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Opportunity Knocks, but Borussia Dortmund Don’t Answer

A 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich likely ended Borussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga title challenge. It also might have marked the end of a cycle.    

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the ball fell to Bayern Munich midfielder Joshua Kimmich just outside the Borussia Dortmund penalty box in the 43rd minute of Tuesday’s Klassiker, there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of danger. The Dortmund defense was well-positioned, and goalkeeper Roman Bürki was inside his 6-yard box—all was well. The following sequence seemed to occur in slow motion: Kimmich, head tilted down, floated a chip toward the far-left corner and Bürki, despite getting his glove on the ball with a despairing dive, couldn’t keep it out of the net. More than just a goal, it felt like a decisive moment. Despite the strangeness of the past few weeks in the Bundesliga—or the past several months, really—Kimmich’s goal, and Bayern’s 1-0 win over Dortmund, felt entirely familiar. Bayern are now seven points clear of second-place Dortmund. The title race may not be mathematically over, but Tuesday’s result quelled hopes of a dramatic title run-in over the final six games in Germany’s newly resumed top flight.

Kimmich’s chip, in front of the Südtribüne, was also a reminder that while Bayern remain the prevailing perennial force in German soccer, Dortmund operates in cycles. Often competitive, always entertaining, Dortmund are seemingly stuck in a constant buildup toward a moment when they can credibly upend Bayern, the 28-time Bundesliga champions. Despite Dortmund being the second-richest club in Germany, their financial muscle is still behind that of Bayern’s; they instead rely on a model of selling young talent at maximum value in order to reinvest and rebuild. In recent years, Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulisic both left the club before their 21st birthdays, to Barcelona and Chelsea respectively, and for combined fees of almost $210 million. Jadon Sancho, 20, has progressed rapidly in their absence and is widely expected to leave the club for a massive fee at the end of season. As quickly as one cycle ends, another begins.

Dortmund have existed in a strange, lonely territory in the Bundesliga in recent years as the sole threat to Bayern’s dominance. Dortmund won their second consecutive title in 2011-12 and have finished second in four of the last seven seasons, all of which have been won by Bayern. It might seem like a cruel fate, but Dortmund are actually the envy of many fans of other Bundesliga clubs. RB Leipzig have recently emerged as credible contenders, but their Red Bull–backed ownership model insults German soccer’s famed 50+1 rule and makes the club a hugely unpopular alternative. Dortmund have positioned themselves as not only the Bundesliga’s one great hope at halting the Bayern monopoly but also as the emotional embodiment of what many see as the essence of the Bundesliga.

The club motto of “Echte Liebe” (true love) is as accurate as it is smart, pitting Dortmund as underdogs in a battle against the overly commercialized entities of Bayern and Leipzig, while still maintaining a huge advantage over the other 15 clubs in the league. The Westfalenstadion is a ground dripping with emotion and history: profiles of past heroes are stenciled onto its concrete pillars, and it towers over the club’s former Stadion Rote Erde (Red Earth Stadium), which remains intact next door as a reminder of the club’s growth. None of the Westfalenstadion’s stands quite matches the others, patched together as they’ve been over time as the club has grown and the stadium has expanded.

Bayern, in contrast, occupy the futuristic Allianz Arena. As you make your way out of Munich’s Fröttmaning subway station, it appears in front of you, at the top of a hill like a ship belonging to the Empire in Star Wars. Bayern’s cycle is quite different from Dortmund’s: Each season, Bayern are able to summon the best talent from the league and the world, adding to an already hugely experienced and stacked squad. When it wasn’t Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels, or Mario Götze from Dortmund, it was Leon Goretzka from Schalke, Serge Gnabry from Werder Bremen, Niklas Süle from Hoffenheim, or Benjamin Pavard from Stuttgart. This trend will continue when Schalke goalkeeper Alexander Nübel joins Bayern once this season ends, despite current goalkeeper Manuel Neuer signing a new contract just last week. Such strength in depth all in one club, vastly superior to the rest, makes it hard to see where the Bayern dominance will end. Unlike in Star Wars, here the Resistance rarely wins.

The Allianz Arena was the site many will point to as the end of Dortmund’s title challenge last season, but ultimately it was down to a punishing combination of blows. Dortmund lost to Bayern 5-0 in that game—the 100th edition in the Bundesliga era—and followed that performance with even more disappointing results. A Schalke side that was battling relegation beat them 4-2 in a fiery Revierderby that saw Marco Reus and Marius Wolf sent off in quick succession. Then Dortmund surrendered a two-goal lead away at Werder Bremen to draw 2-2. They dropped five points in games where they were vastly superior for large periods, yet finished just two points off Bayern at the end of the season.

Tuesday’s loss feels crueler. It wasn’t the result of a self-inflicted blow by a Dortmund side that have a history of exhibiting a masochistic streak, illustrated by a penchant for dropping points in games where they have dominated inferior opposition. They have the talent to match Bayern; what they lack in comparison is a winning mentality, something that isn’t turned on by the flick of a switch. It’s learned behavior that comes from experience, which is hard to acquire when the cycles are as short as Dortmund’s and the specter of Jürgen Klopp’s success still lingers.

Kimmich’s goal was a standout moment in a mesmerizing first half of soccer: the kind of goal needed to settle a game between two elite teams vying for the title. Yet it was a moment whose effects will most likely ripple far beyond deciding this year’s title. By being the first major soccer league to return during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bundesliga has received an unprecedented amount of attention, free from the looming shadows of the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A. It’s an opportunity to showcase its soccer on a global stage, and with a compelling title race. Bayern’s win on Tuesday makes the title race much less compelling, if entirely familiar. While no one can deny that Bayern would be deserving champions, it’s hard to sell a league whose outcome feels inevitable to a global audience.

This is the Bundesliga paradox: It’s arguably Europe’s most entertaining, energetic, and interesting league, yet one where the champion is all but decided before a ball has been kicked. Bayern’s success is hardly a new phenomenon: Only five other clubs—Dortmund, Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, and Wolfsburg—have won a Bundesliga title in the last 30 years. More was expected, or at least possible, this season, when RB Leipzig were top at Christmas, followed closely by Borussia Mönchengladbach, while Bayern struggled under previous coach Niko Kovac. Dortmund were tipped by many as favorites to win this season, but after Tuesday’s loss, it seems yet another cycle will end in disappointment, and another will begin anew. The Bundesliga, much like another annual German tradition, looks set to finish in a familiar fashion.

Ryan Hunn is the cofounder of Stadio and cohost of The Stadio Podcast. He is based in Berlin.