Why I love... Lukas Podolski
When Lukas Podolski signed for Arsenal, a German friend told me that back home he was known for being… shall we say… not the brightest.
The best they could offer was a phrase that translated as “farmer smart”.
However, when you look at his social media, the opposite appears to be true.
Podolski scores highly in IQ and EQ.
In fact, the striker has skillfully used various platforms to leverage his profile and illustrate the warmth of his personality to such an extent that when Podolski opened a kebab shop in his hometown of Cologne, over 1,000 fans turned up with many waiting hours in the queue to meet their hero.
Of course, the 32-year-old had a mighty megaphone through which to shout. When he retired from international football last year, Poldi had amassed 130 caps (the 3rd highest tally for Germany) and 49 goals (fourth highest). He had played for his country when they hosted the World Cup in 2006 and won it in 2014.
He was a hero during a couple of spells in Cologne then there were stints at major clubs like Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Galatasaray before he moved to Vissel Kobe in Japan in 2017. He is starting this season as captain.
However, there is something special about the way Podolski has always approached his career and his supporters, latterly via social media. The earliest indication was this song, which really should have been adopted at Emirates Stadium. I did make tentative enquires to bring over the singers to do an English version but it was not feasible.
Then there were these pieces in which Podolski embraced the culture of London. He tweeted this black cab tour around as it was shot. It trended that afternoon with a national newspaper turning his selfies and quotes into a double page spread the next day.
Podolski has continued this trend wherever he has been, whether it is drinking Turkish tea by the Tiber or braving the crazy Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.
This is hardly unprecedented, sportsman post pictures whenever they go. However, Podolski is an optimistic, people-person, with a sharp eye for trends and manages to convey warmth in his social media.
Yes, Podolski had a stellar international career but his club life met hurdles. He came to Arsenal unfairly saddled with the reputation that he “could not handle a big club” after a difficult few seasons at Bayern Munich. Returning to be a big fish in the smaller, very familiar pool of Cologne made him easy to paint as a “home-boy”. His spell at Arsenal turned out to be disappointing too. At Galatasaray, he was a regular but the team was never on a high.
So you could argue that the peak of Podolski’s club career were the two spells at Cologne 2003-6 and 2009-12. For whatever reason, he never dove-tailed big performances with a big club and his best periods were five years ago, in the dog-years of social media that feels like the 1980s.
So to see him registering almost 15m on social media (7.7m Facebook, 3.3m Instagram and Twitter 3.7m) can only count as overperformance.
But then Podolski knows how to connect with fans without sucking up. He has aligned himself with Cologne and Arsenal by continually remembering their derbies on social media. (When the two played each other in the Europa League this year, he posted cartoons of himself in a half-and-half shirt.)
Again, many do this so nothing unique, but Poldi can post pictures of himself deep in the bosom of the supporters of each team. He celebrated standing amid the fans when Arsenal won at Tottenham in 2014. After his international retirement game against England, which he capped with a winner from 25 yards out in the final minutes, he stayed out taking selfies with supporters long after his team-mates had headed to the dressing room. Then, still in his kit, he interrupted a live pitchside television broadcast.
This is his secret – relentless fun, relentless communication and he genuinely enjoys it.
Poldolski’s connection with the fans is real, social media is just the conduit. That is what makes it work. If he did not back it up, his streaming would be vilified for posing and pandering. However, Podolski has the skill of a striker and the heart of a fan.
During the early days of social media, when players who just started to connect with Chinese fans via Weibo, he was known to use Google Translate to convert his posts; copying and pasting then trusting the translation to make sense.
When Arsenal were in Japan on tour, he gleefully dressed as a Samurai warrior for a video shoot and then gatecrashed other players’ activities with Per Mertesacker as his accomplice.
It was on this tour that “A-ha” was born. Not the Norwegian pop band from the 80s, nor the Alan Partridge greeting but a phrase Podolski uttered at every possible opportunity. As a hello, a goodbye or anything else, Yet again, with relentless playfulness, fellow players and fans joined in, then, back in England, he used the phrase on merchandise that he sold on his Strassenkicker site with the proceeds going to his foundation.
Yet again, I hasten to add that there is nothing spectacular about Podolski’s posts. Lots of smiling pictures of him in glamorous locations, lots of kids, lots of fun. Captions are kept a minimum and are sprinkled with emojis. The days of homemade translations are long since over, he appears to have help professional help with some cartoons, graphics and videos. It is slick and professional but not over-egged. It is not all Podolski's work but it reflects him perfectly.
The keys are that:
a) he keeps going - day-in, day-out
b) he keeps showing his personality - win, lose or draw
c) he keeps backing up his social media persona in real life
And he does it all naturally and authentically.
That makes him a bit more than farmer smart, eh!