And Lo, the Prodigal Götze Returns

Mario Götze became the original sin iIn the decade plus of immense success following Borussia Dortmund’s near bankrupcy disaster in 2004. For BVB, Götze’s transfer ushered in the current angst about seller-club status to the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and the Manchester clubs.

How did this happen? Let’s go back a few years and recreate the thrill of those heady days.

The Jürgen Klopp-led swarm of gegen-pressing diSchwarzgelb had just won back-to-back Bundesliga titles (2010-11 and 2011-12), plus the DFB Pokal in 2012. During the exhilarating 2012-13 season, BVB stormed through the Champions League, while playing second violin to a vengeful Bayern in the Bundesliga. Sure, both Nuri Sahin (to Real Madrid) and Shinji Kagawa (to Manchester United), arguably BVB’s most valuable players during the title runs, transferred out in successive seasons, but Klopp’s boys marched on, as emerging superstars like Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, Mats Hummels, and the “once-in-a-generation” talent Mario Götze took Dortmund to the Champions League final in Wembley against Bayern.

Then it happened. The Götze transfer.

To Bayern.

For the likes of Ruhr-native Christoph Biermann, the news was of the sort that made you remember where you were when you first heard it. In fact, the Götze transfer eventually catalyzed Biermann to write a book about this traumatic transfer and a larger quest for the meaning of football.

As for myself, I too was shocked, simply because I thought that not even the question of Götze transferring would come up for another season or two. I jokingly kept a “The Götze Watch” page on my personal blog. I was upset, but probably not as much as Biermann and the BVB supporters who made their anger very clear after the news was announced.

Ouch. And piss off, Mario.
Ouch. And piss off, Mario.

Contrasted with the Sahin and Kagawa transfers, the Super Mario transfer triggered the deepest emotional waters in BVBers. You see, Götze was the German promised one. Or to use the tired moniker, the Messi of Germany. Mario was tracked to be a Nationalmannschaft superstar.

Additionally, despite his Bavarian roots, Götze was the BVB academy jewel, owing and professing everything to die Schwarzgelb. Of course the previous big transfer, Sahin, was also a BVB academy graduate, but (and this is crucial) he played internationally for Turkey. As for the other major transfer, Kagawa, he played for Japan internationally. Big losses, yes, but not symbolic losses.

Götze, by contrast, was Dortmund-bred and German all the way through. He was also young (21 years old) with all his “peak years” ahead. His transfer hurt like hell. Actually, stung like hell. Indeed, Götze’s transfer hurt in a such a manner that, surely, it changed something fundamental about the newly successful BVB in the club’s post-bankruptcy days.

Hence, Götze as the original sin.

His transfer marked a significant change in the Dortmund narrative and sparked the Bayern-BVB arms race, in which the Ruhr club is always behind. In the following seasons, we all know what happened: Lewandowski transfered, then the landslide of transfers (Hummels, Mkhitaryan, and Gündogan) this season. Even Kevin Großkreutz transferred. Meanwhile, the hobbled Marco “fürs Leben” Reus became the new symbol of Echte Liebe with his contract extension. And Bayern rampaged through four straight Bundesliga titles.

For many of us BVBers, it all began with the Götze transfer: our best players are always already bound elsewhere, no matter their roots, tweets, quotes, or kissing of the badge. (Coughcoughcough, Mats Hummels.)

Oh, and did I mention that after his transfer to Bayern, Götze scored the WORLD CUP WINNING goal a year later? But wait, it gets worse, according to writers like Lee Price and Raphael Honigstein, Götze’s winning goal is directly a product of Dortmund’s academy and especially its famed Footbonaut machine.

However, at first my emotions about Götze’s transfer were mixed. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be both wholly gutted over Götze and wholly jubilant about BVB’s Lewandowski-led run to the Champions League final! Ich jubelte!

Götze-triggered sadness really began setting in during the final itself, especially the shot of Götze awkwardly watching from the stands.

Quo Vadis, lil Mario?
Quo Vadis, lil Mario?

And, boy, did it all sink in after the final concluded.

