July 24, 2017

Beautiful symmetry to Bayern’s triumph

Less than an hour before the start of yesterday’s final, a friend of mine posted an interesting photo snippet on my Facebook wall. The photograph highlighted a rather methodically put together piece of information that bought to attention the somewhat startling symmetry in results between 1997 and 2013.

1997 was, of course the last, and so far, only time that Borussia Dortmund had lifted the Champions League.It turns out, that in that season too, Bayern had won the Bundesliga, while Juventus, Porto, and Manchester United had also claimed their respective domestic leagues. But while this is not really much of a coincidence, what followed certainly was. VfB Stuttgart had won the German Cup, Dusseldorf had been relegated and what’s more, Dortmund had won the last two Bundesliga titles back-to-back. And oh, I almost forgot, a Leverkusen striker had finished atop the scoring charts in the Bundesliga.

Now, even the most casual observers will realize that these are all things that have happened (with the exception of Stuttgart) in 2012/13 too, with the only difference being that Stefan Kiessling has usurped Ulf Kirsten as the Leverkusen striker of choice. So having presented this unsettling bit of information, the photo ended with the somewhat predictable yet cryptic rhetoric – fate versus destiny, which will prevail?

Now, like most rational people I tend not to put much faith in the view that a certain alignment of stars has anything to do with results of a football match. Coincidences are often just that, coincidences. Nice little quirks that help our brains seek order amongst the darkness of randomness. But I had to admit that this somewhat eerie symmetry had me stumped to the extent that all I managed as riposte to the post was the rather meek “Stuttgart haven’t won the DFB Pokal yet.”

And thus it kept gnawing at the back of my mind as I watched one of the best finals in recent memory unfold before me.

Bayern are almost regulars at this stage, but such is the casual insouciance and fearlessness of this Dortmund team that they came out all guns blazing, pressing Bayern back into their own half and rendering a player as classy as Bastian Schweinsteiger almost moot. With the silken İlkay Gündoğan pulling the strings and the quicksilver Marco Reus wrecking havoc with his direct running, Robert Lewandowski proved to be the most dangerous player in the opening stages. A goal looked forthcoming and for a while, the feeling of fate was threatening to overwhelm me. Could it be third time unlucky for Bayern? Is there actually currency to these views after all? I recalled of how Italy win World Cups after every 24 years and for a while I wavered, ever so slightly.

But Bayern found their way back, never as convincingly as they do against most opponents, but enough to land a few blows of their own. Arjen Robben was set through on goal found Roman Weidenfeller big and strong. And set through again, he could only boot it into the goalkeepers face. Would Robben too be consigned to being ever a bridesmaid and never a bride?

Half-time team talks were all about how the Dutchman has never made a difference when it mattered and I was suddenly reminded of Jana Novtna, the famous Czech serve and volleyer who wept on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent after failing to win Wimbledon again and again. Would it be tears again for Robben? He had blown similar opportunities last year against Chelsea and perhaps more famously in the World Cup final against Spain and Iker Casillas. Did Robben lack the mythical clutch gene as many pseudo pundits kept harping on about?

But destiny still had a few tricks up it’s sleeve and Bayern slowly began to impose themselves on the game. Schweinsteiger found his range as a snarling Javi Martinez provided ample support. Franck Ribery, petulant till now, found room more often as Dortmund’s manic pressing and closing down of space finally yet inevitably relented. Suddenly he found room on the left, drew three and played in Robben again. This time the Dutchman squared and Mario Mandžukić prodded home.

But Dortmund came back as they are almost hard-wired to do. Reus, ever a threat, drew a penalty from a clumsy Dante challenge. Gündoğan  stepped forward and belied his youthful years with a poised finish. Low into the opposite corner of a diving Neuer, and the doubts were back again.

I exhaled. This was not going to be easy. Fate doesn’t simply bow down and die now does it?

Perhaps not, but this time it did, and that too fittingly, to Robben. The route was agricultural but Neuer’s long punt was touched on by Ribery and suddenly Robben was through, dancing past the challenges of both Mats Hummels and the die-hard Neven Subotic. In front of him, there was a thousand possibilities, many wrong, most right, but Robben, bless fate, chose the most emphatically correct one. “My first choice was actually to go past him on the left side,” he would say later. “…but then he made a move and I could put it on the other side. He was on the wrong leg,” finished Robben. The Dutchman’s finish was a casual, almost dismissive poke with the instep of his left foot and all the ghosts and doubts disappeared once and for all. The tears that flowed told the whole story. And I suddenly remembered that Novotna had also won Wimbledon — the fourth time.

I ended the game with my faith restored too, because it is hard to begrudge Bayern this win. They have been exemplary, nay, phenomenal this season and the generation of Philipp Lahm and Schweinsteiger deserved to crown themselves as champions of Europe, at least the once. As did Jupp Heynckes, and Ribery and Robben and Muller. The list goes on.

So I guess that’s it for symmetries and fate, eh? Not quite.

Ever since January, there has been a sense of Bayern hurtling irrefutably towards their destiny, not unlike in 2001 when an altogether different Bayern side set about to claim a trophy they rightly believed to be theirs. Twelve years and two days ago, captain Stefan Effenberg lifted the trophy with the big ears into a balmy Milan sky and exorcised the painful ghosts of Camp Nou in 1999. And as fate would have it, on Saturday, captain Philipp Lahm held aloft the same trophy on the balcony of London’s iconic Wembley Stadium to right the wrongs of what had happened in Munich 2012.

Now who wants to tell me there isn’t a poetic symmetry to that?

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Quazi Zulquarnain

There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only popular opinion. Follow me on twitter @nondeplume

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