Dortmund live to tell fairytale

Real Madrid nearly pull off miracle but Germans hang on to make final despite their first loss

Written by New York Times | Published:May 2, 2013 12:16 am

In the race to the finish,after two late goals by Real Madrid cast sudden doubt on the presumption that German football is all-powerful in Europe again,one man silently slipped away from the directors’ box at the Santiago Bernabéu.

“For the first time in my life,I had to give up due to heart problems,” Hans-Joachim Watzke,the chief executive of Borussia Dortmund,explained later. “I went to the toilet for the last minutes,locked myself in,covered my ears and looked at my watch. I had all kind of thoughts going through my head.” There is nothing medically wrong with Herr Watzke. At 53,he has played his part in restoring Borussia from financial ruin to the pinnacle of European football,all in the span of a single decade. But he couldn’t watch after Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos scored in the 83rd and 88th minutes to bring Real Madrid within one more goal of eliminating the Germans from the Champions League,the final of which will be played in London later this month.

When the officials indicated that five more minutes would be added beyond the regulation 90,that was when Watzke could watch no longer. “It seems,” he said,“like we only can do things with drama.”

He can be thankful that Dortmund’s dramatists happen to be particularly youthful,and strong in heart and mind. For that,in the end,was what carried the team through in a semifinal series in which it had devastated Madrid,4-1,just one week ago. On Tuesday,in Real’s own legendary stadium and with 70,000 Madridistas baying for the final comeback,Borussia conceded two goals,but it would not let in the third that would have given the Spanish team a victory on the strength of away goals.

It was that close. The margin was that palpitating. And the story last week about Germany reigning supreme over Spain was paper-thin at the delayed final whistle.

What does have to be examined is why Dortmund’s margin in the first leg appeared so overwhelming. And how the Madrid giant,with the greatest financial clout in the global game,according to the latest ratings by Forbes magazine,could put in two such disparate performances in the space of six nights.

The analysis will come down to team management. Over the two legs,we could see that Real Madrid — with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo,Mesut Ozil and Ángel Di María — had the most dazzling individuals in the contest.

Dortmund had youth,and it had,in the Pole Robert Lewandowski,a man who struck four handsome goals last week,though he may have missed just as many chances this week in the Bernabéu.

That is a harsh judgment,because nobody can say that Lewandowski tried any less this week in Madrid,or that he lacked commitment or bravery. He needed both,because after Coach José Mourinho publicly questioned last week why none of his Real defenders had fouled the Pole during the first encounter,his captain,Ramos,did so repeatedly Tuesday.

Wayward Webb

Four times the Spaniard’s arm or elbow found its way pointedly into the cheekbones of Lewandowski. Four times the English referee,Howard Webb,either conveniently looked the other way or acted leniently by not sending off the aggressor.

But that wasn’t the only reason why the two legs swung in different directions. The crux was in Dortmund’s strength of character. The collective will that each player would give his utmost for the team was exemplified by the defender Mats Hummels.

By all accounts,Hummels is the central defender that Barcelona is preparing to offer big money to buy when this season is over. We could see why. In the first game,Hummels’s error led to Ronaldo scoring for Real,but he atoned both at home and away with graceful defending under pressure.

We forget that the game is about defence as much as it is about the headline stars of attack. Ronaldo is the costliest player in soccer history,going by the £80 million that Madrid paid Manchester United for him some years back.

Often,Ronaldo justifies that figure,now worth about $125 million. Over the 180 minutes he played against Dortmund,he didn’t. Maybe that was because of Hummels and Co. Maybe it was explained by Real’s story about Ronaldo suffering a thigh strain,or maybe it was even about the gossip about his love life.

No matter the reason,Ronaldo mirrored Madrid’s failure in living up to its price tag. And Hummels epitomised Dortmund’s understated effort. “Everybody in our team dreamed of this,” said Hummels late into the night in Madrid. “I know I did,when I was a child.” The 24-year-old paused,thought for a second,and quietly added: “Some of us are still children. And we are going to Wembley.”

ROB HUGHES

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