Mario Götze, Henrikh Mkhitaryan & Dortmund’s nostalgia problem

In Depth

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around wildly, as if the past was lurking here in the shadow of the Westfalenstadion, just out of reach of his hand. “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before.”

Mario Götze is a very, very good footballer. Still only 25, the Germany international has five Bundesliga titles to his name and once scored the winning goal in a World Cup Final.

Yet for a player who has achieved so much at such a young age, Götze doesn’t command universal praise.

Back in May 2013, a 20-year-old Götze sat in the stands at Wembley, at least one camera focused on him throughout, for the Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

A few weeks prior, the midfielder had agreed to join Bayern, breaking the hearts of Dortmund fans (and team-mate Mats Hummels) and leading many neutrals to regard him as a money-grabber.

For the huge match between his current and future employers, Götze was sidelined with a ‘hamstring injury’.

But if the young Götze cut a distant and unlovable figure in 2013, these days he’s more likely to attract pity than scorn.

Despite winning three titles (and the World Cup) in three years at Bayern, Götze’s career has stalled somewhat. An up-and-down time in Bavaria culminated in an injury-hit final season, during which manager Pep Guardiola also dropped the midfielder for many important fixtures.

The outcome of that difficult situation was a slightly surprising return to Dortmund.

There’s nothing especially unusual about a player returning to an old club, of course. It happens all the time in the lower leagues, where players are often tied by geographical constraints and interpersonal relationships. Many elite players also return to their hometown clubs toward the end of their career as they prepare for life beyond football.

But Götze’s 2016 transfer back to Dortmund, when the player was just 24, ticked neither of those boxes.

It was weird in another way, too.

Upon his return to Dortmund, Götze joined not one but two other players who had already made a similar trip: Nuri Şahin came back after an unsuccessful time at Real Madrid, while Shinji Kagawa did the same with Manchester United.

It’s a fairly rare occurrence in top-level football for players to return to former clubs in the middle of their careers. For three international players to do it at once is virtually unheard of. So why do former Dortmund players keep going back?

Dortmund and a curious case of nostalgia

This website makes no secret of its fondness for nostalgia. There’s a whole section devoted to players and moments of seasons past, where readers can reminisce about everything from Hidetoshi Nakata to Paul the Octopus.

But ‘nostalgia’ didn’t always mean what it does now.

Coined by Swiss medical student Johanes Hofer in 1688, the word was initially a way to describe a “sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land”. Homesickness, in other words. A homesickness that happened to be particularly prevalent among Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands.

Over time, however, the meaning of ‘nostalgia’ changed. While initially used to describe the desire to go home, it eventually began to mean something different: longing for the past.

That new kind of nostalgia is everywhere in today’s culture. And while casually watching Raúl goal compilations might not feel like a form of ‘longing’, there is an element of the bittersweet even in this simple kind of nostalgia, in knowing that those bygone footballing moments — first experienced as a child, a teen, or a young man or woman — are now gone forever.

From afar, it looks very much like Dortmund’s three returning midfielders have indulged in some kind of nostalgia. But which kind, the old or the new?

When Götze rejoined in 2016 to the vexation of many Dortmund supporters, the player made a point of referring to the club as his “home”; when Kagawa made his own return two years prior, the Japanese playmaker said that stepping back into the Westfalenstadion gave him goosebumps.

On the surface, it looks like these players — a bit like Hofer’s Swiss mercenaries of the 17th century — really did just want to go home, to return to a club where they belonged, be that in a personal or a footballing sense, or both.

But was ‘home’ really all they were looking for?

Let’s not forget that Dortmund’s back-to-back titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12 were a monumental achievement, and doubtless an incredible experience to be part of. Götze, Kagawa and Sahin didn’t just play for a great club; they played for the club during one the greatest periods of its recent history.

Having tasted that glory, it seems plausible that those three players might have wanted to ‘go back’ in a different sense — not just to a stadium in North Rhine-Westphalia but to a corner of history in which they were a little younger, a little more successful and ultimately a little happier.

It’s a feeling we can all relate to, but it’s something that we know we can never do. Going home is possible; going back in time isn’t.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan: the next to go back?

The unrepeatability of the past may now be becoming clearer to Götze, who is back at the place where he began, but who made just nine Bundesliga starts for Dortmund last season as the club finished third.

It’s not necessarily all bad, though. When Götze plotted his return to Die Schwarzgelben, he might not have imagined playing in a deeper playmaking role than he did during his first spell. So while his goalscoring return since 2016 has been poor, there are small signs of evolution amongst the sentimentality.

Nonetheless, all that glitters is not yellow.

Dortmund’s struggles over the last few seasons should come as no surprise. After all, the club is in a perpetual uphill battle to compete with the richer Bayern — a club that also happens to enjoy pinching Dortmund’s players.

But while there is nothing shameful about Dortmund’s recent league finishes of seventh, second and third, the state of the club (and the mixed form of Götze in particular) should serve as a red flag for Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The Armenian, who left Dortmund in 2016 for Manchester United, is being tipped by several papers to become the German club’s fourth returner. He has featured infrequently for United in recent months and is said to have fallen out of favour with José Mourinho.

At present, one popular bookmaker has Dortmund as 4/1 favourites to be Mkhitaryan’s next club.

You can just about see how a return could appeal to Mkhitaryan, too. The Armenian had a brilliant final season at Dortmund, bagging 11 goals and 15 assists in the league alone. On top of this, many of his former team-mates are still there.

But if Mkhitaryan really is interested in a return to Dortmund, he should ask himself a question: Am I simply going home, or am I trying to repeat the past?

The latter, as we all learn sooner or later, is impossible.

By Benedict O’Neill

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