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 that football should deal more maturely with trauma. It is a lesson that has been far too long in the learning.
The Borussia Dortmund manager, Thomas Tuchel, looked ashen after the 3-2 defeat against a predictably professional Monaco, complaining that Uefa had high-handedly insisted the match must be played. His players, Tuchel said, 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 following the terrorist pipe bomb blasts aimed at the Dortmund team bus. Uefa said the decision was taken after thorough discussions and agreement with both clubs, and that nobody in the Dortmund hierarchy requested at any stage that 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 that the competing clubs, with local police and security authorities, have to agree to a rescheduling. In fact it is ultimately the decision of the home, host club, in this case Tuchel’s, whether a match will go ahead. The context, though, is set by regulations stating that 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 Borrusia Monchengladbach in September. Ryder explained that 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.
But Dortmund was different, and the spirit of Tuchel’s complaint seems to be justified. Nobody in an admittedly fraught, shocking and unprecedented dilemma took a step back and asked whether in human terms, as people, the players ought to perform again so soon. The Dortmund hierarchy had the right to say this, that their players needed time to cope, and could not be expected just a day later to be totally focused on their work, as professional sport requires.
Apparently nobody did, and they accepted that 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 to the outrage, that the terrorists must not be seen to win. “Of course this is an extremely difficult situation for the players,” Rauball acknowledged. “But they are professionals, and I am convinced that 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, was expressing 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 afterwards said clearly that they had not been. They still would not have come to terms with the assault on their lives 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 which killed eight of their team and 15 other people, but the show had to go on 13 days later. Survivors Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg had to turn out at Old Trafford in the FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday, traumatised by witnessing all the carnage and with so many team-mates missing. Years later, detached from the professional football bubble, Foulkes reflected that it had been madness, and they should never have been made to play.
More is known now about trauma and for some who experience it, post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be lifelong, its symptoms including flashbacks, the repeated reliving of the traumatic experience, hence the inability to “move on”, or get on with it, as some football people were saying on Tuesday. 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 human and expert help and understanding, and time, to cope with this 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, that as Sahin himself reflected: “There is so much more than football in this world.”