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Dortmund Must Resist the Urge to Buy Into the Narratives

Saturday’s results obfuscates the reality that this team has the potential to go far.

Borussia Dortmund - FSV Mainz 05 Photo by Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

Saturday was horrible. Gut-wrenching. Miserable. As the final whistle blew 2-2, and the reality began to sink in that Borussia Dortmund had let a golden opportunity to win a Bundesliga title slip away, every joke, gag, meme, and everything in between from the last decade about what horrible bottlers and chokers this club consists of seemed to be vindicated. It sucked. It was embarrassing. For a brief moment, Borussia Dortmund were the laughing stock of the footballing world.

In these moments, the prospect of buying into all the narratives seems awfully tantalizing. Dortmund are losers. It’s in our blood. It’s who we are. Nothing can be done to fix this club, and Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga will continue to be as inevitable as the setting of the sun.

But what’s in a name, and what’s in a club? Much as we fans convince ourselves otherwise, there’s nothing intrinsic about Borussia Dortmund, or Bayern Munich for that matter. Nothing about Saturday was inevitable. Despite the gravity the league table’s context assigned to it, it was just another football match. It was chaotic, filled with twists and turns, close calls, and tons of razor-thin margins that ultimately could have gone either way. And unfortunately, those margins went against Dortmund.

It’s not that Dortmund were merely unlucky, or that they played well enough to deserve to win. I’m not making some desperate appeal to expected goals as some form of exoneration of Dortmund’s efforts. I’m not passing judgement about any individual event that took place on the pitch. At the end of the day, Mainz converted their chances, Dortmund didn’t. It actually happens all the time in football, but this time it just happened to be the most important match in the last decade of this club’s history.

Nobody wants to hear this. Dortmund fans don’t want to hear it because it means there’s nobody to blame. It appears to absolve the players, the coaching staff, the front office, the referees, the DFB, Bayern Munich, Mainz, and anybody else the fans decide to blame. Fans of rival clubs don’t want to hear it either, because it sounds dangerously close to an excuse. Ultimately, nobody wants to accept that explanation because it’s just too mundane. Borussia Dortmund failed to beat their opponent. Sometimes that just happens.

If you’re a fan, it’s fine to throw yourself a pity party. Saturday sucked, and I’d be lying if a few very depressing, reactionary, and irrational thoughts about the future of this club didn’t cross through my mind after the game. Furiously typing out extended rants about what bottlers Dortmund are, that the club needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, can be, if nothing else, cathartic.

But as the dust settles and we are reminded that this was not the final game in Borussia Dortmund’s existence, with the next Bundesliga season less than three months away, Sebastian Kehl and the front office cannot afford to let those evil thoughts cloud their judgement. The second half of this Bundesliga season, despite its hiccups, still showed that the future of this club can be bright, and how the club builds off of the second half could define its path forward for years to come.

What Dortmund really need to do, which will be extremely difficult, is to maintain the course. The worst thing that the club can do is overreact. There are solid pieces in place to build a team that can be very good for a very long time. With Karim Adeyemi and Donyell Malen breaking out in 2023, Dortmund finally have a pair of elite wingers to start week-in, week-out; Niklas Sule and Nico Schlotterbeck can be a formidable center back pair for years to come; Gregor Kobel could become Dortmund’s next Roman Weidenfeller; Sebastian Haller is healthy and, despite Saturday’s missed penalty, is scoring at a torrid rate.

The good news is that Kehl has not in any way altered course. Less than three days after Saturday’s result, the club has already signed, or is on the verge of signing, a new full back and a new midfielder. Losing Jude Bellingham and Raphael Guerreiro will hurt, but millions of euros in wages will be coming off the club’s books, and it will be flushed with cash from transfer fees. Everything is in place for Dortmund to put together an even more talented squad and have another go next year.