Things are not going well for Lukas Podolski.
The German World Cup winner made global headlines in March when he agreed to join Vissel Kobe in July, spurning advances from wealthy Chinese clubs to give the J. League its most high-profile signing in years.
Upon arriving in Japan last month, Podolski made the perfect start to his new adventure. A slick video of the 32-year-old folding origami shapes, tending to bonsai trees and practicing kendo — produced by J. League broadcasting rights-holder DAZN — trumpeted his arrival around the world, and Podolski did his part on the pitch by scoring two goals in a debut 3-1 win over Omiya Ardija.
Since then, however, the wheels have started to fall off in alarming fashion. Vissel proceeded to lose their next three games before playing out a 0-0 draw with Yokohama F. Marinos last Sunday, and found time amid the slump to fire manager Nelsinho and replace him with interim boss Takayuki Yoshida.
Podolski’s form, meanwhile, has been abject. The striker has failed to score again since his debut double, has been substituted twice, and did not even manage to muster a single shot against Marinos. Of course it is too much to expect a player who arrived during the European summer to be already up to speed with the J. League season in full swing, but Podolski’s body language has hardly given the impression of a man happy to be here.
According to local media, the former Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Inter Milan man has failed to show up to speak to reporters after each of the three games since his second appearance for Vissel — a 3-1 away defeat to Kashiwa Reysol. Immediately after that game, the duration of which he spent lecturing the referee and haranguing his own teammates, Podolski entered the press area looking anything but the affable, media-friendly figure that appears in the DAZN video.
Stalking toward the waiting pack of reporters, he began by barking at his translator to stand closer before responding to a request for his thoughts on the game by demanding that the reporter be more specific. Podolski then appeared to misunderstand a question from an English reporter, posed in Japanese and then translated into German, asking why he had been so visibly angry and frustrated during the game.
“So you know our bodies?” he replied, breaking into English. “You say we looked nervous, so you know what our bodies feel like?” When informed in English that the reporter had actually said “frustrated” instead of “nervous,” Podolski appeared to misunderstand again, believing that the question referred to his post-game mood.
“Of course I’m frustrated, we lost the game,” he said. “Are you happy when you write a s—- story? Do you expect me to walk through here with a smile on my face?”
Of course no one expects any player to be in a good mood after a defeat, especially someone who has enjoyed as much success in his career as Podolski has. But his tetchy attitude and subsequent media no-shows, combined with his obvious frustration with his teammates on the pitch, do not paint a picture of a player impressed with his new surroundings.
At the age of 32, Podolski could easily still be playing at a higher level than the J. League. His teammates at Vissel include no current internationals and the team is currently 11th in the table, 19 points behind leaders Kashima Antlers.
So is the German beginning to wonder what he has gotten himself into? He is certainly being handsomely rewarded, having signed a 2½-year contract worth an estimated $5.3 million a year. But money is not everything, and Podolski’s competitive spirit is clearly still alive and kicking.
Vissel cannot be faulted for their ambition in signing such a high-quality player, but they will need to make sure that their prize asset is kept happy. The search is on to find a replacement for Nelsinho, and it may take a recognized global name — former Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has been mentioned in reports — to satisfy Podolski’s ambition.
Bringing a player of Podolski’s caliber to the J. League is one thing. Keeping him here may be another.