Dortmund, Bayern Munich and the Chance of a Lifetime

The requests had started to flow almost as soon as the final whistle blew last Sunday. All through Monday, they came in great torrents to members of the Borussia Dortmund staff, to the club’s executives, to the players themselves. They came from family, of course, and from friends, and from friends of friends, and acquaintances and colleagues and that guy you met in that restaurant.

Pretty quickly, Dortmund officials realized the club had to do something or, in a week where nothing is quite so precious as serenity, the situation risked spiraling into a source of stress. The team called the players together and advised them to get all their ticket requests in by the end of Tuesday, and allow the executives to take care of everything from there. After that, nobody else would be able to come to the place where everyone wants to be.

That knowledge, they hoped, would allow the players to focus on the task at hand. Officially, there will be 81,365 people inside Signal Iduna Park on Saturday to watch Dortmund play Mainz in the final game of the season, but demand has been so high that Sebastian Kehl, Dortmund’s sporting director, was probably only exaggerating a little when he said it could have sold “half a million tickets.”

Those in attendance will cherish the rare, beautiful simplicity of the equation. If Dortmund wins, it will be the champion of Germany for the first time since 2012: The length of the waiting list is reflective of the length of the wait. “There is no better place to celebrate winning something than Dortmund,” Kehl said. He should know: He was a player at the club the last time it claimed the title.

Dortmund’s triumph, though, would not just be a cause of jubilation in the city itself. No team other than Bayern Munich has lifted the German championship in the past decade; every spring since Dortmund’s last win, the title has headed without fail to Allianz Arena. With a few notable exceptions — Schalke, Dortmund’s fierce rival, in particular — German soccer as a whole will toast the breaking of that stranglehold.

“It is not to say anything against Bayern, because they work pretty hard and perhaps they deserved to be champion in the last 10 years,” Kehl said. “But of course it is good for everyone that the competition in our league is still there, and that maybe on Saturday there is a different champion.”

Until relatively recently, this season did not look especially likely to end with that particular conclusion. Dortmund had sold Erling Haaland last summer, a year after losing Jadon Sancho. Once again, the model that had made the club such a financial success — buying bright young talent and selling it at a vast profit — would hold it back on the field.

When the Bundesliga broke for the World Cup in November, Dortmund was adrift in sixth place, and Bayern appeared to be set to overtake Union Berlin and Freiburg — the two improbable early pacesetters — to take its 11th consecutive title. That seeming inevitability would further compound the impression that the Bundesliga had become little more than Bayern’s private fief.

Dortmund improved, markedly, in January and February — winning nine games in a row to move into Bayern’s slipstream — but when the teams met on April 1, Bayern swatted aside its challenger. “The stories were already done,” Kehl said. “That once again it was Bayern Munich that destroyed our dream.”

In the weeks since, the temptation has been to ascribe the drastic swing in the clubs’ fortunes more to Bayern’s missteps than to Dortmund’s merits. Dismissing Julian Nagelsmann and appointing Thomas Tuchel has backfired on Bayern, laying bare the flaws in its squad planning. Civil war, as it tends to do in the face of disappointment, is brewing in Munich.

But to attribute agency to Bayern and Bayern alone ignores the fact that something has changed in Dortmund, too. It has, for the last 10 years, generally been Bayern’s closest contender, its successor-in-waiting, the team that would benefit from any slip-up. The difference this year is not that Bayern has erred — it has done that every so often over the past decade — but that Dortmund has been able to take advantage.

Manager Edin Terzic deserves credit for that, of course, and so do his players. “If you’d seen the coach after the game in Munich, or the squad, you would know that we still believed we could win it,” Kehl said.

But it is testament, too, to a slight change in focus in Dortmund’s approach. The club invested not only in promise last summer, as it always does, but in the likes of Sébastian Haller, Niklas Süle and Salih Ozcan, too — players with just a little more experience, a touch more grit, veterans who saw the club not as a showroom but as the ultimate stage.

It is that blend that has enabled Dortmund to stay the course, to cling on and now to take advantage. It is that blend that, in Kehl’s eyes, will kick-start a virtuous circle. Dortmund will sell again this summer — not least Jude Bellingham, the most coveted player in Europe — but the proposition it can offer to reinforcements and replacements is now more convincing than ever.

“It shows that we do not just develop players, produce high potential, but we can also win trophies,” Kehl said. “We want to be ambitious, but at some point you have to deliver. The capacity to win titles is massively important for me as a sporting director, to bring players to Dortmund, to convince their families, their agents, the players themselves.”

That, in turn, will allow Dortmund to keep Bayern within its sights. “I am optimistic that we can now be much closer,” Kehl said. “That Bayern will not be so clearly champion all the time.”

And that, of course, would be something for everyone to celebrate, not just those fortunate enough to have tickets for Signal Iduna Park on Saturday. Dortmund would not be the only unexpected champion in Europe this season: Napoli ended a 33-year wait for a title in Italy. Feyenoord swept past Ajax (and PSV Eindhoven) to win the league in the Netherlands.

Both of those titles were greeted with a fervor, a euphoria that seeing another trophy added to an ever-growing pile could not possibly match. Dortmund, come Saturday evening, hopes to be in a position to do the same. Everyone wants to be there, to be part of the celebrations, because they know, deep down, that these things do not happen every day.

Carlo Ancelotti did all the right things in the moment, and then, in its aftermath. He said all the right things, too. All, that is, except the one that might actually have made a difference.

