Champions League

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Dortmund-Bayern highlights big issue

UEFA Champions League: Preview of Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich.
UEFA Champions League: Preview of Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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In painting the portraits of the two UEFA Champions League finalists in the long preamble to Saturday’s frenzied festivities, the brush strokes depicting German archrivals Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich (live, FOX, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET) look largely alike. Both clubs insist on playing pleasing soccer with a core of home-grown talent and both are smartly run operations. They have combined to dominate the German Bundesliga for some time now, winning the past four titles — two apiece — in a heretofore balanced league.

But there is a sharp distinction to be drawn as well.

In 2011, Dortmund won its first Bundesliga title in nine years. Then it lost star playmaker Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid. In 2012, Dortmund won a second consecutive title. And then it lost star playmaker Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United. In 2013, Dortmund has reached the summit of the continent’s most prestigious competition. And it already has lost star playmaker Mario Gotze to — horror of horrors — Bayern for next season.

That isn’t to say things will fall apart, even if stud striker Robert Lewandowski follows Gotze those 375 miles southeast to the Allianz Arena, as is expected. Ilkay Gundogan is fully qualified to succeed Gotze in the playmaker line of succession. And Sahin, who is still only 24, has returned to the club, tail between his legs, after failed stints at Real Madrid and Liverpool. What’s more, Dortmund is well-positioned to buy talent across Europe; Christian Eriksen from Ajax or Kevin De Bruyne, who has lit up the Bundesliga on loan with Werder Bremen from Chelsea. Dortmund simply will replace one “wunderkind” with another. Or two others. Or forward Marco Reus could take on string-pulling duties.

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The show will go on, however many mesmeric young playmakers Dortmund loses. Under enchanting manager Jurgen Klopp and his eternal Cheshire Cat grin, Dortmund will reinvent itself anew. But even if the bloodletting never seems to slow the yellow and black machinery, if the talent drain never stunts its growth, it does underscore a fundamental truth about Die Borussen: They can’t hold on to their very best players, even if they have the cash to replace them well.

And that alone puts Dortmund on the outside of the sport’s rarified atmosphere.

There are two kinds of soccer clubs, after all: buyers and sellers. Most all the world’s teams are sellers — they may dominate regionally or even nationally, but there are always clubs with more purchasing power on other shores. Only a handful or so are buyers.

Dortmund is a selling club. Bayern is a buyer.

And therein lies the most important difference ahead of Saturday’s clash — money, of which Bayern literally has twice as much. It’s the all-important barometer of potential and likely performance in modern soccer, free of salary caps, luxury taxes or revenue sharing schemes as it is — until UEFA’s Financial Fair Play kicks in the season after next, anyway, if it has any effect.

After winning the Champions League for the first and only time in 1997, Dortmund dropped out of the financial rat race in the mid-2000s, when its own rampant mismanagement almost sent the club into bankruptcy. As it recently transpired, it was a $2.6 million bridge loan from Bayern — yes, Bayern — that saved the club. And Dortmund has never closed the gap that opened between them then.

So now, when Bayern wants a player, there’s nobody else in Germany to stop it and it gets him — with the notable exception of Reus, but only because he’d spent a decade in Dortmund’s youth academy and had long plotted his return. This is true even when the player is Dortmund’s. Gotze embodies everything the electric team Klopp has put together represents. But the $47 million release clause in his contract — surely set that high to avoid just such a thing from happening — still was triggered by the bottomless-pocketed Bavarians and off he went to the archrival. With no remorse, even though it still was entangled in a tussle for the biggest cup in club soccer, Bayern devastated the club that nurtured Gotze from the age of 8. Lewandowski will doubtless do the same. He’ll forsake Dortmund, which unearthed him when he was a no-name Polish league striker and made him into the world’s hottest forward, for the place its fans loathe most.

All Dortmund’s manager can do is shake his fist. “Bayern go about football in the same way the Chinese go about industry,” Klopp said earlier in the season. “They look at what the others are doing, and then they copy it with other people and more money. And then they overtake you."

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So it goes. Soccer players are careerists. And given the game’s soulless trading of them, try and blame them for it. “We are not a supermarket, but they want our players because they know we cannot pay them the same money,” Klopp added to The Guardian.

As things stand, Dortmund can’t beat Bayern in the long run. It can win a title or two, but Bayern always will win more. In soccer, the big money always prevails in the end. But even if, in the future, the best players will be Bayern’s, Dortmund still stands a chance today. Dortmund can win the game on the day.

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