The 2019/20 Bundesliga season was the tenth for Lukasz Piszczek. And once again in the upcoming season, the 35-year-old with the big lungs and even bigger heart will be wearing black and yellow. Piszczek is the great constant at BVB. His former and current coach Lucien Favre played a major role in the Pole's move to Dortmund. When Jürgen Klopp began his first talks with Piszczek in the summer of 2010, Favre advised him: "Lukasz, you definitely have to go! It's BVB! Walk there if you have to!"
A few weeks ago, Lukasz Piszczek celebrated a rather unheralded and yet quite remarkable anniversary. In the 1-0 victory in Düsseldorf, he made his 250th Bundesliga appearance for BVB, once again deputising as captain for Marco Reus and once again in a position that he took to so confidently it was as if he had never played anywhere else. Did anyone know that Borussia's Polish star used to be a striker?
Only in the second period of his career did he make a name for himself as one of the best right-backs in the world. And now, at the tender age of 35, he has taken up the role on the right of three centre-backs, without coach Lucien Favre having to implement a major retraining course.
Lukasz Piszczek is a mystery in the positive sense: always good for surprises – both on and off the pitch. In May, he extended his contract with BVB for another year and was as eager to speak about it as ever – not at all. Piszczu is not exactly a chatterbox, but ... for the video interview, he turned up in a black and yellow mask and a good mood.
Lukasz Piszczek takes off the mask. He has a little something to say.
Dobry dzién, Lukasz! Look, we have your signed pictures from ten years here at BVB. At first glance, you don't look like you've changed at all. You still have the cheeky smile, the same short hair and the quiff. It's a pity that we can't see your body in the pictures, because you can see a change there: The 35-year-old Lukasz Piszczek looks fitter and more athletic than his 25-year-old self!
Well that's a nice compliment, thank you! You know, I've been working on my muscles since my first years in the Bundesliga. I was a very thin guy in my youth, even as a young professional, when I moved from Poland to Hertha Berlin in 2007. In my second season, I was out injured for half a year and had to undergo surgery on my hip. It was a very dramatic experience, especially the subsequent rehab. A well-trained body can handle the strain of being a professional athlete much better, and you only get out what you put in.
Under Lucien Favre, you are now playing in the fourth position of your career. After starting as a striker and attacking midfielder, followed by several years as a full-back, you are now one of three centre-backs. There are few others who have been so versatile in their professional career at the highest level.
Well, what can I say? Let me put it this way: that may indicate that I may not be the most stupid player. I think I can put myself into any role and show that I understand the game. My brain stores everything that has to do with football anyway. After every game, I perform my own personal analysis and write down what I did well – but also what was not so good.
A few weeks ago, you signed a contract for an eleventh year in Dortmund. We wouldn't be surprised there was a twelfth to come...
Slow down! As of today, I will be saying goodbye to Dortmund next summer. I have plans at home in Poland, which I have already had to postpone for a year because of the contract extension. My academy is there, which I have to take care of, and I want to play a bit of football for my home club, LDK Goczalkowice.
The former captain of the Polish national team is going to plumb the depths of the fourth division?
Hold on a minute: Goczalkowice have two games to go up to the third division!
Okay, we'll let that one go. A much bigger problem is the club colours...
Hmm, you don't think the blue and white of Goczalkowice will fit so well with my last ten years here? I'm afraid my influence on that is limited. I can't rewrite the club's history. And blue and white works very well for Goczalkowice. In the Ruhr, of course, it's a completely different matter.
In your home country, you could play where you started out. Will Poland perhaps experience the rebirth of Lukasz Piszczek as a striker?
Good question – that would be worth considering! I used to like to attack and score goals for a living. But you tend to fall a bit further back down the pitch as you get older. I assume that I will be controlling the game from the back in Goczalkowice too.
Lukasz Piszczek as a defender was the brainchild of his first coach in Germany, with whom he linked up again towards the twilight of his career in Dortmund. Lucien Favre and Lukasz Piszczek started their Bundesliga adventure together in the summer of 2007.
Then, as he still does today, Lukasz opted to wear the number 26 – the number Sebastian Deisler had immortalised in Berlin a few years earlier. Symbolically, this was a heavy burden – there has probably never been a better footballer to play for Hertha BSC than Deisler. But as Lukasz Piszczek, following his switch from striker to full-back, ran up and down the right touchline and repeatedly crossed the ball into the box, with a lot of swerve and a trajectory that made it almost impossible for defenders to intervene with any great force, it looked as if he had been studying a few of the DVDs so highly valued by his coach Lucien Favre before the game: DVDs on which Sebastian Deisler's mazy runs down the wing can be seen.
A perfect cross does not sail softly, high into the penalty area. The ball needs spin to move away from the goalkeeper, towards the penalty spot. It needs speed that a good striker can translate into a successful header. It needs a flat trajectory so that the goalkeeper and defender have as little time as possible to adjust to it. The foot hits the ball at a specific point between the big toe and the ankle – all while running at full speed. That is exactly what Deisler did at his best, and that is how Piszczek did it.
