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Champions League: Bayern Munich, Dortmund and the Lure of the Past

In those few minutes after Niclas Füllkrug had scored, as the Yellow Wall swayed and roared, Borussia Dortmund must have felt the stirring of some distant memory. Waves of attacks pounded down on Paris St.-Germain, now dizzied and wearied. The world shimmered with possibility. A place in the Champions League final felt, for a moment, close enough to touch.

This is how it used to be, or at least some approximation of it, back in the days when Dortmund made Europe shake. Gregor Kobel, the team’s goalkeeper, was pulling off daring turns in his own penalty area. Mats Hummels, a fixture in the lineup a decade ago, was spraying languid passes with the outside of his foot. Jadon Sancho and Karim Adeyemi were electric, relentless.

There is a chance, of course, that it will all count for nothing. More than a chance, really: Dortmund may live to regret that a second goal never came. P.S.G. had enough opportunities to hint at its threat, too, hitting the post twice in the space of 10 seconds at one point. It may not prove quite so forgiving in the return leg in Paris on Tuesday.

But that Dortmund will travel to France with hope — perhaps even with a little expectation — is still an unanticipated development. This was supposed, after all, to be a chastening week for German soccer: Most expected Dortmund and Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga’s two great crisis clubs, to be exposed in the Champions League semifinals. And yet, halfway through, both teams remain vividly alive.

Dortmund’s case was the more extreme. The club has spent much of this season engaged in a bout of restive soul-searching. Dortmund’s coach, Edin Terzic, has been under such scrutiny for so long that it is probably fair to assume he has memorized the password to his H.R. portal. The club enters this weekend languishing in fifth place in the Bundesliga, its form patchy, its progress stalled.

The disappointment has been compounded by the fact that, for the first time in more than a decade, Bayern Munich will not be the champion of Germany. The problem is that nor will Borussia Dortmund. Bayer Leverkusen, instead, has stepped up, a fairy-tale success story that reads like a searing critique at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, crystallizing a sense of waywardness, of lost purpose, that has been festering for some time.

Dortmund’s modern identity has long been that it is the club of tomorrow. This was best symbolized by the Footbonaut: the $1 million machine Dortmund installed to improve its players’ technique and reaction time — and which now seems like a brief and fleeting folly even if, for a time, it was considered the definition of cutting edge.

So, too, was Dortmund. This was the forge of soccer’s next generation, the place where the names you needed to know next were made. Two of its alumni — Ousmane Dembélé and Achraf Hakimi — returned to the city in P.S.G.’s colors on Wednesday, but there is at least one at almost every major team in Europe now. Jude Bellingham, Erling Haaland, Ilkay Gundogan and Robert Lewandowski, among many others, all rolled off the club’s production line.

Dortmund was also where ideas were generated, the club that nurtured Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, and introduced their gospels to the world. Dortmund was cast (not entirely accurately) as the spiritual home of and perfect showroom for the style known as gegenpressing, that distinctively German school of thought that has long since been orthodoxy for any team worth its salt.

In recent years, though, that reputation has drifted. Dortmund — like Bayern, like German soccer as a whole — is in many ways a small-c conservative sort of a place. Change comes neither easily nor naturally. There is comfort in the familiar, in the tried and tested. Revolution has always been a last resort.

How it has attempted to address its mounting travails is a case in point. Terzic himself was appointed initially as a sort of ersatz Klopp, a lifelong fan and one-time protégé handed the reins initially on an interim basis. When his permanent successor faltered, the club brought him back full time.

When the club decided the cast of prodigies it had assembled to repeat the trick of Klopp’s greatest team required a little more experience, a touch more grizzle, it turned to Hummels, restoring him to the team. Mario Götze, another hero from the old days, had previously been granted a homecoming, too.

In January, with its season on the brink, Dortmund offered Jadon Sancho his own return, and an escape from Manchester United. Terzic, at the same time, also added two new (old) faces to his coaching staff: Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender, both of them relatively recent former players. Dortmund’s operating principle appears to be that, no matter the question, the answer can be found in the past.

The effect has been to turn Dortmund into a tribute act to itself, a club not quite ready to see what tomorrow might bring, a team forever chasing yesterday. Given their rivalry, it is ironic that this is precisely the sort of thing that Bayern Munich typically does.

