The bomb attack on a German professional football team’s bus this week had high symbolic impact, and some players felt used by the demand they play a rescheduled match one day later. The events have sparked a debate in Germany about the safety of famous athletes in the age of terror. By SPIEGEL Staff
Borussia Dortmund’s team bus has 480 horsepower and 33 seats, all upholstered in leather. It has a refrigerator, Wi-Fi, a satellite TV. The coaches sit all the way up front.
This past Tuesday, the bus left the team’s hotel in the Höchsten area of Dortmund at 7:15 p.m. The team, also known as BVB, drove towards Signal Iduna Park, the stadium where the Champions League match against Monaco was to take place.
It was the same route that the BVB bus had been taking for years. The journey normally takes 20 minutes. But this time, the drive ended earlier, after only a few seconds.
As the bus drove onto Wittbräucker Strasse, three bombs exploded. They had been planted behind a hedge. The detonations severely damaged the bus. The explosives, which had a range of over 100 meters (328 feet), were filled with metal pins. Glass shards and metal bomb fragments flew through the bus. A metal pin got lodged in the headrest of one of the bus seats, apparently only a few centimeters from one player’s head.
The athletes reacted instinctively. They ducked down in their rows of seats. Some threw themselves to the floor. One yelled to the bus driver: “Keep driving, keep driving!”
Midfielder Nuri Sahin looked into the face of Marcel Schmelzer, who was sitting next to him. Later Sahin would say: “I will never in my life forget Schmelle’s facial expression. We’ve often seen things like that on TV, it was always far away. And now we experienced it personally.” Marc Bartra, Dortmund’s central defender, was injured in the arm and hand by a broken windowpane, and had to to be operated on.
The planned game was cancelled, and special broadcasts aired on TV. The next day, the mass-circulation Bild newspaper dedicated four pages to its coverage of the story, and Chancellor Angela Merkel even addressed the attack.
Every child, every politician, and now every enemy of this country knows that football is more than just a game in Germany. Football is a passion that can unite a society even at a time when it disagrees about many other things. An attack on this pastime affects the entire community.
Even if only two got people injured in Dortmund, the explosions set off social repercussions that extend far beyond the team, football and its fans. Terror attacks rarely target individuals. The perpetrators almost always look for symbolically loaded targets. It might be a world-famous building. It could be a festival on a national holiday. A Christmas market. News offices or rock concerts are also symbols, given that they represent freedom of speech or the liberal Western lifestyle.
At the time of the publication of this article, it remained unclear who carried out the attack on the team. However, one thing is certain: The intended target had large symbolic importance. ´
Initially, the search for the culprits proved frustrating for investigators. No evidence could be found linking the initial suspects, indentified shortly after the explosions, to the attack. The apartment of the first suspect, Abdullah al-Z., only got searched by police because he had an umbrella from L’Arrivée, the Dortmund team’s hotel, in his possession. “I don’t know where I got the goddamned umbrella,” the man told the investigators during his questioning. The authorities believe he and his brother are part of the Islamist scene. He is alleged to have been planning to join an Islamist group in Syria back in the summer of 2013.
Police took a second suspect, Iraqi Wuppertal-resident Abdul Beset al-O., into custody — but not because of any involvement in the attack. He had fallen under the scrutiny of the authorities because the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, had information about his supposed involvement with the Islamic State in Iraq. His wife had also accused him of hitting her. A few days before the attack in Dortmund, agents with Germany’s domestic intelligence agency responsible for monitoring extremism had wiretapped a phone conversation in which the person the Iraqi was speaking to is alleged to have said, “The explosive is ready.”
He’s also being held because the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office believes he is a member of a terrorist organization. He found out about the attack on Facebook, he told the investigators. “I’m a fan of FC Barcelona, I’m not so interested in Dortmund.”
Potentially Deadly Bombs
After that, the investigators had to restart their work in fitting together the puzzle from the very beginning. As of Thursday evening, little was certain. Someone with expertise must have built the explosives with the intention of killing people. They went off, simultaneously. That’s not always the case. Metal pins of up to 10 centimeters in length were placed inside the bombs. If they had struck people, they could have caused serious injuries or death. It also appears that the hedge where the explosives had been planted might have reduced the detonations’ impact.
