As Phillip Lahm held aloft the Champions League trophy on the narrow Wembley balcony, the cameras panned, just for a second, to a shot of Robert Lewandowski. The Pole stood alone in the middle of the field, hand on hips, licking his lips, a rueful grimace etched across his face. For a second he watched Bayern’s joyous parade, but soon enough he turned away, shaking his head to look steadfastly into the ground. A conclusion was easily derived; you could see that no matter where Lewandowski will end up next season, he really wanted to win this trophy for and with Borussia Dortmund.
There is a charm associated with this Dortmund side that makes them so difficult to not support. More luminous authors have dedicated more than necessary column inches to the stardust that makes Dortmund sparkle; their blue-collar support, their industrial roots, their fan-based mentality, their cheap tickets, full houses and their awesome Yellow Wall.
All that is good and great, but what truly makes Dortmund so special, so unique, so wondrous is the football they play, and for all of Jurgen Klopp’s charms, it is his ability to make his side translate his football ideas onto the pitch that makes him so much of a hot commodity in football. Klopp can charm the best of them, but it is football ideals that evoke the most feelings.
The Champions League is not shorn of underdog stories. In recent memory alone, Monaco reached the final where they lost out to an equally unfancied Porto. Villarreal fell agonizingly short of a Champions League final, and even this season’s Malaga’s unpaid stars were close to their own underdog story. But none of those sides managed what Dortmund did – to impose a style of football on the competition that will linger long after this side falls prey to the vultures.
I remember distinctly the first time I realized that this Dortmund side were quite good, and might be a force to contend with. It was a pre-season friendly before the 2010 season when a newly-recruited Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze et al put to sword a Manchester City side bloated with talent.
There was a palpable thrill at watching these talented not-yet-famous players pull off lightning transitions in narrow spaces, exchanging passes, moving swiftly and closing down opposition like there really was no tomorrow. On that day and many to follow, Dortmund pressed almost like Barcelona in disguise but unlike the Spaniards, there was no tiki-taka to take the edge off, no short needless passes to hold on to the ball and conserve energy or lull the opposition into a false sense of security. Dortmund played flat-out hardcore football; quick, fast, direct, like a dagger sent straight to the heart. It was foolish, untenable, and unsustainable, but it was also exhilarating and beautiful. It was football for the soul.
The birth of the gegenpress bought with it just, but barely believable, rewards. Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 10/11 and just for good measure to prove the doubters wrong they won it again in 11/12. They were the real deal, here to stay, a long yearned for second force in Bundesliga football.
But while Germany was charmed, and Bayern appalled, successive failures in the Europa League and the Champions League meant that Europe was still circumspect.
Not anymore. In a season where they beat Manchester City, Real Madrid, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk and Malaga, Dortmund went toe to toe with the best the world had to offer and beat them playing their slightly tweaked version of the style that had bought them so much success. “There is no defence,” as Klopp once said, “to things done fast and accurately.”
There really isn’t and unfortunately for Klopp, Bayern Munich realized it too.
Licking wounds of two barren years, Bayern took advantage of the lack of IP rights in football to chart a way from their heartbreak in 2012. And Dortmund proved the easiest copy-able reference. In came the gegenpress to add another layer to Bayern’s own burgeoning passing game. Add a couple of ‘bulls-eye’ transfer deals and the result was a season of barely believable proportions. Bayern played as if winning the Champions League was their destiny and in the end joined a select pantheon of clubs with five or more European Cups.
And while he may not admit it publicly, after a few drinks, Jupp Heynckes will be sure to raise a glass to Klopp for paving the way with his imposing brand of football.
For Dortmund, as Klopp put it, “everything was great, just the result was shit.” And it truly was. None at Wembley could have held it against Klopp if it had been his side holding aloft the trophy. But it wasn’t and that brings with it a fear that this is it for the side from the Ruhr. A once in a generation chance spurned by the casual flick of a balding Dutchman’s left boot.
But this does not have to be the end. Mario Götze will be gone, and maybe even Lewandowski but even yesterday, Klopp was already looking forward — to 2014 and even to 2015 when the final will be held in Berlin. There will be players to buy, players to sell but Klopp’s devotion to his ideals will see Dortmund come back again — maybe even stronger.
Dortmund may not have won the Champions League this time, but had it not been for their ideals, neither probably, would have Bayern Munich.
Header photo courtesy of dpa.