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Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich out of German Cup

April 5, 2023

Both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich have faltered at the quarterfinal stage of this season's German Cup. The absence of Germany's top two teams has heightened the symbolism of the country's domestic cup.

Marco Reus scratches his head in confusion
Borussia Dortmund are out of the German Cup after a poor showing in LeipzigImage: Titgemeyer/osnapix/IMAGO

"The magic of the cup" is a football term that often gets used to describe moments that feel uniquely possible in domestic cup competitions. While some of it is certainly tied up in football's desire to endlessly mythologize everything, every season has one or two moments that make it easy to believe cup competitions do indeed follow different rules — and this season's German Cup has certainly done that.

For the second straight season, neither Borussia Dortmund nor Bayern Munich will be German Cup champions. Borussia Dortmund were dumped out of the quarterfinals by defending champions RB Leipzig, as Edin Terzic's side looked like they were still recovering from their humbling defeat in Munich.

"In the first half, Leipzig devoured us," Marco Reus told ZDF afterward. For a side that hadn't lost at all in 2023 before the game in Munich, two defeats in five days have the perennial challengers reeling.

Bayern, riding the wave of returning to the summit of the Bundesliga, were sent crashing back down when a last-minute penalty from Freiburg left the club in their worst German Cup (DFB Pokal) drought in a century. Thomas Tuchel, brought in to protect the club's apparently endangered treble hopes, was left looking red-faced as his side suffered from an uncharacteristic lack of ruthlessness.

Mental difference

Perhaps there is a psychological difference to the way teams approach this competition compared to the Bundesliga. Free from the thought of Bayern's dominance but faced with the stark reality of the knockout format, clubs know they have no points to lose but the chance to make memorable history.

Freiburg hadn't won in 23 visits to Munich, but thanks to a stunning long-range strike, last-minute penalty and a good dollop of luck, the 24th visit ended in victory and a place in their second straight semifinal. Freiburg head coach Christian Streich was subdued about the victory, telling ESPN: "Now we've won one game, that's great but no more."

For a long time, Stuttgart's quarterfinal against nine-time league champion and four-time German Cup winner Nürnberg looked like it was going to be about the second-division side. But then 20-year-old Frenchman Enzo Millot scored his first-ever goal for Stuttgart inside the final 10 minutes and the script was flipped. Now, the club that is battling against relegation from Germany's top flight and has just hired a new head coach, had somehow returned to the final four for the first time in a decade.

Nicolas Höfler celebrates with his teammate Maximilian Eggestein after scoring
Freiburg's win over Munich was a huge surpriseImage: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

Magic of the cup

One-goal wins in Nuremberg and quarterfinal victories in Munich make for great evenings, but they are soon lost to the endless pages of football's history books. Nevertheless, there is also more to Freiburg's win than perhaps Streich is willing to admit. It was a reminder of how the knockout format heightens the agony and ecstasy connected to football games. It's win or go home. It's last man standing. It's all or nothing.

That's the beauty of cup football. Every team arrives in each round trying to keep their story going, knowing there isn't a chance to bounce back next Saturday, and, in the last three years in particular, that Bayern isn't waiting around the corner.

Bayern and Dortmund's absence in the latter stages of the German Cup is clearly not a prerequisite to magic cup moments, but the absence of both sides has just increased the aura of an already beloved competition. In the era of their Bundesliga dominance, Bayern's absence in particular has also seen the cup become somewhat of a symbol of resistance. It does mean something that none of this season's top three in the Bundesliga are in the semifinals.

Whether it's Freiburg's upset in Munich, Stuttgart's season-saving march to a semifinal, Randal Kolo Muani's love affair with Frankfurt or Dortmund's undoing in Leipzig, this season's German Cup has again already delivered moments few would have thought possible. Some might even call them magic.

Edited by Richard Connor