DOHA, Qatar -- Robert Lewandowski cradled the neck of Kylian Mbappé, whose face was bowed as if to let the Poland veteran kiss the top of his head.
It was a fatherly gesture from the 34-year-old FIFA world player of the year to the 23-year-old France superstar who is now on the fast track to winning the next award.
Lewandowski smiled when approaching Mbappé after the final whistle Sunday, embracing him with a warm hug even though the young man's two goals had helped end his World Cup in a 3-1 loss that sent France to the quarterfinals.
Several minutes later, Lewandowski lingered as the last player left on the field, applauding Poland fans in the corner and the team’s families and friends in the main stand.
It sure looked like a slow walk away from a last World Cup for Lewandowski, who will be two months short of his 38th birthday when the 2026 tournament starts in North America.
“It’s tough to say now,” said the father of two daughters who last month left home to prepare for the tournament in Qatar and posted a photo on social media hugging them with the message “goodbyes are never easy.”
“Physically I’m not afraid about this,” Lewandowski said about staying in top shape until 2026, “but you have so many different things outside football that decide that your happiness is still there.”
If this was a farewell, then his final act on the World Cup stage was truly curious for a man admired for playing and respecting the game the right way.
Lewandowski converted a penalty kick in the ninth minute of stoppage time — as close to garbage time as it gets at soccer’s biggest event — but he infuriated the French fans at the fast-emptying Al Thumama Stadium by the manner in which he took it.
Trailing 3-0 and stepping up to the spot for essentially the last kick of the match, Lewandowski indulged in a stop-start, stutter-step run to trick France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris into moving too soon. The veteran keeper was a full step off his line when he saved a weak kick as Lewandowski turned away, hands on hips.
The referee, however, ordered a re-take because Lloris moved too far away from the line, and Lewandowski stuttered toward the ball again. Lloris dived left, but this time the ball nestled in the other corner of the net.
French fans jeered as Lewandowski jumped up in a quick and muted celebration.
A second career World Cup goal clearly mattered to a soccer great who had an earlier penalty saved in a 0-0 draw with Mexico 12 days ago. He cried after finally scoring at the World Cup last weekend against Saudi Arabia.
Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz acknowledged it could be tough for his captain, who does not get the same supply of passes he enjoyed in a prolific club career with Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and now Barcelona.
“We have some limitations,” Michniewicz said through a translator. “I think Robert is in a difficult situation but it doesn’t mean he’s not going to score for the national team.
“The way he is playing I think he’s going to be a captain for several years.”
Staying on for a 2024 European Championship in Germany, where Lewandowski lived and played for 12 years, seems likely.
Another World Cup? Less so.
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