Before moving to Berlin, he had won the Polish league with Zaglebie Lubin – as a striker, of course, and Hertha had bought him as such. The pace of the Bundesliga, however, seemed a little too high for him. Probably almost any coach would have got rid him. But Lucien Favre liked Piszczek's style. Even when Piszczek was injured for just under six months in his second season in Berlin, a sale or loan deal was never on the cards. As Lucien Favre had seen something no one else had: Piszczek's footballing IQ, his sense of time and space, which is just as tough to learn as providing the perfect cross.
"Even as a striker, Lukasz moved well. He is a good header of the ball and has great situational awareness. But his real gift was something else – we saw it for the first time in a friendly with the U23s," says Favre, looking back. "He's an exceptionally smart footballer and he inherently understood how everything worked on the wings right away. It is unusual for a striker to become part of the back-four. It can work as part of a back five if they are one of two attacking wing-backs. But as part of a back four? That has almost never happened! Lukasz is a major exception!"
Lukasz, how did Lucien Favre explain the switch to the defence to you at the time in Berlin?
There was not a lot to explain. After my hip operation and the long break, I had worked my way back into the team and scored five goals for Hertha's U23s in two games and I thought: now you could get a chance in the Bundesliga too! The game against Bremen was the first time I was subbed on. A week later, I was in the starting line-up for the first time at Hoffenheim. Not as a striker, but as an attacking left-sided midfielder. Then, after a quarter of an hour, our Argentine defender Leandro Cufré got injured. We already had a few injuries and no more defenders, so Lucien Favre had to make some changes. Marc Stein moved from the right side of the defence to the left and I went to right-back. It went quite well – we won 1-0, and a week later I was in the starting eleven as the right-back against HSV.
It carried on like that until the end of the season, in which you still had the chance to win the league until shortly before the end of the season.
I was glad to be back playing after such a long time out, and then even as a regular starter in a very successful team. But being a defender was not supposed to be a permanent solution either. After the season, we had a big team dinner and I told the manager: "Next season, the defenders will be fit again, and I want to play upfront as a striker again!" He replied: "Yes, yes, we will see."
At the start of the new season, you were still a right-back, until Lucien Favre was replaced by Friedhelm Funkel after a poor start to the season.
Friedhelm Funkel pushed me back up front, but after a few weeks we had a few more injuries, and it all started again. What was I supposed to do? The team needed me! We fought against the drop for a long time. We didn't manage it in the end, but I had attracted some interest from Dortmund in my new position. We were unlucky to only draw 0-0 against BVB at home. Jürgen Klopp must have liked what he saw. But he also told me very clearly: if you come to us, then it will be as a backup for Patrick Owomoyela at right-back.
Lucien Favre and Lukasz Piszczek never lost touch after their time in Berlin. When Favre took over at struggling Mönchengladbach, who were bottom of the table, in 2011, he came to Dortmund to watch the last and decisive match of the season. Gladbach's rivals Eintracht Frankfurt were playing there, and because BVB had already sealed the title, Favre was a little worried about the effort Dortmund would put in to win the final game. So he called his former player. Lukasz Piszczek calmed him down, saying: "Don't worry coach, we'll give our all to win!" That's what happened, and Lucien Favre could feel vindicated for the recommendation he had given to Lukasz Piszczek during a telephone call in spring 2010. The player had told his former coach about the offer from Dortmund and asked what he should do. Lucien Favre replied: "Lukasz, you definitely have to go! It's BVB! Walk there if you have to!"
Lukasz, now honestly, looking back after ten years: is that anecdote true?
Of course it is! But the truth is that I talked not only to Lucien Favre at the time, but also to all sorts of other people. And everyone told me that the BVB was a great club and Jürgen Klopp was a coach under whom young players can develop well.
From Poland to Berlin to Dortmund. From striker to defender. Why do you find such changes so easy?
I didn't find it all that easy! I made mistakes at the beginning, but my teammates gave me some important tips. And it helped me a lot, of course, that our team in Dortmund was already playing so well back then.
You could even have formed an all-Polish front-line with Robert Lewandowski. You came to Dortmund at the same time, after all.
Nice idea, but... you have to say that Robert is world class and I – well, I was a good striker in the youth team, but in the professional game, the standards are different once again. I can be very satisfied that it has gone so well for me in defence.
You really took off at BVB. You won the league in your first year, the double the following year, and the Champions League final a year later. It could have been worse...
Ah, it was worse the year before. I know the other side, too. Relegation with Hertha BSC in 2009/10 hit me hard. Winning the title with BVB the next year in my first season was certainly a highlight of my career from an emotional point of view.
Did you ever think about staying in Germany after your career? Like Dedé, who didn't go back to Brazil? Neven Subotic still lives in Dortmund and is looking forward to having fun and hitting long balls somewhere in the local leagues after his professional career. The two of you could form a nice defensive duo once again.
Well if Neven wants to hit long balls, then we wouldn't fit into the same team. No, all jokes aside, my wife and I decided long ago to return to Poland. That's where our family lives, that's where my home team is and it's where I built my academy. We have about 60 kids from the region in four year groups from the U8s to the U12s. We want to gradually build up to the U18s, and the boys can come from all over Poland if they are good enough.
Interview: Sven Goldmann