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The Death of Drama In the Bundesliga

It's the end of an era in the Bundesliga, and today's match, the last German classico, symbolizes that end better than anything else.
Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Later today, Borussia Dortmund will take on Bayern Munich in the German Cup, and like every other soccer fan on planet Earth, I'm excited. Der Klassiker: Germany's two flagships firing broadsides in the night—again! Is there a date on the soccer calendar that better guarantees an excellent game? With all due respect to a couple of teams in Spain, No. There is not.

And yet I have this thing in my chest, a tightness. Is it sadness? Something else? Mixed in with the anticipation, there's the sense that a chapter is coming to an end, a page is turning, a curtain falling. Cliche? Absolutely, but it's definitely there: when today's game ends, so does an era in German soccer.


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As sports fans, we often watch careers, and with them eras, limp to an end—sometimes literally. Once-great players lose a step and then another and then they're in MLS. It's an athlete's circle of life. With managers, it's often more sudden—a defeat to the wrong team on Sunday and waving goodbye on Monday—but not always. Sometimes managers suffer a slow death too.

But the situation at Dortmund feels a bit different. Jurgen Klopp isn't retiring, for one thing. He's just moving on. And anyway, Klopp's Dortmund career has never quite resembled the long ride into the sunset we're used to in sports. Sure, BVB had a bad season, but it was schizophrenic more than incrementally disastrous. Behind the facade—the slapstick defending, the inability to score—there lurked something dangerous. Opponents stayed scared. Even in January, when Dortmund was in last place in the league, there was a sense that anything could happen, because there was Klopp, and because the team was somehow still in the Champions League. And look at the team now. Five months later, BVB is so far up from last place it could still clinch a spot in Europe next season.

With Jurgen Klopp still there and many of the Dortmund stars fit again after long injury lay-offs, tonight's game should have all the fire the fixture has had since Klopp joined Dortmund in 2008, walked right into Bayern's perfect kingdom, and burned it all to the ground.


A rare photo of Jurgen Klopp wearing three different shades of grey. Image via Witters Sport-USA TODAY Sports

But the winds of change aren't just sweeping across the Ruhr Valley. At Bayern, too, things are starting to feel a bit different, although it's much more subtle. Pep Guardiola may have finally quieted his dissenters. Bayern might finally be Guardiola's team.

Maybe that sounds crazy to you. Guardiola has enjoyed a largely successful stint at Bayern. But he's struggled to entirely win over the fans. Second guessing his every decision has become a favorite pastime in Munich's bars and brewhouses. The complaints run the full spectrum, from absurd and xenophobic—too many Spaniards!—to nuanced and thoughtful discussions about how the coach effects Bayern's image.

The recent kerfuffle over former, long-serving team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt perfectly illustrates the latter. When Wohlfahrt joined Bayern in 1977, Pep Guardiola was six years old. When the doctor suddenly resigned earlier this month, it came after a spate of player injuries and some moaning from Guardiola. It was easy to see Guardiola as having run off the good doctor. When a Vine emerged that appeared to show Guardiola mocking the medical staff after a player injury, and thus seeming to confirm everyone's suspicions about Wohlfahrt's departure, fans wondered if Guardiola understood the club at all.

Between the Wohlfahrt affair and the 3-1 defeat to Porto in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final, one couldn't escape the feeling of discontent surrounding the club. But fans, if anything, are fickle. When Bayern destroyed the Portuguese team at home in Munich the following week, everything changed. Throw in Guardiola's second Bundesliga title in a row and a few kind words about Wohlfahrt, and the coach suddenly looks like a genius, the episode with the doctor some kind of unfortunate misunderstanding.

Tonight's game is a chance for Guardiola to further solidify that fan trust, to go from manager to managerissimo. Last season, he was criticized for failing to keep Bayern motivated after winning the title. If Bayern defeat a credible Klopp-managed Dortmund one last time, that narrative is put to bed, too. Whether there's anything left to hold Guardiola's interest when Klopp is gone is another question. Regardless, there might be a lot less to gossip about come next season.

There's much to play for, in other words. Tonight's match isn't some kind of testimonial for Klopp, and it's not a throw away for Bayern as the team pursues the Champions League, a much bigger prize. What it is is the last meaningful Klassiker we're likely to watch for what could be a long, long time.