Bayern’s modern empire, after all, has been constructed by a coterie of former players, all of them appointed to various executive roles as an expression of the club’s avowed belief that they were the only people who possessed the institutional knowledge to guide such a demanding — and skittish — behemoth.

But under their auspices, Bayern’s squad has been allowed to grow old, the club just a little stale, and now there is an acceptance that something more radical is required. Bayern Munich had been contemplating handing control of its fate to Ralf Rangnick, soccer’s chosen midwife to modernity. He turned down Bayern’s approach on Thursday, but that he was being considered illustrates the club’s awareness that something more transformational than it might ordinarily tolerate is overdue.

It would be easy — a reflex, really — to claim that both Dortmund and Bayern should have seen this coming, to suggest that the warning signs were there and to condemn their resistance to change as a form of naïve romanticism, or craven short-termism, or bloated self-satisfaction.

This week, though, has provided a rather neat encapsulation of why soccer as a whole, in Germany as much as outside it, finds change so hard to countenance.

On Tuesday, Bayern’s apparently ragtag bunch of veterans and mediocrities (and Harry Kane) came within a whisker of beating Real Madrid, the Allianz Arena bouncing and heaving as Germany’s great heavyweight found its range. A day later, there were moments when it felt as if Dortmund might overpower P.S.G., nation-state funding be damned. Not bad, for two teams supposedly trapped in their own pasts.

That may be the high point, of course. Next week might bring a return to more familiar territory. The need for change, and the causes of it, are not erased by a single, thrilling performance. But the borders between one era and the next are not always neat, or clear. Instead, they are often blurred and indistinct. Time marches on. But there are moments, for all teams, when it does feel as if the clocks have turned back.

One area in which Bayern Munich cannot be accused of being frightened of change is in its jersey.

Most teams regard the format, if not the precise design, of their home jersey as sacrosanct. Barcelona plays in blue and red. Real Madrid is all white. Chelsea is royal blue, Manchester City sky, Borussia Dortmund crossing-guard yellow.

That does not stop any of them from releasing a new edition every season, obviously: Those customers are not going to milk themselves. But the changes tend to be minor, even superficial. A Juventus or an Arsenal or an Atlético Madrid jersey is still instantly recognizable. This is one of those areas where tradition and brand awareness achieve perfect synergy.

Bayern Munich, though, has played in white this season, with what is probably called — in the trade — a red trim. In recent years, it has released shirts that are red, red with horizontal white stripes, red with vertical white stripes, red and blue stripes, among others. There have been so many varietals that it is hard to remember what a Bayern home jersey is meant to look like anymore.

This is clearly a source of discontent for the club’s ultras. On Tuesday, the Sudkurve of the Allianz Arena unfurled a banner — one of many, admittedly — detailing the fans’ belief that Bayern’s colors should be red and white, in that order, and no other. On this subject, it is hard to find fault with their argument. There are some traditions that should be maintained.

There would be rather more awareness that the Premier League is facing a period of radical change if the nature of those changes was not, ultimately, quite so boring. It is hard to get too worked up about the British government trying to introduce a regulator because of the presence of the word “regulator.”

Likewise, there is no way to make the motion to modify the league’s financial controls — approved in principle this week — so that teams can only spend five times (or so) the amount of television income of the lowest-earning club sound exciting. It sounds like someone talking to you about accountancy, largely because it is.

Those within the Premier League who would rather neither of those things come to pass, though, have a retort that sounds genuinely compelling. Forcing the league to curb its reckless spending, they say, is a surefire way to surrender its global primacy. Other leagues will take advantage the very second the Premier League stops hurling money around like a drunken pirate, imperiling English dignity.

The one tiny issue with this line of argument is that it is complete nonsense. It is hard to stress just how much it misreads the global economics of soccer.

Simply by being in the Premier League, Bournemouth has significantly more financial power than A.C. Milan. All 20 of the Premier League’s clubs are in the richest 30 soccer teams in the world. No league has ever had such a dominant financial position over all of its rivals.

There are perhaps three clubs outside England who could contemplate spending $625 million on their playing costs, and two of those are subject to cost controls with far more teeth than the proposed measures in England. Nobody is going to “catch” England. Unless, that is, England’s uncontrolled spending results in some sort of crash.

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