ON 6 JUNE 2014, Marco Reus’s professional life plunged into darkness. Darkness often touches professional footballers, but for this exceptionally blessed German playmaker, it was a darkness that would come to plague the peak years of his career and lead many to wonder what might have been.
A week before Germany started their ultimately triumphant World Cup campaign in Brazil, Joachim Löw’s men had their final run out against Armenia. What should have been a somewhat leisurely stretching of the legs for Reus, Die Mannschaft’s sparkling wunderkind, descended into something more devastating.
Tussling for possession in the centre of a pitch, in a seemingly innocuous bind with Artur Yedigaryan, Reus tumbled to the turf. Writhing in agony, the Borussia Dortmund man thumped the ground knowingly. Although the referee initially waved play on, he was forced to revisit the stricken player. As the cameras trained themselves on the image of Reus clutching his ankle, head pressed into his chest, it became clear what was happening: Germany’s ‘Rolls-Reus’ wasn’t going to be around for the World Cup in Brazil.
It was a shattering blow. Reus had been widely tipped to light up that summer’s tournament; his elegantly deadly performances in attack at Dortmund made sure that he was the name on just about everyone’s lips ahead of the trip to Brazil.
There was no hiding the pain on Reus’s part: “A dream was shattered from one second to the next,” he said following the news that he would not be travelling as part of Löw’s squad for the tournament.
Inside the Maracanã on that fateful night when Germany were crowned world champions, their triumphant generation danced with an unbridled joy rarely felt by footballers. There’s an image that finely encapsulates the euphoria of the moment as the team posed for photographs in the middle of the pitch, with their medals around their necks. The towering, totemic Per Mertesacker, the super-specimen Manuel Neuer, the languid elder statesman Miroslav Klose, they’re all there. On the left-hand side of the image you can see the boyish glee of Mario Götze, crouched over a Germany shirt bearing Reus’s name.
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The image is striking. Reus was injured, and although his teammates’ sentiments were certainly in the right place, it symbolises Reus’s stunted international career. The shirt is there, but Reus has not always been there to fill it, through no fault of his own. Perhaps the shirt signifies, for Reus, a lack of fulfilment on the grandest stage.
The stage was set for tournament football redemption at the European Championships in France, too. Reus overcame the pain barrier to enjoy a stellar 2015/16 season with Dortmund, scoring 20 goals as they finished runners-up in the Bundesliga and reached the Europa League quarter-final. However, having initially made it to Germany’s training camp in Switzerland, Löw left him out of the final squad. It was two years after the World Cup that never was for Reus, but there was no escaping that empty feeling of being informed he would not be travelling with his teammates to a major tournament.
“The medical staff could not give a clear prognosis for Marco,” Löw said of the decision to leave Reus out of the squad. “He has massive injury problems and the medical staff was very sceptical about his ability to last through the coming weeks and such a gruelling tournament. It is a bitter decision and bitter for Marco.”
The nation’s rising stars – Joshua Kimmich, Julian Weigl and Leroy Sané – all secured their place in Low’s squad, but for Reus it was time to revisit that familiar feeling of hopelessness. Having built himself back up into fighting shape, he dreaded to think about another moment of watching the television as his teammates paraded his shirt around in jubilation. Such moments can embitter the greatest men.
As it were, an inspired Antoine Griezmann – to whom Reus has drawn many comparisons – ensured that didn’t happen, dumping Germany out at the semi-final stage with two goals. Germany were eliminated, bettered by a mirror image of their own missing star.
The Frenchman’s prolific form at the Euros lifted him to golden boy status, generating a buzz around him that could have easily happened to Reus at the 2014 World Cup, or even the tournament in France. The key difference was that Griezmann seized an opportunity to capture the world’s imagination at a major tournament – Reus is yet to be given that opportunity.
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Of course, it would be remiss of this writer to disregard his stellar club career. Alongside Robert Lewandowski, Reus electrified for Dortmund in the Bundesliga throughout the 2013/14 season. While Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich swept to the title after winning 29 of 34 games, much of the excitement around Germany’s potential that summer stemmed from the form of Dortmund’s finest technician.
And for good reason, too. Reus was outstanding that year, scoring 23 goals and notching 18 assists in all competitions. He was the Bundesliga’s most creative player and his ingenuity in unlocking defence on a weekly basis earned him the league’s Player of the Season award. In the two seasons following his arrival from Borussia Moönchengladbach, he had established himself as one of Europe’s most productive playmakers, a winger of devilish craft and consistency that led many to believe he was destined to be that World Cup’s MVP.
That is why the fate which befell Reus against Armenia was bitterly cruel, and one that has continued to diminish him since. Here was a player reaching the apotheosis of an exhilarating career, a winger with a touch of greatness about him, one you thought belonged in the highest bracket of the modern generation, accelerating into in the rear-view mirrors of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Yet football is an unforgiving game.
As much as it pains me to write, football appears to be defeating Reus, or more specifically, his body, one that fills anyone with a knowledge of how these paths often end with existential dread. Following the ruptured ankle ligament which forced him to watch from home as his close friend Mario Götze fired the goal that clinched the World Cup for Germany, Reus’s career has been lamentably ravaged by further anatomical setbacks.
