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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Champions League: Borussia Dortmund Shows Anything Is Possible


Borussia Dortmund’s squad contains a host of viable case studies to illustrate its patchwork nature, but as captain — the man honored with leading out the unlikeliest Champions League finalist in 20 years at Wembley on Saturday — Emre Can may be the most compelling.

Not quite five years ago, while he was on international duty with Germany, Can’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was an executive with Juventus, the Italian team he had joined the previous season. They had what might be described as a curt conversation, though either one of those words might be pushing it.

The Juventus official had bad news and good news. The bad news was that the club’s manager, Maurizio Sarri, had left Can out of his squad list for the Champions League, meaning he would not be eligible to play in Europe’s elite competition that season. The good news? At least he could expect a few nights off. (He probably did not say this.)

Can did not, it is fair to say, take it well. “I am furious,” he said, when news of his exclusion became public. He had turned down the chance to leave Juventus because he believed he would play in the Champions League, he said. And now he had been told he would not, in a “phone call that did not even last a minute.”

That conversation signaled the end of Can’s time in Italy — within a few months, he had joined Dortmund, initially on loan — but seemed to mark a more significant watershed. Can had already been allowed to leave Liverpool as Jürgen Klopp’s revolution there had gathered steam. Now he had been deemed dead weight in Italy, too.

The message was clear. Can — at the ripe old age of 25 — had been judged and weighed by soccer’s elite, and found wanting.

He might, then, be forgiven for taking some considerable personal satisfaction at how he will be spending this weekend. Now 30, Can has been a central figure in Dortmund’s improbable run to the Champions League final, acting as a redoubtable presence in midfield, an occasional reinforcement in defense, and a composed, charismatic leader.

There are plenty of stories like that in the band of waifs and strays that have swept Dortmund to Wembley: Julian Ryerson, the Norwegian right back plucked from the relative obscurity of Union Berlin in the middle of an injury crisis; Niclas Füllkrug, the late-blooming, hard-running forward who has suddenly and unexpectedly risen to prominence; Jadon Sancho, a refugee from Manchester United offered sanctuary in Germany.

This is not the Borussia Dortmund of the popular imagination, a squad fired by one or two of the brightest prospects in European soccer — an Erling Haaland, a Jude Bellingham, a young Robert Lewandowski. This is a team of the dismissed and the discarded, the over-the-hill and the under-the-radar.

For the first time in a decade, maybe more, Dortmund is not home to a side that is waiting to be picked apart by the game’s apex predators. Perhaps its best player on the run to the final has been Mats Hummels, who is now in the outspoken-veteran phase of his career. One of its most salable assets, the energetic left back Ian Maatsen, is actually on loan from Chelsea.

That less-than-elite status has been made clear by the team’s form in the Bundesliga, where it finished a bitterly disappointing fifth, 27 points adrift of an admittedly exceptional Bayer Leverkusen, and — more damning, perhaps — nine short of a Bayern Munich team enduring its worst season in a generation.

Dortmund was beaten home and away by RB Leipzig and by Stuttgart. It failed to win either of its two games against newly promoted Heidenheim, one of the smallest clubs ever to grace Germany’s top division. Hummels acknowledged this week that he had been so infuriated by the team’s performances that he had, at least once, made his complaints clear to the club’s coach, Edin Terzic.

None of this, of course, indicated that Dortmund’s season might conclude with a chance at winning the biggest honor in European soccer.

Unlikely Champions League finalists do come along occasionally. Few thought Chelsea would make it in 2021, barely six months into Thomas Tuchel’s excavation project, or that Tottenham would do so in 2019, when Mauricio Pochettino’s team was already passing its peak.

The closest parallels to this Dortmund, though, require gazing further back: to Liverpool in 2005, when Rafael Benítez guided a team containing the delights of Djimi Traoré and John Arne Riise to victory; or to Monaco, a beaten finalist the previous year, under the tutelage of Didier Deschamps and reliant on the goals of Fernando Morientes.

While that is a welcome reminder that soccer is elusive and chimerical and on some level really quite arbitrary, it might also seem to undermine Saturday’s final as an occasion.

