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It is Hard to Say Goodbye

Marc Bartra and the Exception to Cynicism

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I know this title is beyond cliché but in this case to me personally, it rings truer than a simple pop-trash jingle.

Modern football is terrifically cynical and cruel. Intuitively we know this. We watch as the Ousmane Dembélés of the world join our clubs, have an amazing season, talk about how much they enjoy playing for the club, then force a transfer right as the season starts. We watch as big oil money buys a pretty decent player for over 200 million Euros inflating the market. We watch as gentlemen mercenaries like Robert Lewandowski give their sporting all for the club they are with but never hide their intentions to leave to bigger and brighter places. Gone are the superstar legends.

There are no more Steven Gerrards, John Terrys, or Philipp Lahms. Those that are good enough will eventually go to a superstar club despite how much they profess to adore the club and supporters that got them to where they are. But there come players every now and again who give as much as they can to the club both on and off the pitch; a very few who make a real emotional connection. That is why it was so hard to say goodbye to Marc Bartra.

Eintracht Frankfurt v Borussia Dortmund - DFB Cup Final 2017 Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

I am not naïve enough to pretend Marc didn’t have a footballing past before he got to the Westfalenstadion in 2016. We understood his home to be Barcelona and knew he came to BVB to get a chance to reinvigorate his career. We were once again emotionally vulnerable having just had a very acrimonious divorce with our captain and arguably best player who abandoned the club that made him a superstar to go back to the home club that originally gave up on him. Marc stepped into that void and worked his behind off to earn the trust and love of the Ruhrpott. He started out with a bang early in the season offering glimpses of his massive potential in a Tuchel possession system, picking out streaking wingers and fullbacks with precise 40-yard vertical passes dissecting defenses at will. As a young center-back, he struggled alongside the annual BVB Fall collapse, eventually losing his starting position to fellow Spaniard Mikel Moreno just before the Winterpause.

But fans did not give up on him. Marc showed nothing but class and passion for his new club. We felt all warm and cuddly as we watched him on BVBTotal grin and laughingly stumble through his weekly German classes, many of us marveling at how someone could try to learn a whole new language in just a few months and seem to fit in so seamlessly to a new culture, climate, and club. We loved that he, unlike other transfers in recent memory (Immobile, Januzai) knew it took hard work to integrate and win the love of the club and its passionate but still emotionally-jaded supporters.

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When the Rückrunde began, Marc got some more chances under Tuchel, and as the aforementioned Dembélé started to take over the show, our Catalonian quietly developed into a regular starter. By early April, we marveled at the imperious displays he consistently gave us. Then, as we were settling in and waiting for the lineup announcement for the Round of 16 Champions League first tie against a rampaging Monaco, we heard there had been an incident with the team bus… an explosion… someone had been hurt… Marc Bartra… on his way to hospital… oh thank God he is not badly hurt. The details came in drips and we clung to our mobile devices ensuring we kept up to date through our Twitter feeds. The events of that night ripped the cynical façade off our lucre-tainted modern game and revealed the best qualities of humanity. #BedsForAwayFans started not as an Astroturf hashtag campaign, but from genuinely kind and generous hearts of Dortmund supporters who, in the age of cynicism, terrorism, and mutual mistrust invited perfect strangers from a foreign country into their homes, broke bread with them, and celebrated the comradeship of football.

The following day, despite the poor judgement of UEFA and club officials, the rescheduled match showed united anger at those that worshiped the almighty Euro at the expense of humanity, united love for the victim of this despicable attempt at mass murder, and two sides that did their best to get on with their jobs while still trying to process the horrors of the previous evening. The follow-up tie two weeks later showed our new-found French friends show up in Bartra jerseys as they expressed their emotional support for our club. Four days after the attack, in front of the Gelbe Wand, Dortmund players held up Marc’s jersey while dedicating their win over Frankfurt to their recovering friend.

Borussia Dortmund v AS Monaco - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

When Marc made his return on the last match-day of the season in a 4-3, Champions League clinching win over Werder Bremen, he stood in front of that wall of 25,000 friends, tearfully thanking them for their love and support over the previous six weeks. Just one week later, Bartra would start in the DFB Cup victory over Frankfurt. Celebratory videos and photos emerged of Marc dancing with the cup and gleefully stringing pieces of the goal net around his neck. Days later Marc sobbing in Mikel Merino’s arms while fans chanted his name during the victory parade through Borsigplatz cemented a permanent emotional connection to the reluctant hero.

Mats WHO? We have Marc Bartra.

Marc’s start to this Bundesliga season was as glorious as his last match for the previous. He scored his first Bundesliga goal in a world-class curler just days after a terrorist attack on his Catalonian homeland. Jubilantly celebrating, he dedicated it to his people. He scored a similar strike against Bayern weeks later.

But Borussia Dortmund, the team was broken. The acrimonious Tuchel departure, reports of dressing-room rifts and inordinate player power combined with pitiful performances and a coach out of his depth playing with the wrong pieces left BVB in shambles in the Fall. Peter Bosz’s sacking brought in über pragmatist Peter Stöger who had little time for finesse players in the backfield. Bartra’s struggles were singled out and he was eventually frozen out of the squad, exiled to watching Dortmund play from the stands. That this took place during a World Cup year and Marc struggling to find playing time to impress the Spanish National Team coaching staff should have made his exit predictable. But, the ever-professional Bartra quietly went about his business. Indeed no-one knew of a rift between him and Stöger until his goodbye Tweet in which he passively took shots at the Austrian coach.

Quietly rumors persisted in the Ruhrgebiet media that the bus attack had permanently scarred this tender man we fell in love with. Reporters said he was not the same player because he had nightmares and that he longed for home and had still not mentally and emotionally processed the attacks. His personal statements contradicted them but made it clear the near-death experience had galvanized his will to fulfill his dreams. I’m sure those dreams included playing for Spain in the World Cup. So, almost silently, Dortmund struck a deal with Spanish side Real Betis for our emotional talisman. And just like that, Marc was gone.

I suppose one can say that cynicism and cold reality always win. Hollywood feel-good stories never have an equally successful sequel because we know that life rarely provides one. It is so hard to say goodbye because we want to believe that players love our club as much as we do. When we see a player like Marc, we buy into that innocent belief again. And when we see them leave, that childlike innocence gets crushed. The overly cynical will say no player ever feels that for his club. The overly naïve will say if one leaves the club, they never cared for it to begin with. But that kind of oversimplification is nonsense. I wish we could all live life like Marc did with BVB. To live in the moment and make a lasting impact at every stop on one’s journey through life. To live, to love, to enjoy. To win, to lose, to cry. And, lastly, to never give up the dream, and move on… grateful for the opportunities to share those experiences with others.

Let us simply say thank you to Marc for everything he did for the club, for the genuine love and passion he displayed to the city of Dortmund and the fan-base world-wide. As I tearfully remember his tears I know that no one can take away those moments.

Borussia Dortmund Season Opening 2017/2018 Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images

You are a beautiful man Marc Bartra. Farewell. We love you. You are welcome in our home any time.