His injury list is disturbingly extensive – ankle fracture, torn ankle ligament, knee contusion, a pulled hamstring and a string of adductor problems and muscular problems. Together they have combined to haunt this chapter of his career. He has often sprung back into action for Dortmund, picking up precisely where he left off in bringing fans to their feet, only for another cruel twist of fate to leave him stricken once more.
The 2016/17 season was sadly no different. Reus managed only 17 league appearances for Dortmund, missing first three months of the campaign through osteitis pubis before another setback in March caused him to miss another six weeks. When he returned to action in April for Dortmund’s win over Eintracht Frankfurt, he scored the opening goal before being substituted at half-time. Fears over his wellbeing naturally resurfaced, but Thomas Tuchel allayed them in saying the withdrawal was precautionary.
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Such relief was short-lived. Six weeks later, in an eerily similar scenario, Reus departed another victory over Frankfurt at half-time, only this time it was the DFB-Pokal win that gave him his first major honour, as astonishing as that may seem. Dortmund, the German Cup bridesmaids in recent seasons with three runner-up finishes in a row from 2014-16, had returned to the winners enclosure.
Reus’s celebrations, though, were tinged with a creeping sense of fear. The day after the triumph, Dortmund confirmed that Reus had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, three words that instantly send shudders through your spine. “Maybe it’s a bit of anterior cruciate ligament. You’ll have to ask the doc. It doesn’t matter today,” Reus told the German media as he paraded the stunning, jewel-encrusted trophy around the Berlin Olympiastadion.
Reus knew fine rightly what lay ahead. The fact that he name-checked the specific injury suggests that he had been informed swiftly, yet there he was, amidst the celebrations, radiating with elation and cherishing the moment. Reus’s recent relationship with the game he loves has been a tortured one, beset with pain and suffering, yet he had a depth of spirit to push his looming date with the doctors to one side and simply savour the win.
It took an admirable sense of fortitude from Reus to find equanimity in the eye of another injury storm, one that only strengthens his status as a heroic emblem of how football can break you. Wearing that cheeky grin, Reus was afforded much-needed catharsis that evening, a feeling that has now been consigned to oblivion as he once again embarks on the road to recovery.
As much as it may seem, this is not the obituary to Reus’s career. He has just turned 28 and, for all we know, much happier times lie ahead. A lot of footballers have enjoyed some of their finest years in their 30s, so we can retain that glimmer of hope that one of the most naturally gifted players of this generation can enjoy a long, uninterrupted stint on the scene. A more realistic prognostication, though, is that Reus will continue to be bogged down by recurrences of previous injuries or fresh ailments – his body simply doesn’t want to give him a chance.
Then again, Reus has been battling adversity his whole career. As a youth player at Dortmund, he was a teenager of eye-catching natural ability but there were suspicions among the coaching staff that he was too slight to make it at the highest level. That led to the difficult decision of leaving Dortmund when he was just 16 for Rot Weiss Ahlen. Following a string of impressive displays for the second-tier club, he was snapped up by Gladbach. It was there, during the 2010/11 season, that Reus rose to prominence.
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The mercurial 21-year-old operated either as a support striker or on the wing for Gladbach, scoring 10 times and adding nine assists. He scored beautiful volleys and long-range missiles, but it was a less spectacular strike – a crucial equaliser in the relegation playoff second leg – which capped a fine season. Reus saved Gladbach from the ignominy of relegation, and his value rocketed because of it.
But even then, as the heavyweights of European football began glancing admiringly at Reus, his struggles with injury were a potent of the pain that was yet to come. Löw had called Reus up to the national side four times only for the player to pull out with injury on each occasion. He eventually made his debut in October 2011, coming on as an 89th-minute substitute during a 3-1 win over Turkey.
Having earned himself a place in Löw’s Euro 2012 squad, Reus was made to wait for starting opportunities at the tournament. In a bold move, he voiced his frustrations during an interview with Kicker: “I have not yet had my chance, which is disappointing,” he said. “I have to accept the coach’s decision. But this is easier said than done. It is very difficult to deal with it because I am not used to this feeling.”
When Reus was given a chance, he took it, scoring in his first start as Germany swept Greece aside in the quarter-final. However, he found himself on the bench once more for the semi-final against Italy. Cesare Prandelli’s team dominated the first half, racing into a 2-0 lead. Reus was introduced for the second half by Löw but, at that stage, the game was beyond Germany’s reach. His technique and dynamism were apparent after entering the fray, leading one to wonder what might have been had he started the game.
His response to Löw was establishing himself as indispensable in the World Cup qualifiers, scoring five times and assisting three in just six games before his moment of torment against Armenia. Reus’s comeback was against Argentina, the team he couldn’t face in the World Cup final, in October 2014. Germany lost the game 4-2, and even though it was a friendly, perhaps the significance wasn’t lost on Reus.
It was typical of a career that has been punctuated with extended spells on the sidelines. The world awaits Reus’s comeback, anticipating a return to explosive form for Dortmund. An impressive track record of finding form after injury suggests that there are chapters in Reus’s career that may bear a brighter narrative, but whether he can shake injury woes to be mentioned in the same conversations as some of his illustrious contemporaries remains to be seen
By Matt Gault @MattGault11