Football must learn from sorry rush to play Borussia Dortmund game | David Conn

David Conn
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and other Borussia Dortmund players wear a T-shirt reading ‘Be strong, we are with you’ in support of their team-mate Marc Bartra, who was injured in the bomb attacks.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP</span>
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and other Borussia Dortmund players wear a T-shirt reading ‘Be strong, we are with you’ in support of their team-mate Marc Bartra, who was injured in the bomb attacks. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

Perhaps the most sensible conclusion to draw from the sorry row about who decided to reschedule a Champions League quarter-final for the day after a triple bomb attack on one of the teams, is to step back and say football should deal more maturely with trauma. It is a lesson far too long in the learning.

The Borussia Dortmund manager, Thomas Tuchel, looked ashen after the 3-2 defeat against a predictably professional Monaco, claiming Uefa had high-handedly insisted the match must be played. His players needed at least “a few more days” to try to come to terms with the assault on their lives before having to perform again. Uefa insists it did not impose the decision to kick-off the match less than 24 hours after it was called off on Tuesday.

Uefa said the decision was taken after thorough discussions and agreement with both clubs, and nobody in the Dortmund hierarchy requested at any stage the match should not go ahead.

Uefa’s account rings true, rather than Tuchel’s claim of being instructed by text, without consultation, that the decision was taken in Switzerland, but everybody involved will undoubtedly have felt pressure to get the game played. The process, set out in Uefa regulations for postponed matches, is the clubs, with local police and security authorities, have to agree to a rescheduling. It is ultimately the decision of the home club, in this case Tuchel’s, whether a match will go ahead. The context, though, is set by regulations stating a postponed match must be replayed at “the earliest possible opportunity”, a crowded and relentless sporting schedule, the imperatives of television, sponsors, ticket sales, money, jobs – and, not to be underestimated, the fundamental obsession with the game itself.

Manchester City’s safety officers, Steve McGrath and Mark Ryder, gave a fascinating insight at last month’s Football Safety Officers Association conference into the postponement of City’s Champions League group match against Borussia Mönchengladbach in September. Ryder explained it was his job, as the host club’s official responsible for safety, to resist all sporting, commercial and scheduling pressures and call the match off because of the torrential rain which had made the stadium and transport to it dangerous.

He described Uefa as having been informed of his decision, rather than having any right to impose its view. That match was rescheduled for 7.45pm the following day, as makes most sense in normal circumstances, with the away team in town and the expectation that the circumstances would not be repeated – even a rainstorm in Manchester.

Dortmund was different and the spirit of Tuchel’s complaint seems to be justified. No one in an admittedly fraught, shocking and unprecedented dilemma took a step back and asked whether in human terms, as people, the players ought to play so soon. The Dortmund hierarchy had the right to say this, that their players needed time to cope and could not be expected to be totally focused on their work, as professional sport requires.

<span class="element-image__caption">Dortmund’s players and fans prepare for the hastily rescheduled match against Monaco.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alexandre Simoes/Getty Images</span>
Dortmund’s players and fans prepare for the hastily rescheduled match against Monaco. Photograph: Alexandre Simoes/Getty Images

Apparently nobody did and they accepted the demands of the competition, their sport and their industry meant the game had to be played immediately. The Dortmund president, Reinhard Rauball, a distinguished football figure in Germany, also president of the Bundesliga, gave the understandable, if standard, response, that the terrorists must not be seen to win. “This is an extremely difficult situation for the players,” he said, “but they are professionals and I am convinced they will put it aside and perform. It would be a bad thing for those who did this to succeed in influencing the team in some way.”

Yet Hans-Joachim Watzke, the Dortmund chief executive, expressed more doubts. Describing the bombs as a “traumatic experience” for the players, he said the team was “in shock” and questioned whether they were in a fit psychological and emotional state to play.

Tuchel said clearly they had not been. They still would not have come to terms with the assault within a few days, he said, but at least it could have given them a chance. Only once the initial shock and whirlwind was over, the game played and Tuchel’s complaints aired, did Dortmund manage to take a collective breath and realise what they most need is time to recover.

The rush to play on carried echoes from 59 years ago, when Manchester United were granted two postponements following the Munich aeroplane disaster that killed eight of their team and 15 other people, but the show had to go on 13 days later. Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg were survivors and had to play at Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday, traumatised by witnessing the carnage and with so many team-mates missing. Years later, detached from the professional football bubble, Foulkes reflected it had been madness, and they should never have been made to play.

More is known now about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be lifelong, its symptoms including flashbacks, the repeated reliving of the experience, hence the inability to “move on”. After the Monaco defeat the Dortmund midfielder Nuri Sahin said he found the memory of the bomb blast already hard to talk about. “I get goosebumps,” he said, thinking of his team-mates in fear of their lives. “I can’t forget the faces.”

That suggests a group of people, probably including Tuchel, who needed expert help and understanding, and time, to cope with the attack, not an immediate return to the overheated professional business of performing, competing and, now, dealing with losing.

There is an inherent risk of immaturity in the grown-up obsession with sport, and football people need to show a greater understanding in many ways. As Sahin reflected: “There is so much more than football in this world.”

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