Pitting Real Madrid against the fifth-best side in Germany seems an unlikely way, certainly, to identify the best team in Europe. More than any final this century, it feels like too much of a mismatch to have the epic quality that marks out a Champions League final. There will be those, both at UEFA and at its partner broadcasters, who feel that Paris St.-Germain or Barcelona or even Atlético Madrid might have made a more appetizing prospect.

The sport as a whole, though, should revel in Dortmund’s presence. Not just because it proves, once more, that soccer resists any and all attempts to reduce it to a simple, financial formula. Not just because it offers a reminder that there is more than one way to succeed. Not just because it reinforces the truism that there is no such thing as a bad player, just a player in the wrong context.

More than anything, the sport should revel because what European soccer desperately needs is to believe — in an era of cliff edges and state ownership and an ever-winnowing elite — that anything is possible, that triumph has not been monopolized by the few, that there can still be a day for an underdog.

Those days are, of course, becoming more and more rare. Next season, the Champions League knockout rounds will be seeded in yet another attempt to ensnare more of the spoils for the tiny group of teams who consider this competition their playground, and to ensure that only the biggest and the best can make it all the way.

And yet, on Saturday, five years since he was ostracized at Juventus, Can will lead Borussia Dortmund — the fifth-best team in Germany, the closest thing elite European soccer will get to a ragtag bunch of plucky hopefuls — onto the grass at Wembley for the Champions League final. Anything is possible. And that is something worth cherishing, as well as protecting.

The line between “high-performance entrepreneur” and “lunatic tyrant who appoints a horse as consul” is a little finer than you might expect. It is not altogether impossible, for example, to imagine one of Silicon Valley’s self-appointed philosopher kings declaring Caligula a bold disrupter, a leader unafraid to challenge the human-centric status quo of politics.

This is worth remembering when it comes to the newish regime at Manchester United, given that the petrochemical billionaire Jim Ratcliffe — proud owner of one quarter of the club — and his consigliere Dave Brailsford seem to issue a swingeing diktat once every 72 hours.

Some, like demanding tidy offices, seem reasonable. Others — no more working from home — feel both petty and a touch hypocritical, given Ratcliffe’s own living arrangements. One or two, like this week’s declaration that anyone is free to resign, are sufficiently troubling that you wonder how far we are from work starting on a statue of Ratcliffe’s dog.

It is curious, though, that none of this dynamic urgency seems to apply to the club’s manager, Erik Ten Hag, who has been left to twist in the wind for much of the last six months. There is a case to be made for allowing him a third season. There is a much stronger one to be made for not doing so.

But either way, it is not enormously encouraging that the power brokers at United have not decided yet. From the outside, admittedly, being thorough can look markedly similar to being indecisive. But the perception that United’s supposedly hard-nosed revamp might be altered by the outcome of a single game is damaging in itself.

It looks, after all, like very much the sort of thing the club used to do, a brave new dawn ending with very much the same sun in the sky.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s social media output, if we are all completely honest with ourselves, peaked in 2017, when he asked us — as a species — the most piercing question of all: Have you ever related steel to eco-friendly? Because, you should know, he has. Of course he has. He’s Cristiano Ronaldo. And he has partnered with Egyptian Steel.

Still, even by those not exactly lofty standards, this week was a bad one for Ronaldo. For some basic context: He is 39 years old. He is a millionaire many times over. He is a hero to millions. He is one of the finest athletes ever, and one of the most famous people in sports history.

It is difficult, then, to understand why he feels the need to hawk NFTs, three years on from that particular bubble’s bursting. He now has four collections, apparently. Even by a conservative estimate, that is at least three too many.

In a way, though, that was not the worst of it. Ronaldo is, annoyingly, right to declare that he is the first player in history to become top scorer in four separate national leagues. (The previous best, as far as anyone can tell, is three, shared with Romário and Ruud van Nistelrooy, among others.) He is also right to be proud of it.

But there is an inescapable bathos in the way Ronaldo glorifies these achievements. A kind reading — and we can afford him that — would suggest that he has touched such heights that everything that follows, in the autumn of his career, feels somewhat faded, and a little paltry. He wants us to add them to his legacy to burnish it. He seems blissfully unaware that it has precisely the opposite effect.

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