Football can be many things. It can be a nice pastime. The producer of beautiful stories. But also so much more. Football can brighten your mood or ruin your day. And if you're one of the unlucky ones, like I am, it can go far beyond that. Here's a story about me, living through the highest of highs and lowest of lows that football will ever bring me to, all within a year. To all of you for whom football has at some point been more than just a game.
May 1, 2013. National holiday in Germany. And, if it wasn't, it would be thanks to football. Borussia Dortmund are already through. Bayern are leading in Barcelona and will definitely return to the Champions League Final for the third time in four years.
Yet, these minutes aren't happy minutes. They're minutes of fear. I was no longer afraid that Barcelona could turn around this result. That thought had died when Arjen Robben scored to bring the score up to 5-0 on aggregate. As telling as it is, it didn't sound too crazy to me that Bayern would concede 5 or more goals in 45 minutes, but that issue was now gone.
But, this is still a time of fear. Issues and fears don't disappear, they are merely replaced. Several important Bayern players are one yellow card away from missing the final. Are they aware of that? Can they make it without any dumb tackles? Why hasn't Heynckes taken them off already? The old wounds, never healed, were as alive as ever.
Let's go back a year. A final set in Munich. Hey, wouldn't it be awesome to be a part of this? That question was never a joke, but it wasn't much more, either. The odds aren't in your favor, and your hope Is limited. Sure, Bayern reached the final in 2010, but that was already pretty damn lucky. Saved by miraculous away goals against Fiorentina and Manchester United, suddenly facing the inferior Lyonnais in the semis - the only way it seemed possible for Bayern to go that far.
2010 Champions League Final
2010 Champions League Final
The FCB in 2012 was more established internationally than the one in 2010, but it was still second-rate football. 7-0 against Basel in the round of 16? A lovely evening, but in the end, just relief after they had managed to lose the first leg against a Swiss team. Marseille in the quarterfinals? Lucky again! Another inferior French opponent!
All of a sudden, we found our team in the semifinals. It was the second time in three years, sure, but at the same time, only the second time in ten years. The dream of participating in a Champions League Final right at home was slowly worth being talked about. After hours of waiting in line, you can already see what's happening inside the night club, but there's still that huge bouncer separating you from the entrance and only he's gonna decide what your fate is. That bouncer's name is Real Madrid.
The first leg in Munich was supposed to be Bayern's only chance. Give them hell here, and you might survive. However, it was a close match. A last-minute goal by Mario Gomez increased the odds ever so slightly, but most people, including most Bayern fans, still expected Madrid to go through. And, the second leg seemed to confirm that. Bayern were completely outplayed and down 0-2. Fortunately, the hosts stopped playing. Maybe they too were convinced already? A (scarily close) Robben penalty made it 2-1, and thus all equal. Could they really survive an entire half of angry Madrid attacking, though?
They did survive, not only the second half but also the extra time, but all of that came at a price. Several players sacrificed themselves to stop attacks, collecting yellow cards and a ban for a potential final. Some (David Alaba) would miss the big game because of a bullshit decision. Don't you think that I'll ever forget that call.
It was time for a shootout, and for the first time in 210 minutes, Bayern were favorites simply because they were the underdogs. Madrid, failing to decide it in front of their fans full of high expectations, had everything to lose now. For me, there were two thoughts fighting over my brain and heart - the hope that the dream is this close against the worry that the dream is too unreal.
I can't tell you which of these feelings won. I can, however, tell you that Bayern did. Now, there was no way that they would lose this final. At home. Not against the almighty Barcelona. Sure, Chelsea did an amazing job stopping the Barca offense but the physical presence of Mario Gomez would be an entirely different story.
It was all excitement. Bayern lost the German Cup final 2-5, in the dumbest fashion, but I never cared. That's not the match that mattered. The day of the Final, I watched all of the pre-game coverage. I think it started like seven hours before kickoff and was mostly dumb entertainment, but nothing else could've entered my mind anyway. There was no fear. There were no worries. Losing didn't seem like an option. The dream was too close to be unreal.
Bayern didn't play a bad match. It wasn't great but decent enough. The Chelsea bus was only delaying the inevitable. And, eventually, it did happen. Seemingly out of nowhere, Thomas Müller headed It home. The players were going nuts. All I had to spare was one second of celebrating. One second of accepting the dream as reality before waking up again. How much time left? About ten minutes? Bring on Daniel van Buyten already, Chelsea will do nothing but play long balls. He'll clear them, Robben and Ribery will get a counter-attack to finish it. That's how it's gonna be. I know the script!
Heynckes finally brings on van Buyten, and I think Bayern had a good chance they didn't convert (not like I'd ever watch those minutes again so I can't check). Then, Chelsea get a corner kick. Kind of a dumb one to concede, but either van Buyten or Neuer will take care of it anyway.
They don't. Chelsea equalize and, at the same time, win the final. At least, in my mind, it was over. We were too close to victory to get back into the right mindset. Even when Bayern were awarded a penalty in extra time, I had no hope left. The only chance seemed to be another shootout. They had won two of those already (Madrid and Borussia Mönchengladbach).
2012 Champions League Final
2012 Champions League Final
The hope was back for a few seconds when Bayern took the lead in the ultimate shootout, but it was a different kind of hope. No longer that lovely hope of seeing a dream become reality, only a bitter hope that you might still get away with it. When Schweinsteiger missed, it was finally finished. Drogba's penalty didn't even matter. Bayern were absolutely done either way.
