“The week was going very well until Monday. The news shocked us,” Borussia Dortmund’s freshly reappointed coach Edin Terzic told reporters at the club’s pre-season training camp in the Swiss spa town of Bad Ragaz in July.
Haller, a marquee summer signing from Ajax and the man tasked with filling Erling Haaland’s shoes, had been diagnosed with a testicular tumor which further tests revealed to be malignant.
“We have had to release one person from our group. It is now primarily about him getting healthy again,” a shaken Terzic said. “I now ask you to understand that this is brutally difficult for us.”
Testicular cancer most likely to affect men around Haller’s age, so Terzic chose not to share the delicate news with his players until after their 3-1 defeat in a friendly against Valencia on Monday. Terzic himself was only informed half an hour before the game and has admitted that he hasn’t had much time to process the situation.
“It was not easy to find the switch. That’s why we didn’t talk about it with the team before the game,” the new head coach said.
With Haller a brand-new, €31 million signing for Dortmund, some have remarked whether the issue could have been detected during the Frenchman’s medical, which took place on June 23.
However, cancer checks are currently not part of player medicals in Europe’s top leagues. While all players are required to undergo rigorous health checks before being allowed to sign for a new club, they are usually restricted to checking the health of the heart, detecting any muscle or joint issues, and conducting x-rays or ultrasounds for common issues that could impair performance.
The German Football League (DFL) rulebook states: “…in the case of transfers, a prescribed medical examination in the orthopedic and cardiological-internal areas is required.”
Haller left Dortmund’s training camp in Switzerland on Monday after feeling sick in training.
By comparison, sporting concerns pale into insignificance, but Dortmund were dealt a further flow to their season preparations when Niklas Süle was substituted at half-time during the 3-0 win over 1860 Munich in the German Cup first round on Friday night.
The German international centerback joined the club from Bayern Munich this summer, but will miss the Bundesliga opener against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday with a thigh injury, as early-season issues mount for a new club hierarchy.
Despite an almost obligatory second-place Bundesliga finish last season, the Black and Yellows parted company with head coach Marco Rose just one year into his contract. Rose’s successor was also his predecessor: 39-year-old local lad Terzic, who took interim charge of the team in the 2020-21 season following Lucien Favre’s departure, leading BVB to German Cup glory.
“Edin knows the club like the back of his hand. He sees himself as part of the club, which isn’t usually the case with coaches, because they come from outside,” Watzke told Kicker magazine. “He probably knows about 650 of our 800 employees. You saw the reaction to his appointment. That was bigger than I expected. You realize how much credit he has in the bank here.”
But one thing Terzic doesn’t bring, despite working as Slaven Bilic’s assistant at Besiktas in Turkey and West Ham United in the Premier League, is a great deal of experience. That’s why one of his first moves after being appointed was to bring on board Peter Hermann, the 70-year-old Bundesliga veteran whose most recent coaching role was at Dortmund’s arch-rivals Schalke, with whom he won promotion last season.
Matthias Sammer, former German international and now Dortmund advisor, called the constellation “remarkable,” telling Kicker: “People of Terzic’s age have different ideas about leadership, personability and stability … Peter Hermann brings the wisdom. It’s a good combination, in theory.”
But Hermann is more than just an old sage; he has already taken a hands-on approach to training sessions in Bad Ragaz. “Hermann will mainly be in charge of planning training sessions,Stefan Buczko, host of the Yellow Wall Pod podcast, tells DW. “So some of Dortmund’s tactical development will be micro-managed by him.”
Edin Terzic in conversation with his assistant coach Peter Hermann, a key aide to the new head coach.
Perhaps even more significant than Terzic’s appointment is Sebastian Kehl’s succession of Michael Zorc as sporting director. The 42-year-old former club captain has spent four years as the club’s Head of Professional Football, effectively shadowing Zorc in preparation to succeed him.
Now in total control, he’s made an immediate impact by appointing Terzic and making a raft of new signings, including Karim Adeyemi, Niklas Süle, Nico Schlotterback, Salih Özcan and Haller – moves which Sammer revealed had been long in the planning.
“We first discussed this strategy back in autumn. We had clever ideas and they’ve now been implemented,” he said.
“Sebastian has done a brilliant job — so far. But I’m cautious about reducing it all to one person. A big club always operates as a collective. It’s better, also for Sebastian himself, that we talk in terms of ‘we’ rather than linking everything to him. If the first three games don’t go to plan, people will start saying they knew all along that he’s too young and not experienced enough.”
The same accusations could also be levelled at Terzic should things not go well, but Buczko is confident that the duo’s shared history with Borussia Dortmund bodes well for the club’s new generation.
“They know each other very well and have a working relationship that goes back many years,” he says. “They have a level of harmony which is very rare; they understand each other very well and it’s a very smooth transition.”
And Sammer hopes the pair can help restore a lost sense of identity at the Westfalenstadion: “We want to make our own identity a bit more visible — and that includes the team’s style of play. For me, it’s not enough to just look at the results; I’m more interested in looking to the future. It’s about identity and style of play, and placing the focus on a culture of performance and development.”
Older heads will have just as much of a role to play as the new arrivals.
“The likes of Mats Hummels and Marco Reus are still very important components of the team,” said Sammer. “In the autumns of their careers, they need to exert even more influence.”
Sebastian Kehl replaced Michael Zorc as Dortmund’s new sporting director
For all of the potential upsides of the new Terzic-Kehl axis, the Haller news is a huge blow to Dortmund who, having sold Haaland to Manchester City, have now lost his replacement, leaving them scouting around for a potential short-term solution – “ideally in the next eight to ten days,” according to CEO Watzke.
“It’s crushing to lose Haller because he seemed like an ideal solution for Dortmund with his goals and hold-up play,” says Buczko. “He is good enough to score lots of goals but not such a big name that we might lose him in a season or two.”
Rumors have linked Chelsea forward Timo Werner and Inter Milan’s Edin Dzeko with Dortmund, while Luis Suarez — currently without a club after being released by Atletico Madrid — could also be an option. But with big money having been spent on Haller, eight players already signed, and Dortmund one of the Bundesliga clubs hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn’t much left in the coffers.
“Suarez’s rumored salary demands would appear to make even a short-term free transfer an unlikely one for Dortmund,” Buczko suggests. “Youssoufa Moukoko is a great talent and I really hope he has a good season because he suffered with injuries last season and barely featured, but he’s still only 17 and I don’t know if they will want to hand him the keys to Dortmund’s attack just yet.
“But the most important thing is that Haller returns to full health as quickly as possible, and everyone is wishing him a speedy recovery.”
Unexpected developments can put paid to the best laid plans, as Borussia Dortmund’s newly restructured hierarchy is finding out.
Edited by: Matt Ford