I have a ritual before every big Champions League match. Whether we’re at home or on the road I have lunch at the team hotel and then grab a coffee with a teammate — usually Marcel Schmelzer. Then I go back to my room and put on some music. I lie down on my bed and I close my eyes. I just … breathe. I feel my chest go up and down and I picture the way I want the game to go. It’s just a couple of minutes — but I need it. I call my wife right after and make sure she’s O.K. Then I shut off my phone and head down to the team bus.
On April 11, 2017 — the night we were supposed to play Monaco in the Champions League quarterfinals — I did all of these things.
The drive from the hotel to the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund is just a few minutes. Just enough time to have a quick chat with whoever you’re sitting next to. I was sitting with Marcel, and I remember him asking for a bottle of water from the shelf next to me right after we had started moving. I reached over and then … BANG! An explosion blew in our window.
Then everything started happening in slow-motion. I had no idea what was going on. I just sort of … froze … I guess. But my mind was racing. In the span of maybe two seconds, I thought of my entire life. I thought of dying — but I thought of living, too. And then I thought of my family. I saw my five-year-old son, my one-year-old daughter and my wife. I could feel them there with me.
And then I snapped out of it … and I realized where I was. I turned around and saw my teammate Marc Bartra. His arm was bleeding … bad … and I looked up and saw his eyes. I’ll never forget his eyes. They were dark and terrified. I saw other guys behind him start to stand up, but I screamed as loud as I could, “Stay down! Stay down! Get away from the windows!”
We had no idea what was happening or if it was over yet. I yelled at the bus driver, “Don’t stop! Please, please, please do not stop! Just keep moving! We have to move!”
I thought that maybe people were going to try to get on the bus and, you know … kill all of us.
The bus moved a couple more meters up the road before we could settle ourselves and see that nobody was outside. My ears were ringing, but I was O.K. I was alive. I turned on my phone and called my wife and my mom. I told them that I was all right — but that I didn’t know what had happened exactly. I hung up, looked around and everyone was just … still. Nobody was moving or talking. I didn’t really look at the bus when I got off … I just wanted to be away from it.
A few minutes later somebody brought me a phone. It was Marc’s wife. I was the only player on the team besides Marc who could speak Spanish, so I had to tell her what had happened — or at least try. I told her that Marc was on the way to the hospital and that we weren’t sure how badly he was hurt. I could hear her crying. I won’t forget that sound for as long as I live. Never. I wouldn’t wish what she was feeling in that moment on my worst enemy.
I didn’t cry after we got off the bus — I was just in shock. I was just trying to breathe.
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We walked back to the hotel, and then I drove home to my family in complete silence. No radio, no music — just the windows up and the sound of my car on the road. The whole ordeal, from the time we got off the bus to the time I got back to my house, lasted about an hour. And I took that hour one breath at a time.
I parked my car in the driveway and took a few steps up the walkway … and I saw my wife and kids standing in the doorway. I stopped — I just looked at them for a few seconds. And then I started to cry. I cried like I never had before. I hugged my daughter. I felt her face against mine and I thought, I am so lucky. I am so lucky. I am so lucky.
And then I thought of Marc — who wasn’t so lucky. I went with Marcel and another teammate, Gonzalo Castro, to see him at the hospital that same night. He was banged up pretty bad … but he was O.K. He was alive. That was all that mattered.
While we were there, we saw on the TV in the waiting room what had happened. Three bombs had exploded outside of our bus. They had been hidden in hedges on the side of the road. I couldn’t really process it … and I didn’t want to. And then I saw something that will stick with me forever. On the TV, they showed our fans welcoming Monaco fans — who were stuck in Dortmund due to the postponement of the match — into their homes for the night. Those are the sort of supporters we have. They knew that what had happened earlier in the day was bigger than football.
That’s just the way Dortmund fans are. I know, because I’ve been one my whole life.
The whole ordeal, from the time we got off the bus to the time I got back to my house, lasted about an hour. And I took that hour one breath at a time.
I’m a football nerd. After I saw Georghe Hagi score that goal in the in 1994 World Cup for Romania, I was hooked. I was on the bottom bed of the bunk bed that I shared with my brother, Ufuk, who was in the bunk above me in our bedroom in Meinerzhagen, Germany. We both screamed after the ball went in. A few weeks earlier, we had begged our father to put a TV in our room for the tournament. From that point on I watched as much football as I could. I remember Romário and Bebeto running wild for Brazil in the final few games — it was beautiful. I knew then that this … this was my sport.
Where I grew up, you were either a Dortmund fan or Schalke fan because both teams played so close to our town. And I thank God everyday that Dortmund knocked on my door when I was seven years old to ask me to come play in its youth system. That same year Dortmund won its second straight Bundesliga title and I fell in love with the team.
All I wanted was to wear yellow and black.
I moved to Dortmund, 45 minutes away from home, when I was 12 years old to play in the Borussia academy. The club has a special tradition of allowing its junior team players to be ball boys during some matches. And after two years there the team chose me to take part in the tradition. But the match I was assigned to wasn’t just any match. It was Dortmund against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Madrid had won the Champions League the year before and they were the Galácticos — Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Casillas, Roberto Carlos. All of those big names were going to be in our stadium.
I remember the beautiful white kits that Madrid wore that night. They were stunning. And they played such amazing football, too. Sometime in the second half I remember thinking, One day, I’m going to play for Dortmund. But, no matter what, I’m also going to play for Real Madrid.
Dortmund doesn’t usually allow anyone on the pitch at the end of a match — especially ball boys. But on that night, I didn’t care. I turned to my friend and said, “I’m going on when it ends. I need to see the kit in person, I need to feel it between my fingers. I need to meet Ronaldo.”
