Champions League: Borussia Dortmund proves that anything is possible

Borussia Dortmund's squad contains a number of good case studies to illustrate its patchwork nature, but as captain – the man honored to have guided the most unlikely Champions League finalist of the last 20 years at Wembley on Saturday – Emre Can could be the most compelling.

Not even five years ago, while on international duty with Germany, Can's phone rang. On the other end of the line was a manager from Juventus, the Italian team he had joined the previous season. They had what could be described as a brusque conversation, although one of those words he might have exaggerated.

The Juventus manager had some bad news and some good news. The bad news was that the club's manager, Maurizio Sarri, had left Can out of his Champions League squad, meaning he would not be able to play in Europe's elite competition that season. The good news? At least he could expect a few nights off. (He probably didn't say it.)

He can't, it's fair to say, take it well. “I'm furious,” he said, when news of his exclusion became public. He had rejected the possibility of leaving Juventus because he believed that he would play in the Champions League, he said. And now he was told he wouldn't do it, in a “phone call that didn't last a minute.”

That conversation marked the end of Can's time in Italy – within a few months he had joined Dortmund, initially on loan – but it seemed to mark a more significant watershed. Can had already been allowed to leave Liverpool as Jürgen Klopp's revolution took hold. Now even in Italy he was considered dead weight.

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

He could, therefore, be forgiven for deriving considerable personal satisfaction from how he spends this weekend. Now 30, Can has been a central figure in Dortmund's unlikely run to the Champions League final, acting as a formidable presence in midfield, an occasional reinforcement in defense and a composed and charismatic leader.

There are plenty of such stories among the band of outcasts and strays who overwhelmed Dortmund at Wembley: Julian Ryerson, the Norwegian right-back plucked from relative obscurity at Union Berlin in the midst of an injury crisis; Niclas Füllkrug, the late, fast-paced striker who suddenly and unexpectedly rose to prominence; Jadon Sancho, a Manchester United refugee, offered refuge in Germany.

This is not the Borussia Dortmund of popular imagination, a team fired by one or two of European football's brightest prospects: an Erling Haaland, a Jude Bellingham, a young Robert Lewandowski. This is the team of the rejected and the discarded, of those who are above and beyond the radar.

For the first time in a decade, perhaps more, Dortmund are not hosting a team waiting to be torn apart by the game's most skilled predators. Perhaps the best player heading into the final was Mats Hummels, who is now in the veteran phase of his career. One of his most marketable assets, the energetic left-back Ian Maatsen, is actually on loan from Chelsea.

This less-than-elite status was made clear by the team's form in the Bundesliga, where they finished a bitterly disappointing fifth place, 27 points behind an admittedly exceptional Bayer Leverkusen and, perhaps more damning, nine points behind Bayern Monk. team experiencing its worst season in a generation.

Dortmund were beaten home and away by RB Leipzig and Stuttgart. They failed to win either of their two matches against newly promoted Heidenheim, one of the smallest clubs to ever grace the German top division. Hummels admitted this week that he had been so infuriated by the team's performance that he had, at least once, made his grievances clear to the club's coach, Edin Terzic.

None of this, of course, suggested that Dortmund's season could end with a chance of winning European football's greatest honour.

Every now and then unlikely Champions League finalists arrive. Few thought that Chelsea would make it in 2021, just six months after Thomas Tuchel's excavation project began, or that Tottenham would make it in 2019, when Mauricio Pochettino's team had already passed the its peak.

The closest parallels with this Dortmund, however, require looking further back: to Liverpool in 2005, when Rafael Benítez led to victory a team containing the delights of Djimi Traoré and John Arne Riise; or at Monaco, beaten finalist the previous year, under the guidance of Didier Deschamps and counting on goals from Fernando Morientes.

While this is a welcome reminder that football is elusive, chimerical and, in some ways, rather arbitrary, it might also appear to undermine the occasion of Saturday's final.

