DORTMUND, Germany — The T-shirts celebrating Borussia Dortmund’s 2022-23 Bundesliga triumph had already been printed in their thousands, some already worn by fans before Saturday’s match against Mainz had started. The title celebrations had been meticulously planned for Sunday as the city braced for 500,000 people to arrive. With a two-point lead over Bayern Munich, needing to win or match their result vs. Cologne on the final day, the script was perfectly written for Dortmund to end their rivals’ 10-year stranglehold on the Bundesliga title. But it was missing the final page.
Dortmund could have sold out the Westfalenstadion five times over. All they had to do was beat Mainz, then it wouldn’t matter what Bayern did. The fairy tale was 99% finished. But instead of the final page being signed off with a black-and-yellow flourish, they found themselves down 2-0 inside 24 minutes. And when hope returned via an equaliser for 1-1 in Cologne, it was torched by Jamal Musiala’s 89th-minute winner for Bayern.
– Stream a replay of Dortmund vs. Mainz on ESPN+
– Stream a replay of Cologne vs. Bayern on ESPN+
It was a brutal, cruel twist. As Musiala’s stunning shot found the bottom corner of the Cologne net, Dortmund’s title hopes collapsed. Buoyed briefly by Gio Reyna’s introduction off the bench, their late flourish to claw back a 2-2 draw meant nothing. And the 81,365 inside the Westfalenstadion were sucked back into a black hole of German football inevitability where whatever happens, whatever turbulence is endured, the Bundesliga title ends up back at Bayern — their 11th in a row now.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. The two-point lead and incredible home support meant it was surely going to be Dortmund’s time. All week they had been putting plans in place. They had five times the media requests than space available; they had requests for tickets close to 500,000; they had planned for celebrations, albeit without the guarantee of the star attraction.
The Dortmund fans streaming into the stadium early on Saturday were in a celebratory mood. The place was rammed, the concourses packed six hours before kickoff. Songs were sung, memories regaled, football demons ready to be exorcised. When you’re the perennial bridesmaids — the last time Dortmund won the title was back in Jurgen Klopp’s days in 2011-12 — you have to enjoy your moment in the sun when it comes.
Dortmund have seen superstars come and go, snaffled up by bigger fish — more often than not by Bayern. But this was to be a line in the sand, a moment when most of the other teams in the Bundesliga united behind the end to a collective wait for a new name on the shield. But instead of celebrations, there will be agonising moments from this match replayed. Shots of the golden confetti that littered the pitch pre-kick-off will have a mournful soundtrack, morphed with Mainz’s two first-half goals, which gave them a shock 2-0 lead after some woeful defending.
There’ll be the moments of dreadful serendipity such as Sebastien Haller’s missed first-half penalty, at 1-0 down, and when he failed to get a toe on the ball as it crept past an open net in the 58th minute. There was Marco Reus’ header from 6 yards out soon after, which somehow floated over the bar. There were their two goals, too little and too late in the 69th and 96th minutes. But also the countless raids on Mainz’s box where it’s hard to see how they didn’t end up with the title-clinching goals (29 shots, 10 on target in the end.)
It was a match that defied logic — the stats paint some of this picture, sport isn’t sentimental, but that’s why we love the theatre. And the final 10 minutes were breathless.
The swinging nature of the final day meant that despite Dortmund losing 2-1 in the 80th minute, when news of Cologne’s equaliser cascaded through the stands, the party was back on. A draw for Bayern meant the result was immaterial in Dortmund — the trophy was back in North Rhine-Westphalia.
For nine minutes there was belief again, the T-shirts unboxed; Dortmund had renewed vigour and manager Eden Terzic was caught between the emotions of willing his players on while telling them what was going on at Cologne. It was surely to be their time again. Until it wasn’t.
When Musiala scored that 89th-minute winner, the cheers were swapped for the sound of tables slapped, chairs hammered, as once again the title was tugged from their grasp. As Dortmund continued throwing everything at Mainz, playing a 2-0-8 formation (including Emre Can in every position), supporters were craning their necks for information about what was going on at Cologne. They clutched the backs of their heads, pinched cigarettes tighter and shattered plastic glasses. Others were overwhelmed and sunk into their seats, willing for another goal or two to make it moot.
On the pitch, substitute Julien Duranville tried all he could from his mini box of tricks. Anthony Modeste, Youssoufa Moukoko and Haller played on the offside line, Reyna prodded and probed, but whatever they tried, the Yellow Wall couldn’t will the ball in. The German football gods dressed in red and blue were defiant and a party ruined.
“It’s difficult to find the right words,” Terzic said afterward. “We feel empty because we knew about the chance, you could feel the energy within the stadium and city. We all wanted it so hard. We were so close — just one goal was missing, it was one goal in the other stadium that was missing, we knew we were 90 minutes away from lifting the trophy. This is the game we fell in love with as kids. Sometimes it’s hard to miss a penalty, to conceded two early goals, and all of a sudden it feels so heavy. But we tried our best and unfortunately it wasn’t enough.”
In Dortmund, this will sting for months to come. Yet there are so many reasons for optimism. It was a season of inspirational figures such as Haller’s debut in January after he had undergone chemotherapy for testicular cancer. It was nine months where 19-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham — so missed against Mainz because of injury — had the league on a piece of string. It was the campaign where boyhood fan Terzic had got the Yellow Wall behind a team combining exciting youngsters and ageless old pros such as Mats Hummels and Marco Reus.
That appreciation will seep through in time, but it was a desolate place after full time. For 10 minutes, the Dortmund players sat isolated on the turf like a group of grounded, lost bees. Then the Yellow Wall re-found their voice, responded in unison in a symbol of defiance. Raphael Guerreiro’s head hadn’t risen from his chest, but as they sung, he peeked at the fans. Hummels stood, hands on hips, looking at the group who had hoped to be celebrating, while Reus picked himself up to join his distraught teammates. Others walked in a slow, mournful circle, but as Hummels took a step forward to the Yellow Wall, the rest followed him as one, rising, apologising and starting the process of acceptance.
Life will go on, the countdown to next season will start again. But the wait for another Bundesliga title also goes on for another agonising year.