So I did. And it was amazing. After, I promised myself that I would remember that feeling I had on the sidelines.
Two years later, I made my Bundesliga debut for Dortmund. I was 16 and the youngest player in league history. My first home match was against Schalke, our biggest rival. The Westfalenstadion is a terrific place to watch a match — but when we play Schalke it’s beyond electric — mostly because of the Yellow Wall. Let me explain. The Südtribüne (South Stand) stand holds more than 25,000 people. It’s steep and filled with fans wearing yellow from head to toe. Those fans are the best supporters in the world — I know everyone always says that, but go to a match at Dortmund. You’ll get it. You just have to see it. For me, it’s kind of like the Mona Lisa — like a great work of art.
That day, the wall was the first thing I looked at when I walked on the pitch. And even now, it’s still the first thing I look to. From pitch level, you can’t even see where it ends. It’s just … yellow, as far as the eye can see.
It’s the greatest sight in sports.
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We didn’t win that match against Schalke, but it didn’t matter to me. I had lived out my dream. I had played for Dortmund in front of the Yellow Wall. I was with Dortmund for another six years, and in that time Borussia became ingrained in my soul. Every year I fell deeper in love with the club that had been my whole life. My wife and I were happy and excited to start our family in a city that had become much more than just “home” to me.
After we won the Bundesliga in 2011, I got a text from my agent:
“Hey Nuri, Real Madrid wants you.”
It’s kind of funny that it just happened like that. Through a text. It wasn’t like you imagine when you’re a kid.
I had heard my name mentioned in transfer rumors before, but never with Real Madrid. And now, here they were. The white kits, the Bernabéu, the history. And I remembered the promise that I’d made to myself all those years ago. There was a part of me that wanted to say no. Dortmund had given me so much — how could I leave them? It was hard to think about. I lost sleep. I talked for hours with my wife and family. But I had to speak with Dortmund’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, before I could decide. I will remember our conversation forever.
“Nuri, it is your choice,” he told me. “But if you leave, you must know, I will always be on your side. You are my friend forever.”
“If I stay,” I said, “I will think about life in Madrid. I will be in Dortmund physically, but mentally … I’ll be lost. I couldn’t live like that.” And I told him that I only had one life to live — that I didn’t want to regret any part of it.
Jürgen understood, and he told me to follow my heart.
A few hours later, I announced my decision. My wife, who was four months pregnant, moved with me to Madrid. We had to start over, sort of. I spoke Spanish, but we had to figure out being pregnant in a foreign country. And then I got hurt in my first training session with Madrid — life in Spain did not get off to a great start.
In September 2011 our son arrived. He was perfect. And I was so thankful to be a father. My mom and mother-in-law flew down to be with us, and while they were there I kind of realized how much I missed home. Dortmund wasn’t just a club or city, it was where the most important people in my life were.
I tried to recover from injury as quickly as I could, but at when a club like Madrid is winning and playing well it can be very tough to get back in the team. I was out for six months, and when I was getting close to coming back, Dortmund called and asked if I wanted to come back. I hadn’t come to Madrid to quit. I went on loan to Liverpool to try to get back to the level I knew I could play at.
In England, I felt even further from home. I wasn’t playing well — something was missing from my game. I couldn’t really figure it out. But then it sort of dawned on me: I wasn’t missing something from my game, I was missing something from my life. I needed to be part of the family at Dortmund again. The people there are the reason I played football like I do.
My agent made some calls, and a few weeks later I was on my way back home.
I wasn’t sure how the Yellow Wall would receive me when I came back. It had hurt them when I left, I knew that. I was a substitute in my first match back. I was warming up on the sidelines, and right before I was going to head onto the pitch, Jürgen called me over:
“Nuri … close your eyes. Can you hear that?”
I turned to the Yellow Wall and closed my eyes. They were singing my name.
“I really thought they were going to hate you,” Jürgen said. And then he let out his classic booming laugh. He messed up my hair, pushed me out onto the pitch and the crowd erupted.
That bond that I have with the people of Dortmund will never be broken. I know that now.
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Echte liebe. It means true love — and to love without any conditions. That’s the Borussia spirit. That’s our strength.
And I felt that spirit in the days after the bombing.
We still had to play the match the next day. And you need to understand, I dreamt of one thing my whole life: playing in the Champions League for Borussia Dortmund. Every European match is special for me. Those nights are why I play. But this night … was different. Before the match I couldn’t think straight. My mind kept wandering to my son and my wife. Are they O.K.? Do they need me at home? I was all over the place.
I remember walking out onto the pitch and doing what I always do: looking to the Yellow Wall. That night, I saw one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The fans had created a massive tifosi that read: BVB, which is our club’s abbreviated name. It stretched from the very top of the stands all the way down to the pitch. It was awesome. And — even if only for a few minutes — it made me feel that everything was going to be all right.
Echte liebe. It means true love — and to love without any conditions. That’s the Borussia spirit. That’s our strength.
I was on the bench for the start of the match. Before I entered in the second half, I didn’t think about the match. I just wanted to go home and see my family — I wanted all of the fans to go home and be with the people they cared about. I was able to focus when I entered the game, but it just wasn’t the same. It was the most difficult match I’ve ever played in.
When I got home, my wife asked me if I wanted to talk about what had happened the day before. We spoke about how it was a part of me now. What happened on that bus will never leave me. It changed who I am … who I will be.
The fear of that moment will be in my mind forever, but it’s the hours afterwards that I think about whenever someone mentions that day. The way our club and our city responded made me so proud. The welcoming of the Monaco fans, the togetherness in the city, and the support in the stadium less than 24 hours after the attack — it was truly wonderful.
We acted that way because it’s all we’ve ever known.
Love, without any conditions.