Investigators have so far found no fingerprints on the letters discovered at the scene claiming responsibility for the attacks. Intelligence agency analysts have noted that the person writing the letters used vocabulary that seemed strung together from three different extremist strains: from left- and right-wing extremists as well as Islamists. That suggests the perpetrator may not have even been an extremist.
The fact that they found not only the detonators on the scene, but also part of a receiver unit gave authorities a glimmer of hope. It suggests the explosive was detonated remotely — and that the perpetrator used a mobile phone — even though there’s no guarantee that will lead them to the person responsible. In investigative proceedings, leads that seem hot can also go cold within a matter of hours, and other completely unexpected clues can lead to success.
Even though investigators had apparently made little progress in resolving the crime, BVB players were expected to continue with their professional lives as if nothing had happened. For Matthias Ginter, 23, who sat in the rear of the BVB bus, Tuesday marked the third time in his life he had experienced a moment of true terror.
Ginter is a member of the German national team. On the day of the Paris attacks in November, he stood on the pitch of the Stade de France as bombs exploded outside. He then sat in the national team’s bus as it headed to the stadium in Hanover several days later, when it was told to turn around because of a terror threat.
Ginter has been a professional player for five years. He became a world champion in Brazil in 2014. He earns very good money playing for Dortmund. He’s not someone who talks a lot. He’s tough guy, robust, but also a person with whom you can win a battle on a football pitch.
Fearing for Their Lives
But how do young professional football players, trained sports gladiators, who fight for victory every weekend in full stadiums, deal with something like that — with bombs, with terror, with fear for their lives? After the attack on the BVB bus, a photo was taken showing the players and their minders standing on the side of the road next to the bus. It showed empty, pensive faces. One could see Ginter with his hood pulled up. He was typing something into his mobile phone.
Thomas Tuchel, the Dortmund trainer, was also visible. He seemed completely dazed.
About 24 hours after the photo was taken, BVB played against Monaco in the Champions League quarter-final in the sold-out stadium. Emotions rode high. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière sat in the stands. Germany was watching. Things simply went on as if it were business as usual. Football players are drilled to be able to function in high-pressure situations. But can a person simply go on, even play one day later, as if nothing had happened?
When psychiatrist Mazda Adli, 47, the chief physician at Berlin’s Fliedner Hospital, found out that the team would be expected to play the game the next day, he thought: “That’s going to be an immense task for the players. It’s no longer just about the game — the world will be watching events through a very different lens.”
Adli says that psychiatrists have interviewed witnesses of terrorist attacks and determined that “the ability to process them varies extremely between different people.” But he says that some things speak in favor of the decision. “It’s good not to allow yourself to be dragged completely out of daily life by the attack. It can be soothing for the people and fans when they see that life goes on” — even if some players might experience flashbacks or sleeping disorders at a later point. What you have then, he says, is post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychiatrist Manfred Lütz, 63, who leads his group at Cologne’s Alexianer Hospital, points to the high symbolic importance of the soccer match. He says that, fundamentally, confronting the situation head-on isn’t a bad thing. Pope John Paul II, for example, held services on St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican after getting shot there in May 1981.
Many people come to terms just fine after an attack like that. The football players are young and less susceptible to stress. But they will nevertheless have to get used to the idea that they could be the targets of terrorist attacks. Helmut Spahn, the former head of security for the German Football Association (DFB), started his new job last May as head of security for FIFA, the global football governing body. “If someone had asked me a week ago if I could imagine something like this happening, I would have said ‘no’,” Spahn says. “My risk analyses didn’t even factor in an attack on a team bus. In that sense, while I may not have been shocked, I was still more than surprised.”
He says it didn’t shock him because terrorists already target sporting events. The media provides huge coverage of sports events, making them the ideal target for terrorists. “They want to strike at the heart of our free and democratic order and receive the maximum amount of attention.”
