Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich gear up for world's most symbolic sporting fixture since coronavirus in latest 'Der Klassiker'
Bayern Munich are four points ahead of Borussia Dortmund, both playing 27 games, both having a flurry of goals in them. The song remains the same, the David of Dortmund must slay the Goliath of Bayern to lessen the gap, in their quest to the usual champions-elect.
The times we are living in isn’t just unprecedented, it’s nearly Biblical. Earth’s magnetic poles are steadily shifting; storms systems are brewing in the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal; confirmed coronavirus cases have reached five million-plus, and there’s a swarm of locusts (think voracious bugs with a piranha-like appetite for crops) have flown in from Iran and are headed ever eastward through the Indian state of Punjab.
A throwback to the lores of Moses cursing the Pharoah from the Book of Exodus, and the tableaus from the Black Plague. The infiltration of constant bad news is all-invasive and global, there is as historian Eva Schlotheuber calls it, a “pandemic of the mind” to also consider.
Instead, Bayern Munich will be travelling to Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday to play Der Klassiker, the most celebrated derby in German football, and the world will still be watching. And why shouldn’t it?
Football is global. In the Christmas day ceasefire of 1914, smack in the middle of the First World War, troops from the German Empire, French Third Republic army, the Russian, British East India army, Austro-Hungary army laid down their arms for a day and picked up footballs, all across the Western Front.
Sandbags became markers for goal posts, and the sand became the chalk that drew the outlines of the muddy pitch.
The appropriateness of sports should never be in question because it’s more than mere entertainment. Sure, the glossiness of the TV packages that bring you the sport is hyper commercialised and has the feel of fake plastic trees about them, intrinsically unnatural and far removed from the down-to-earthliness of kicking a ball about with your friends in the dirt has. But as now many football fans will have realised by now, the sport is much more than the numbers of xG charts, Fantasy Football Leagues surrounding it. To quote musician and humanist David Byrne, “This evanescence helped us focus our attention.” As it stands, more than twice the number of people have lost their lives in New York alone when compared to the entirety of Germany.
The task of Bundesliga being kosher enough to get up-and-running in the middle of a pandemic has been a sizable human endeavour from all levels of administration, from Angela Merkel to the guy who snips the grass at the Signal Iduna Park.
But it starts from the top: Long before she was a politician, Angela Merkel was a doctorate in quantum chemistry. “She communicates with scientific rigour. She communicates with calm. She disarms hysteria,” wrote Ricardo Roa; publications across the world from The New Zealand Herald to Argentina’s Clarin added column inches in agreement. World’s football associations are looking towards Germany too.
The German Chancellor is a thorough pragmatist and a scientist. Engendering a sense of empathy with cold rationality, she has spoken to the better natures of the German nation, as few world leaders could, and have the public follow medical advice out of compassion and a sense of community. “Since World War, there has not been a challenge for our country in which action in a spirit of solidarity on our part was so important,” she said.
Merkel, who grew up in restrictive East Germany, being fully aware of how easily a society can crumble when cultural centres such as opera houses and concert halls, are suddenly out-of-bounds, looked at the continuation of their best national export since beer, the Bundesliga, as critical to a sense of her country’s sense of morale. As things stood, the DFB were projecting a loss of €77 million this financial year, according to league treasurer Stephan Osnabruegge.
Since the address on 18 March, 2020, every step has been taken to make sure that the league can function in the right way without risking lives. The Robert Koch Research Centre has Bundesliga chiefs' left ear and the Berlin Institute of Health, has their right ear, and the government’s coronavirus task force is leading the way.
Bundesliga club doctors have a direct line to the country’s leading virologists like Christian Drosten, who is, in turn, advising Merkel. The transparency to key competency has not been wrapped up in bureaucracy.
Fast forward to 16 May: Dortmund vs Schalke, Bundesliga’s first match since the pandemic, played behind closed doors. Substitutes sat two seats apart in the stands close to the dug-out, with protective face-masks on. Dortmund won 4-0 with Erling Braut Haaland scoring the opening goal. Player’s expletives and celebrations were distinctly audible through the pitchside mics, and the stadium had the feeling of a ghost town.
Eerie, awkward, but ultimately revealing and poignant. On 23 May, Borussia Moenchengladbach filled their stands with cardboard cutouts of season ticket holders and pumping in crowd noise. Even if the team lost to Leverkusen, the coronavirus charities were aided by €19 paid by each fan to have their photos added to the “Pappkameraden” (Paper Companion) among the stands. Many rival fans called it a gimmick, but 13,000 Pappkameraden showed up that day, leaving no room for cynicism or fatalism in the time of crisis. Weird but beautiful, this is the new normal.
Juventus’ 26-year-old Paulo Dybala mentioned how the virus almost choked him in March. This display at Dortmund’s home ground a deep into lockdown times, lent a rare glimpse of mortality. Footballers even in their peak human conditions are susceptible to the virus, and many worldwide have been taken ill. Yet, footballer names appear on the back of shirts just as ubiquitously as the Batman, Superman or the Flash symbol appear on t-shirts worldwide. The status they enjoy is one of the superheroes. Fans try to derive strength and inculcate that demi-god like drive into their every day lives using those symbols and names as armours and talismans. And this is perhaps why the show must go on.
Bayern Munich are four points ahead of Borussia Dortmund, both playing 27 games, and both having a flurry of goals in them. The song remains the same, the David of Dortmund must slay the Goliath of Bayern to lessen the gap, in their quest to the usual champions-elect.
The wind of change blows in the footballing context as well, as this Bundesliga campaign may mark the beginning of a rebuilding period for the Bavarians’ ageing squad. Thomas Mueller, Robert Lewandowski, Jerome Boateng, Thiago Alcantara have been the spine of the Bayern side, but there are signs of calcification, as these old guards have been at the forefront of dressing room opposition under their former manager Niko Kovac, at odds with the Bayern Munich higher-ups, and also the club’s highest earners.
The manager who is given the responsibility of moving on fan favourites are usually, inevitably villainized, grated. The friction will start on Tuesday with Hansi Flick’s conundrum of somehow fitting Leon Goretzka, Serge Gnabry, Alphonse Davis in the equation that provides the optimal result.
Hansi Flick, the new Bayern manager, would be painfully aware of that Lucien Favre’s super-charged and super-young Dortmund, carried by the fleet-feet of Thorgan Hazard, Haaland, and Julian Brandt, would like nothing better than to make an example of out his team to give the industrial, working-class Rhine district something to smile about. This fast-breaking iteration of Dortmund might ultimately be Bayern’s biggest ever test since the Jurgen Klopp days of gegenpressing. And it should as well the world could do— with an underdog story right about now.
(The Borussia Dortmund vs Bayern Munich Bundesliga fixture starts at 10 pm on Tuesday, and can be viewed on Star Sports Select and Disney + Hotstar. )
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