Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final? It is a great story that nobody saw coming

Who even are Borussia Dortmund?

In the Bundesliga they are limping home in fifth place. Haunted by the ghosts of last year and the trauma of letting the title slip away on the final day, they have stumbled through the season, at times directionless and often looking broken from the experience.

In the Champions League, they have fire in their eyes and miles of heart.

Dortmund are everything and nothing. But they are a Champions League finalist now and, somehow, they fully deserve to be.

Their 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday — a 2-0 aggregate win — was the latest triumph in what must be one of the most remarkable runs the competition has seen in recent years. Dortmund were not even supposed to survive the group. Newcastle United would beat them, so would Milan and, at that earlier stage, so surely would PSG.

No, no, no.

No again.

They are heading to Wembley and the symmetry of that escapes nobody. It has been 11 years since Jurgen Klopp led them there for their last Champions League final and the warmth of those days, of the entire Klopp era in fact, has been something the club have been longing for ever since.

Dortmund are not back. Nobody would describe them as being the equal of that Klopp side. But there lies the sweetness of this anomaly and the charm of their achievement. This is a great story that nobody saw coming.

Edin Terzic’s team bent without breaking in Paris. At times, PSG’s attacking thrust threatened to overwhelm them. Dortmund’s posts rattled and their crossbar quivered. Their foundations shook.

But more broadly, Terzic and his players travelled to Paris with a game plan that worked. They sat deep and tight between the lines. They funneled PSG’s attacking possession down the right side, away from the dangerous central areas and, crucially, from Kylian Mbappe. There was no perfect way to play the game, but that was as close to being on Dortmund’s terms as it could have been.

Mbappe was not ineffective, but he was never overly relevant. Up against him, Julian Ryerson might have had one of his best games as a Dortmund player. Jadon Sancho, who was celebrated for his attacking impact in the first leg, was confident in possession again, but also industrious in protecting Ryerson, his full-back. It meant Mbappe never quite had the ball on his own terms, nor the opportunities he so often feasts upon.

On the other side of the pitch, Ousmane Dembele and Achraf Hakimi sent in 28 crosses between the two of them. Inside the box, luck was certainly on Dortmund’s side. But it was still the kind of statistic Terzic and his coaching staff would have been hoping to see. Their team were going to experience heavy pressure somewhere. Playing against a team of PSG’s resources can create a tactical Sophie’s Choice, but Dortmund picked well; the Parisians were never quite clinical enough to make their technical superiority pay.

To talk of posts hit and bounces of the ball is to miss the point of a game occurring within the context of modern European football and its many inequities. Dortmund and PSG are not equals. They are not run the same way as clubs, nor for the same reason.

To overcome that deficit, Dortmund gave a performance of tremendous resilience and no little humility. Even Terzic’s gifted technical players turned blue-collar on Tuesday and there was something affecting about watching artisans like Julian Brandt, Karim Adeyemi and Marcel Sabitzer hassling and harrying, doing whatever was necessary for the sake of the team.

It is what made it so enrapturing. Dortmund hung on. Dortmund hurled bodies in front of shots. Dortmund suffered. Because they had to. Because given what the unflattering light of this Bundesliga shows them to be, they were not good enough to give anything less than everything.

Today, football celebrates a clinical and clean sort of excellence. Planned celebrations, tactical perfection and self-assured cool; those are the game’s contemporary fashions and Dortmund were faithful to none of them. They were muddy knees, body odour and desperation. But the Dortmund fans who travelled to Paris from the Ruhr Valley must have felt such overwhelming and guttural pride — the kind which supporters of all teams chase their entire lives, often without ever experiencing it.

“It’s almost surreal,” Terzic said. “I think in the grand scheme of things we deserved to reach the final. We came here to confront a team that has so many qualities. It’s thanks to teamwork, granted a little bit of luck too. I’m very proud of my team, my staff and the entire club.”

Last week, Marco Reus announced he will be leaving Dortmund at the end of the season. Reus played in the 2013 final and in the years since has endured terrible injuries, awful luck and the steady decline of the team around him. He has long been assured of leaving the club as a modern icon, but this season has occurred under a cloud, as the relationship between him and Terzic has soured over disagreements about his playing time.

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Wild scenes among the travelling fans greeted Dortmund’s victory in Paris (Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu via Getty Images)

And yet inside this wonderfully strange Champions League campaign, like so many of Dortmund’s ailments, none of that mattered. It has been another truth altered. Reus came on as a second-half substitute and dug in alongside his team-mates, willing to give whatever his 34-year-old body has left. It was that kind of night. Primal and uncomplicated, with no place for the fine detail.

“How we won the game, no one will ask tomorrow,” Reus said. “Shots against the post won’t matter tomorrow. What counts is that Borussia Dortmund are in the final again. Nobody expected this. It’s just incredible.”

Nobody did expect this. Of this coach, of these players, of this club. Not now, not all these years later.

(Top photo: Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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