Pitting Real Madrid against the fifth best team in Germany certainly seems like an unlikely way to identify the best team in Europe. More than any final this century, it seems too discordant to have the epic quality that marks a Champions League final. There will be those, both in UEFA and in partner broadcasters, who will think that Paris St.-Germain or Barcelona or even Atlético Madrid could have been a more appetizing prospect.

Sport as a whole, however, should rejoice in Dortmund's presence. Not only because it demonstrates, once again, that football resists any attempt to reduce it to a simple financial formula. Not just because it reminds you that there is more than one way to succeed. Not only 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, sport should have fun because what European football desperately needs is to believe – in an era of cliffs, state ownership and an ever-sifting elite – that anything is possible, that triumph is not been monopolized by a few, that there may still be a day for a loser.

Those days, of course, are becoming rarer and rarer. Next season, the Champions League round of 16 will be seeded in another attempt to grab more spoils for the small group of teams who call this competition their home ground, and to ensure that only the biggest and best can make it all the way. in conclusion. .

Yet on Saturday, five years after being ostracized at Juventus, Can will lead Borussia Dortmund – Germany's fifth-best team, the closest thing elite European football will get to a ragtag group of plucky hopefuls – onto the grass of Wembley. for the Champions League final. Everything is possible. And that's something worth appreciating, as well as protecting.

The line between “high-performance entrepreneur” and “crazy tyrant who appoints a horse as consul” is a little thinner than you might expect. It's not entirely impossible, for example, to imagine one of Silicon Valley's self-proclaimed philosopher kings declaring Caligula a courageous disruptor, a leader unafraid to challenge the human-centered status quo of politics.

It's worth remembering when talking about Manchester United's new regime, as petrochemical billionaire Jim Ratcliffe – proud owner of a quarter of the club – and his advisor Dave Brailsford appear to issue a swinging diktat once every 72 hours.

Some, like calling for tidy offices, seem reasonable. Others – no longer working from home – feel petty and a bit hypocritical, given Ratcliffe's living conditions. One or two, like this week's declaration that anyone is free to resign, are sufficiently troubling to make one wonder how far we are from starting work on a statue of Ratcliffe's dog.

Curiously, though, all this dynamic urgency doesn't seem to apply to the club's coach, Erik Ten Hag, who has been left out in the wind for much of the last six months. There's a case to be made for allowing it a third season. There's a lot more you can do not to.

But in any case, it is not very encouraging that United's power brokers have not yet made up their minds. From the outside, it's true, being scrupulous can seem a lot like being indecisive. But the perception that United's seemingly determined rejuvenation could be tainted by the result of a single match is itself damaging.

After all, it looks a lot like the kind of thing the club used to do, a brave new dawn ending with more of the same sun in the sky.

Cristiano Ronaldo's social media output, if we're all completely honest with ourselves, peaked in 2017, when he asked us – as a species – the most penetrating question of all: have you ever related steel to steel? 'ecology? Because, you should know, he did. Of course he did. This is Cristiano Ronaldo. And he collaborated with Egyptian Steel.

However, even by those not-so-high standards, this week has been a bad one for Ronaldo. For basic context: He's 39. He is a millionaire many times over. He is a hero to millions of people. He is one of the best athletes ever and one of the most famous people in the history of sports.

It's difficult, then, to understand why he feels the need to promote NFTs, three years after that particular bubble burst. Now he has four collections, apparently. Even by a conservative estimate, that's at least three too many.

In a way, though, that wasn't the worst thing. Ronaldo is, unfortunately, right in claiming that he is the first player in history to become top scorer in four separate national championships. (The previous best, as far as is known, is three, shared with Romário and Ruud van Nistelrooy, among others.) He is also right to be proud of it.

But there is an inevitable sense of confusion in the way Ronaldo glorifies these achievements. A gentle reading – and we can afford it – would suggest that he has reached such heights that everything that follows, in the autumn of his career, seems a little faded and a little mean. He wants us to add them to his legacy to polish it. He seems blissfully unaware that it has exactly the opposite effect.

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