After 70 minutes of Real Madrid’s defeat in Valencia last week, Vinícius Júnior — certainly Real Madrid’s best player, and quite possibly the finest talent in La Liga — approached the referee and pointed out a handful of the members of the home crowd who were clearly and audibly racially abusing him, and had been for some time.

The referee, as dictated by Spanish soccer’s antiracism protocols, ordered an announcement to be made to the crowd, warning that the game would be terminated if the abuse continued. Ancelotti, an astute, caring and principled sort of a coach, asked Vinícius if he felt he could continue.

The Brazilian said he did. The game duly resumed, though only as a prelude to what came afterward. Real Madrid described the abuse, correctly, as a hate crime. Vinícius, clearly at his limit, having faced this kind of invective repeatedly in recent months, said that “La Liga belongs to racists.” His teammates, like his coach, offered him their resolute support. Javier Tebas, the league’s president, for some reason chose to pick a fight with Vinícius on social media, before hurriedly backtracking.

The whole episode raises countless questions, though at least some of them have obvious answers. Does Spanish soccer take racism seriously enough? (No.) Are its protocols up to the job? (No.) Is Tebas’s position untenable? (Yes.) Is Valencia’s punishment, in the form of a moderate fine and a partial stadium closure, sufficient? (Obviously not.)

One question that did not feature quite so much as it should have is why the decision as to whether the game should continue fell on Vinícius. Ancelotti felt the game should have been abandoned. Thibaut Courtois, the Real Madrid goalkeeper, hinted afterward that he was of the same mind. So why didn’t either of them walk off? Or the rest of the team? Or, more powerful still, why didn’t Valencia’s players?

Ancelotti, doubtless, checked in on Vinícius’s state of mind with the best intentions. But he placed Vinícius in an invidious position, too, where his only two choices were to play on — and expose himself to the possibility of more abuse — or walk off, which may well have felt like giving in to the racists.

Ideally, of course, this is a stain on Spanish soccer that the authorities would handle. Clubs and fans would know, in no uncertain terms, that racist abuse would be met with the most severe sanctions: docked points, games forfeited, fixtures voided. Until that happens, sadly, the burden of objection falls on the players. All the players, that is. Not just some of them.

José Mourinho has not gotten better with age. Not in any practical sense, anyway: He is still just as mischievous, just as bombastic, just as provocative now as he was in his halcyon days. He hit 60 earlier this year, and so it is probably fair to assume at this point that he is never going to enter his elder statesman phase.

Perhaps it is nostalgia, then, a yearning for an era when the lines were crisper and clearer than they are now — a time that is both recent and distant — that makes the prospect of Mourinho’s guiding his Roma team to victory in the Europa League next week seem surprisingly appealing.

It helps that it is Roma, of course, a club of considerable scale and sweep but without the trophies to match. It helps, too, that all of these twilight victories for Mourinho feel just a little like hubris: the manager who was so dismissive of anything but the game’s biggest prizes now discovering that, as it turns out, achievement really was relative all along.

A decade ago, Mourinho scoffed at the very notion that he would ever be competing in the Europa League, let alone care about winning it. And yet here we are. He would doubtless have laughed heartily at seeing one of his peers in the Europa Conference League, too. He celebrated picking up that trophy last year by getting an image of it tattooed on his right arm.

Mostly, though, it is that time has softened not Mourinho himself but the perception of him. His recidivist fire-starting, his absolute refusal to mature or mellow in the slightest, now has a charm that it lacked when he was at the game’s peak.

It has the effect, now, of hearing a familiar, forgotten song, and serves as a reminder of lost innocence, youth passed, a memory of the days when the bad guys looked and talked and acted like bad guys, rather than convincing themselves and their fellow travelers that they are, in fact, the plucky heroes of the tale.

A contender for best question ever received by this mailbox, courtesy of Gary Karr. “By dint of some inexplicable rule, you are forced to be a beat writer covering one nation’s professional league,” he wrote, deftly providing me with an opportunity to discuss every journalist’s favorite subject: themselves. “It cannot be the Premier League. What league would provide you, and your readers, with the most interesting stories and games?”

I have spent some time considering this, Gary, and I think the answer is Italy: major teams, iconic stadiums, fallen giants, feisty underdogs, plentiful gelato. But there are cases to be made for Argentina and Brazil — largely for the way the game is threaded into the culture — and, from a different angle, the Netherlands, too. Dutch soccer has always been a sort of laboratory for ideas and approaches. And a nod to Turkey, home of a league that provides endless goals, scandal, crisis and internecine wrangling.

“I have a question that can’t be answered,” Bob Foltman told me, portentously. “How should we measure the quality of a coach? I ask this thinking about Pep Guardiola: I don’t doubt his greatness, but I also can’t dismiss the fact that every place he’s been, he’s had resources that 95 percent of coaches could only dream of.”

This is also an excellent question, and it’s one that I think is not given enough weight in coverage of the sport. I liked Vincent Kompany’s definition, alluded to in our interview with him: Success, for a coach, comes in two forms — making the players better, and outperforming your resources. “If you have the fifth-biggest budget, and you come fourth, you have won,” he told me.

Shawn Donnelly is a reliable interrogator of the game’s major issues, and he is back with what looks suspiciously like vengeance. “Why do referees still scribble down the names of yellow card recipients on the back of the yellow card itself with a small pen or pencil? In 2023, isn’t there a better way? A digital assistant or voice recorder or app or something?”

There are doubtless more technologically sophisticated ways, Shawn, obviously, but there’s a key question here: Would any of them be better? Would any of them actually improve on the effect of writing something down with a tiny pencil? Or would they just be … different?

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