I try not to think of myself as a sports nut. Really. There is so much else to life, so much else to enjoy — family, friends, music, books, gardening, bicycling, pets, studying history, fishing…. that being absorbed by overpaid athletes, devoting endless hours watching their efforts, reading and writing about them … somehow doesn’t seem ummmm….. productive ?
But reality is what it is. I look at how many sporting events I have recorded on the DVR, most of which I’ll never have time to watch, hmm. I look in my closet, full of jerseys, tee shirts, jackets, and scarves of football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams, hmmm. The top of my desk overflows with at least 30 caps representing teams from all over, including some like the Kansas City Monarchs, that haven’t been in existence for 50 years, hmmmm. I look at my bookshelves and there’s Uli Hesse, Jonathan Wilson, Bill James, Simon Kuper and other literary heroes. Hmmmmm.
Ok, I like sports a little.
And in the recent years, I’ve learned to like the Bundesliga way more than a little. One of the many reasons I enjoy the Bundesliga to such a great degree is the manner in which teams compete, with a more than an occasional penchant for unpredictable drama.
Over the last few weeks there have been three matches involving Bundesliga clubs that can only be characterized by the clichéd term”classic.” Nothing but “classic” can categorize such recent matches as the impossibly exciting 4-4 draw between Dortmund and Stuttgart, Dortmund’s mano y mano showdown victory over the big bad boys from Bavaria, and those same said Bavarians finding salvation in Madrid to advance to the Champions League finals against the iconic Real Madrid squad Wednesday. Classic.
The last twenty minutes of the March 30 Dortmund-Stuttgart fixture were absolutely thrilling. Stuttgart, trying to elbow itself into a Europa League berth for 2012/2013 while battling with fellow EL aspirants Leverkusen, Werder Bremen, Hannover and even Wolfsburg, have suffered a basically inept and chaotic period following their 2006-2007 Bundesliga title. Going down at Signal Iduna Park by a 2-0 score early in the 2nd half on that March Friday to host Dortmund seemed an impossible task to overcome given Dortmund’s lengthy streak of in-form performance. But somehow, from somewhere, Bruno Labbadia’s Swabians drew deep and scored three goals in eight minutes to take a surprising 3-2 lead over their hosts with little more than ten minutes remaining. That in itself would be drama enough, but the champions came back to score two quick goals and retake the lead by the 87th minute, allowing Stuttgart a moral victory but absolutely no points for their efforts.
But this is the Bundesliga. Stuttgart veteran Christian Gentner found a last-gasp ball that eluded two BvB defenders and shot to the far post to end the game as a heart-stopping 4-4 draw. The draw not only demonstrated that Stuttgart could earn a result against a superior team (after building its 2011/2012 record by primarily feasting on the weaker Bundesliga clubs), but gave Bayern München renewed hope that they could deny Dortmund a repeat title by grabbing it for themselves.
That MatchDay 28 result in Dortmund set up the next chapter of our dramatic trilogy. Bayern München came to town trailing Dortmund for their MatchDay 30 encounter trailing BvB by only three points with a greater goal differential. After all, according to recent Bundesliga narrative, Bayern capture the league title ‘every other year’ Bundesliga championship…. and besides, Dortmund would have challenging dates in the next two weeks with Schalke and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Another 80,000 fans packed Signal Iduna Park for this showdown televised around the world. The duel between the contenders remained scoreless for over 75 minutes, when following a corner kick, 23 year-old Dortmund native Kevin Großkreutz booted goalward from outside the penalty area, with Polish teammate Robert Lewandowski putting an ever so slight touch on the ball to elude superstar goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and delight the assembled crowd with a late 1-0 Dortmund lead.
But the Bavarians haven’t established themselves as the dominant Bundesliga club by simply surrendering to fate. Almost ten minutes later, Dutchman Arjen Robben broke deep into the box from a Franck Ribery pass only to be upended by Roman Weidenfeller. Penalty !!! Up to the spot strode the prolific Robben, but his left-footed equalizing attempt lacked power and pace and was easily smothered by Weidenfeller to preserve the win for the team clad in yellow. Bayern München saw Dortmund’s lead rise to six points, and two weeks later BvB were celebrating their second consecutive Bundesliga title, the first time any team but Bayern München had accomplished such a feat since Dortmund did it themselves between 1994-1996.
Poor Bayern München, poor Arjen Robben, poor Jupp Heynckes.
Bayern München did find some bit of redemption when they defeated Real Madrid in their 1st leg clash at the Allianz Arena. But going into Wednesday’s 2nd leg at the Bernabéu, even with a 2-1 aggregate lead, didn’t seem to shake many Bayern/Bundesliga fans out of their ongoing pessimism so diametrically opposed to the ever-optimistic approach of the British. (“We Germans can’t win this _____ because our ____ is too weak and our players don’t know how to win the big matches…” as opposed to “We’re British and we’re going to win this _______ , by God, because we’re British and we bloody well invented this sport).”
So many looked ahead to the 2nd leg with Real Madrid as disappointment waiting to happen, and those opinions weren’t altered as CR7 quickly eliminated Bayern’s advantage with a penalty kick following an unfortunate David Alaba handball. By the 15 minute mark any lingering hopes vanished as wide open CR7 notched his second goal to give the aggregate lead 3-2.
But Heynckes’ charges continued to play on with poise and an undiminished spirit of attack, and though continually rebuffed in their scoring chances, earned a penalty kick when Pepe took down a charging Mario Gomez in the box. Penalty !!! And who stepped up to take it? Arjen Robben.
I shuddered as I almost feared to witness what happened next. Robben, the seeming prima donna, whose penalty miss against Dortmund just two weeks before seemed like karmic justice for his constant badgering of game officials every time he falls to earth. Robben, the Dutch international who will oppose the German national team in Euro 2012 group play. Robben the former Madrista. Robben, the despoiler of Bayern’s treble dreams.
But I forced myself to watch, and behold, the prodigal son was welcomed home as Robben beat Iker Casillas to put Bayern back level on aggregate with Madrid. Ninety more minutes of football went by with no trespass of either team’s goal, and the game went to penalties. Superman Manuel Neuer, complete with that ‘aw-schucks” look about him, saved Madrid’s first two attempts. Casillas later did the same for Madrid, and after Sergio Ramos sailed his shot, Bayern stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger soiled Los Merengues wondrous campaign by blasting his attempt into the Madrid net, advancing Bayern München to the May 19th Champions League final, the first to be held in München.
In less than a month’s time, German clubs provided the high drama that we as sports fans savor with three extraordinary matches. That is one factor in the joy of being a Bundesliga fan. We’ll examine other factors at a later date.