The 2013-14 season obscured the new reality, as BVB (again) finished second to Bayern in the Bundesliga, made a deepish UCL run, and lost to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern in the Pokal final. Then the inevitable Lewandowski transfer happened, BVB hit table cellar in December (relegation scare!), and Klopp was out by May.

So here we are.

Have I set up enough context for you?

Ironically, as Götze floundered at Bayern and with the National team, the significance of his transfer became less about the man himself and more about the shift in BVB’s Bundesliga and European status. Well, to be precise, it was more like the promise of lofty status dangled by back-to-back domestic titles and a cup win. The man who started it all almost became irrelevant.

Moreover, BVB’s status shift isn’t really significant in wins/losses/draws and transfer budgets sort of way. Rather, it’s significant in deeper cultural sort of way. I’ll explain. When teaching my “Sports and the Meaning Life” course, I take pains to argue that Sport is a central human cultural experience, akin to arts like dance, music, film, literature, painting, sculpture, etc. For example, my students learn to link our spectator experiences to the vocabulary of aesthetics from a chapter in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s Fascinations: in Praise of Athletic Beauty. In other words, Sport can nourish our sense of stuff like truth, beauty, power, greatness, weakness, justice, love, etc. as fully as any other cultural field.

Yet films, poems, performances, or painting don’t transfer to other teams, especially to Bayern Munich. But in sport, the object of your emotional attachments can change. Then change again. And again.

Some might suggest that in these changing narratives, sports more closely resembles business. However, I’d argue that, rather than diminishing the role of sport as a cultural field, these changes deepen sport’s role. How? Because we get the richest meaning from following sports when our emotional attachments are anchored permanently through the ups and downs, as the narratives changes. As a significant cultural field, Sport is unique in that it’s alive. Sport narratives literally don’t end, being unspooled each season. In this sense, sporting narratives are our most compelling collective stories.

Perhaps I’ll overextend myself now, but doesn’t supporting a side teach us something about love as we hang on – through each unresolved season? Or might it teach us something about unconditionality itself? A sort of training ground for our human relationships?

Which brings us back to Mario Götze and his transfer that started it all.

A standard reaction to Götze’s transfer was to curse “Modern Football,” lament absent loyalty, bemoan footballers’ (justifiable) professional ambitions, and just flat out hate f-ing Bayern Munich. Additionally, others and myself took Schadenfreude in Götze’s subsequent struggles at Bayern, which fueled moralizing about pursuing success and mammon being the root of all evil.

Sure, these reactions were and are valid and, to a certain extent, they animate others’ and my own love for Borussia Dortmund. But I must also contextualize them and ultimately appreciate them as aids in journeying through a narrative with a football club. What I’m trying to say it that I owe something to Götze and his transfer. And, in another sense, I can’t really blame Götze for his role as a cog in the machinery of Modern Football with the attendant expectations, pressures, and realities it thrusts upon footballers. After all, does an elite modern athlete, like Mario Götze, really and truly have any naked agency of his own arc as a player? I acknowledge that there are strong opposing arguments to raise here, but I’m just explaining what I came to understand through the Götze transfer saga.

However, what I gained was learning to love, to really love, a club through change. Although the players themselves are a Heraclitean river of flux thanks to professionalization and transfers, the club itself isn’t. Besides, it isn’t like BVBers have had to suffer like Newcastle supporters or anything; I mean, playing second violin to Bayern isn’t that bad.

So when I saw the initial Bild report linking Götze with a BVB return, I simply smiled at the narrative simplicity of it all. Prodigal son. Coming home again. Returns and all. Ah, yes.

In a later article on the Bundesliga Fanatic, I’ll get into the footballing nuts and bolts of Götze’s return, and BVB’s immensely busy transfer season in general, but right now I’m all about the story.

At the beginning of this article, I evoked a metaphor involving “sin,” so why not fill it out? If there’s sin, then there’s redemption, which itself involves new narrative territory. A nice little redemption tale is in our hands. Götze is back. What will he offer us? Boy, I can’t wait to find out.

Nevertheless, it’s simply time to say: “Welcome back, Mario.”

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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