‘Surely the story of the season’
When Didier Martel gazes at his screen this afternoon and perceives Borussia Dortmund’s striker, he glows with pride. After all, that striker, Sébastien Haller, could help his club to the German national title for the first time since 2012. “It would make his story even more special,” he said.
It is July 18, and Haller, just arrived from Ajax, complains of nausea after Dortmund’s morning training session during their beleaguered training camp in Switzerland. Examinations follow in rapid succession, with a diagnosis that really no one saw coming: testicular cancer.
Martel, co-responsible for Haller’s arrival from Auxerre to FC Utrecht as a scout at the end of 2014, sympathizes immensely like everyone else. “I was in the car when I heard the news and became SO emotional. I was devastated and immediately sent Sébastien a message and called him later.”
The Frenchman, former player of FC Utrecht and Vitesse, among others, also remembers exactly what he said in the phone call. “I told Sébastien to stay positive, to fight and that he would come back stronger. And he did. It makes me emotional all over again.”
After two operations, four chemotherapy treatments and a lot of headaches, six months later the sun is indeed shining again for 28-year-old Haller, wife Priscilla and his children. At the end of January, he made his official league debut against FC Augsburg. Fourteen wins from 18 duels followed, with nine goals and five assists from Dortmund’s now undisputed attacking leader.
“Look at Sébastien’s last three games, against Wolfsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Augsburg,” Martel points out. “Five goals and three assists. Those are really impressive numbers. And this afternoon against Mainz, he wants to finish the job. His work ethic has taken him very far.”
Kicker journalist and Dortmund expert Matthias Dersch hooks up. “Sébastien took some time to find his feet, but by now he has become unmissable. Dortmund’s attacking play has also improved tremendously after his entrance. Donyell Malen and Karim Adeyemi benefit from Sébastien’s presence. He has become insanely important to the team.”
And that team, as well as coach Edin Terzic, is held in high regard by all those supporters dressed in black and yellow. “The fans can again identify with this team, in which trainer Terzic plays a crucial role in his first full season. He himself used to stand in the Südtribune. Moreover, the stadium has become a fortress again, with only one home defeat this season.”
Dersch is just saying: Dortmund can hardly escape their first national title since 2012. “Everyone yearns for success,” he notes. “The whole city is upside down at the moment, with Haller as the shining centerpiece. For me, he is the story of the season anyway, even if Dortmund does not become champions after all.”
Back to 2014
The Haller of today cannot be compared to the Haller who appeared on Martel’s radar as a scout for FC Utrecht in 2014. “I went to a match of Auxerre against Olympique Nîmes in Ligue 2. Actually, I didn’t even visit that match for Sébastien.”
“He also fell in late in the second half,” Martel recalled. “There were some areas for improvement, yet I immediately felt: this boy has something special, even when I first saw him. I was convinced that Sébastien would be an excellent striker for FC Utrecht.”
Martel convinces then head of scouting Jordy Zuidam and trainer Erik ten Hag, after which Haller’s professional career gains momentum and, via Utrecht, Eintracht Frankfurt, West Ham United and Ajax, finally brings him to Dortmund last year.
Terzic on Haller: ‘He can become our hero of the season’
Martel: “Sébastien needed confidence and he got that from Jordy and Erik. They also believed in him and brought him to FC Utrecht. They have been very important for him in his career and he will never forget that. Sébastien has said that to me often enough.”
If Haller actually becomes champion of Germany with Dortmund this afternoon, tears will flow again. Of joy this time. Also in the Martel household. “This success belongs to Sébastien. He is not only a fantastic striker, but also a beautiful human being. A national title would make his story even more special.”