DORTMUND, Germany — A couple of hours before the game was due to start, the atmosphere for what promised to be a pulsating Champions League quarterfinal was building.
As is often the case with these ties — a game around which there was excitement but little edge or real rivalry — there was broadly a spirit of bonhomie around the stadium. Fans from both teams were posing with each other, taking the sort of pictures that countries bidding to host international tournaments put in their presentations to present the image of humanity getting along famously.
The positive atmosphere was partly because any Champions League quarterfinal is a big occasion, but also partly because this game represented something extra for both teams. Monaco realistically didn’t expect to be here, or indeed to be leading Ligue 1; Dortmund’s domestic form has been disappointing and they came into the game after a dispiriting defeat to their great rivals Bayern Munich, so the game represented a chance to make something of their season. For both teams this meant more than your average quarterfinal.
The first hint that something wasn’t quite right was that the team news was late. Usually for Champions League games the line-ups are announced about 75 minutes before kick-off, but 7.30 p.m. local time came and went, and the teamsheets had yet to emerge. Shortly afterwards Dortmund confirmed that there was an “incident” on their team bus, but with no further information. Then the rumours started, and about 20 minutes later it was confirmed by Dortmund and the local police that a “bomb explosion” had occurred.
The club very carefully kept people informed. An announcement to the fans already in the Westfalenstadion was made that an explosion had taken place, and that a decision on the game would be announced at 8.30 p.m., about 15 minutes before the scheduled kick-off time.
When the inevitable postponement was confirmed, there was little obvious dissent. The pocket of Monaco fans up in the top corner of the vast stadium chanted “Dortmund, Dortmund” in solidarity. Some of those fans lingered for a while, singing away, not entirely sure what to do with themselves while everyone else shuffled away.
At the same time as it was announced that the game wouldn’t take place on Tuesday, the new kick-off time at 6.45 p.m. on Wednesday evening was confirmed. In situations like this, when the only injury mercifully seems to have been a superficial one to Marc Bartra’s arm from a shattered bus window, it’s easy to think that everyone should just carry on as normal, that football shouldn’t be stopped by something like this. The show must go on.
But then consider Roman Burki, Dortmund’s goalkeeper, who was next to Bartra when the attack happened.
“The bus turned on the main road when there was suddenly a huge bang, a proper explosion,” he said. “The police were quickly on the spot and handled the situation. We were all in shock. After the bang we all ducked and those who could lie on the floor did so. We didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said, shortly after the news broke: “We are currently in the stadium, in a safe place, but the feeling’s horrible.”
“We must get through this,” said the Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke. “In extreme situations, all Borussia fans move even closer together and I’m sure the team will feel that tomorrow. Technically, it’s possible to play. If the players are able to shake this off is an entirely different matter.”
Defender Matthias Ginter was on the bus on Tuesday. He was also in the Germany side when their match against France was targeted in the Paris attacks 18 months ago. That night he, along with the rest of the players, had to hide in the Stade de France dressing room.
At the time of writing, the game will go ahead. But whether either set of players will want to, or indeed should be pressured into doing so, is another matter entirely. Particularly when one considers the letter that police found at the scene of the attack, reportedly claiming responsibility for it.
The game has to be played at some point, and with the second-leg scheduled to take place next Wednesday, plus both side’s domestic commitments at the weekend, there are logistical issues. However, on some level it seems unfair to make this group of men play not even 24 hours after three explosives went off next to their bus.
After everyone else had gone home, a couple of hours after the game was called off and around the time when we were hoping to see a thrilling finale to a hard-fought match, Monaco used the time productively. They went out onto the pitch to train: nothing too strenuous, just some ball work and a small-sided game in which Bernardo Silva scored a peach of a goal in the top corner.
In one of those heartening times that reminds you humanity does have its moments, fans across Dortmund provided accommodation for those Monaco followers who found themselves stranded. And if they couldn’t find a suitable couch in the city, the club promised to cover some of their expenses.
On the southern terrace, the eerily empty Yellow Wall, most of the pieces of coloured plastic that should have formed the giant pre-game tifo had been carefully placed back where they were, ready for the rescheduled match. The fans were certainly ready to go again. Whether it’s right to make the players do so is another matter.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.