski bubbles over with enthusiasm on the pitch. But Cologne coach Uwe Rapolder (photo, below) has expressed puzzlement over why his striker sometimes disappears from the action.
Uwe Rapolder is dependent on Podolski for success in Cologne
"I want to talk with Poldi in detail about it. If he has some kind of mental block, then he has to be frank about it. It doesn't matter what it is, it won't be a problem for me. I'll do all that I can to help. But it will only work if he accepts help," Rapolder told kicker sports magazine.
Podolski's teammates may be part of the problem. The squad simply does not possess the ability or character of the national team or of Germany's elite club, Bayern Munich. But Cologne has been adamant that Podolski is best off at home.
"He is in good hands in Cologne. He plays permanently there. On a top club like Bayern, he might end up on the bench real fast if he plays poorly," national assistant coach Joachim Löw told Sport Bild magazine.
FC Cologne President Wolfgang Overath also stressed that a departure from Cologne would not benefit Podolski.
Lukas Podolski (white) has been covered tightly by opponents this season
"We can't offer the financial terms (of other clubs). But Lukas has to ask himself: Can he make it without his family and friends? And it has to be clear to him that he won't be guaranteed a starting position on a top team," Overath said in an interview with the Bild am Sonntag weekly.
To make sure that Podolski understood in no uncertain terms just how badly the club wants to keep him, Overath said they were prepared to draw up a 10-year contract if the player would sign. But the question remains whether Podolski would committ himself to Cologne for so long, considering the team's propensity for Bundesliga relegation over the past decade.