I have no idea what happened after that. I honestly don't know. Maybe, I cried. Maybe, I fell asleep right away. Maybe, I was up all night staring at a wall. This wasn't an ordinary loss. The final in 2010, nobody struggled with that one. The better team won, and Bayern had no chance at all. But, this was different. It was unfair. It was a dream. It was at home.
The Euro 2012 might as well never have happened. I watched most of the matches, but football disgusted me. A son of a bitch of a sport, how dare they pretend that it's still fun?
This loss was just so different. Of course, I continued to watch football, Bayern in particular, but I couldn't enjoy it anymore. A Bayern win no longer made me happy. I was just glad that they didn't fuck it up this time. It was as if I had to take an important exam twice a week, and someone else writes the answers for me.
The first minor turning point took place in the quarterfinal of the German Cup. Bayern was at home against Dortmund, the team they hadn't beaten in god knows how many years. Bayern dominated and could've scored four or five goals. They only won 1-0, but the first demon was defeated. Dortmund weren't the cause of my fears, but they were too good not to annoy me. And, as it ultimately turned out, they were the way out of the misery.
Back to May 1, 2013. Bayern scored another two goals and were now up 3-0, 7-0 on aggregate, but these goals didn't matter. What really mattered was that the players in danger of missing the final were taken off, one by one. At least, we'll get to use our strongest lineup this time.
May 25. Wembley. They could've played this in North Korea. It didn't matter at all to me. No thoughts about it happening in London of all places. My behavior was the complete opposite of 2012. No excitement. No pre-game shows. No Bayern shirts. Nothing. Of course, I'd be watching the match, but let's not think about it until maybe five minutes before kickoff.
Why would I care? Bayern would lose, and this time against Dortmund of all teams. I'd be done with football or not live for another five years. Football and Bayern are that important, that dangerous. They'd totally have the power to put me in scary situations mentally. Not a nice thing to admit but, in hindsight, I can guarantee you that it could've gotten out of hand.
When you have no excitement, only fear, every sign is a signal of impending doom. Dortmund were all over Bayern in the first minutes and only Manuel Neuer kept it at 0-0. They're not gonna survive this for 90 minutes.
Bayern finally got some scoring chances, but Robben kept shooting the ball right at Weidenfeller. They're gonna regret wasting these chances.
At some point in the second half, Mandzukic scored a goal that seemed completely random. Bayern took the lead, and I started to feel traces of hope again, for the first time in a year.
The lead didn't last too long, however, when Dante's stupid challenge gave Dortmund the equalizer through a penalty. How dumb could I be to allow any hope to enter my brain?
What I'm telling you now isn't hyperbole to make this more entertaining. It all happened like that. You might think it's ridiculous. You might not be able to take me seriously anymore (if you ever did), but it's just honesty. To let you understand just how significant that evening was, just how cruel and threatening football can become.
When, a few minutes later, Bayern were through but couldn't bring the ball over the goal line, I was done. It was happening again. Football decided to be cruel again, even more so this time. When I say I was done, I mean it. I left the room. I couldn't take it anymore. I wasn't gonna watch them lose like that again.
2013 Champions League Final
2013 Champions League Final
I didn't watch the last 20 or so minutes. The scoreline was 1-1, yet here I was, accepting the loss. All I heard were some sounds from other people watching the match. Cheering for Bayern or Dortmund, I couldn't tell. Any sound was threatening. Only hours later did I learn that Bayern delivered shot after shot in these minutes, that most of the sounds were no threat.
I run back towards the TV and see Bayern celebrate. I check the clock and notice that only a few minutes are left. Celebrating this goal? Not a chance. I spent the following minutes walking around in circles, sometimes leaning my head against a wall as if I wanted to tell the football gods that I'm about to give up, about to pass out. I can't remember if Dortmund had any scoring chances, any pass was looking like the equalizer to me.
The final whistle. I don't celebrate, I simply fall down. Not because of happiness, due to mental exhaustion. The most terrorizing 90 minutes of my life were over and the ending was positive. No late corner kick. This time, I know that there were tears, and I'm not ashamed of a single one of them.
At this point, it was no longer about Bayern winning the Champions League. It went far deeper. The demons needed to disappear. You could feel it everywhere. I wasn't alone with it. When Bayern conceded a goal against Hamburg while up by eight goals, the players were pissed off and screaming at each other. They knew that perfection was needed to return to sanity. Everyone knew.
When Bayern fans these days ask for the days of Heynckes to be back, they talk about this feeling. One collective goal, a group therapy. There's enough time to be exhausted once the demons are dead. Until then, we allow no weakness, feel no pain. There is no doubt in my mind that this force is what pushed Bayern in 2013. And, just like the demons, that force died with the final whistle at Wembley. Heynckes was the right coach because he shared the pain with them, because he could be believed, because he was a part of the group. Another season with him wouldn't have ended well. Getting someone else for the job at that point was the best decision for the club, for the players and for Jupp Heynckes himself, a man who deserved every bit of the wonderful farewell. We won't see another season like that.
To this date, I still haven't watched the Champions League Final for a second (or, partially, first) time. A bit out of respect to the Dortmund fans who had to live through a similar fate as I did in 2012, although not close in terms of severity. A bit because it's gonna be special, a moment I'll only get to live once. Mainly because, deep inside, I'm still a little afraid that it's not gonna be Bayern scoring the late goal but Dortmund. The demons are gone but they will never be forgotten.