But do football professionals have a societal duty to confront those dangers? Did the Dortmund team’s managers feel the players had some obligation to play a part of the war on terror by returning to the pitch so quickly after the attack?
Some people involved seemed to think so as they listened for a second time to the statement team president Reinhard Rauball made on Tuesday night in the stadium. Just 75 minutes after the attack on the Dortmund team bus, he justified the decision to postpone the game to Wednesday by saying, “This is an extremely difficult situation for the players right now, but they are professionals and I am convinced they will be able to handle it.”
No Borussia player who was traveling in the bus has publicly criticized the behavior of the football club’s management. But some have spoken to their advisers, some of whom were still with their clients on Thursday.
State of Shock
A few of the players, who still seemed in a state of shock about the rescheduled match, feel used by officials at European football organizing body UEFA who wanted to ensure the smooth operation of the competition. And by the managers of their own club who didn’t want to stand in the way of UEFA’s plans to quickly reschedule the match. And who perhaps also wouldn’t have minded presenting themselves as fighters against terrorism working on behalf of society at large.
“As those affected by the attack, the players felt they had been abandoned and that they had been degraded into objects,” says a friend of one of the bus passengers. He says that perhaps BVB officials underestimated the significance of the event when they initially played it down as an “incident” in a first statement on Tuesday. In hindsight, it didn’t go over well with the team.
Young players, including German national team-member Julian Weigl, 21, had tears in their eyes after the rescheduled match, and some were agitated. One player says that he kept waking up the night before the game and that he kept hearing the blast of the explosive detonating in his ear.
‘Treated Like Animals’
It also deeply affected team coach Thomas Tuchel, who had been sitting in a part of the bus where a pane of glass was blown out in the attack. Before Wednesday’s game, Tuchel criticized UEFA in an interview with the TV broadcaster Sky for not providing the team with more time to work through what had happened.
At UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Aleksander Ceferin, the body’s president, intervened in the discussion. Sources in Nyon say that he had only one central demand: That neither of the two teams be put under pressure to play. Relocating the match to Monaco was also considered, but in the end, they decided to stick with the original program for the game.
An adviser says that Tuchel and other passengers on the bus were in a state of “emotional crisis” the day after the match. Goalkeeper Roman Bürki cried after the game and defender Sokratis said they had been “treated like animals.”
Some members of the Dortmund club felt they had been exploited by politicians. Interior Minister de Maizière of Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) sat in the stadium next to BVB business manager Hans-Joachim Watzke. Hannelore Kraft, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, sat next to Raubull, also a member of her party, and near DFB President Reinhard Grindel, a former member of the federal parliament with the CDU. It pleased the football officials, because it made them look important, as if they were part of an official state act.
Even the visit to the hospital where Spanish team member Bartra had been operated on became a kind of public ceremony. Watzke entered the hospital with the club’s press chief and had to work his way through the line of camera people. Coach Tuchel also paid a visit to Bartra at the hospital, but he came in through the clinic’s back entrance.
A National Debate Over Security for Teams
What’s likely to happen after this week’s attack? The debate over how to better provide security to prominent athletes at major events will continue. And as happened after the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December, the finer details of improving team-bus security will also be discussed.
The BVB bus is equipped with a special braking and stabilization system. It also has a smoke detector. But it doesn’t have armored glass. The use of bullet-proof windows is forbidden in buses because it would prevent passengers from being able to use a hammer to free themselves in the event of an accident. The doors and the roof hatches are considered insufficient as emergency exits given the size of the vehicles.
“Of course,” says Manuel Hiermeyer, spokesman for bus manufacturer MAN, “We will have to consider together with the team what this attack means in security terms.” He says a way will be found to turn the bus into a rolling fortress. The gap will be filled.
Then people will just have to hope that no new gap is opened anytime soon.
BY JÖRG BLECH, RAFAEL BUSCHMANN, JÖRG DIEHL, SEBASTIAN HAMMELEHLE, MARTIN KNOBBE, JÖRG KRAMER, GERHARD PFEIL, TIM RÖHN, FIDELIUS SCHMID AND NICO SCHMIDT.