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Sebastien Haller in action on his Borussia Dortmund debut
Image: Maik Hölter/TEAM2sportphoto/imago images

"Sebastien! Haller!" Dortmund striker makes emotional return

January 22, 2023

Borussia Dortmund opened the year with an absorbing 4-3 victory over Augsburg on Sunday. The game was notable for Sebastien Haller's debut — six months after he was diagnosed with cancer.

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The loudest cheer at the Westfalenstadion on Sunday afternoon came not when Jude Bellingham put Borussia Dortmund 1-0 up, nor when Jamie Bynoe-Gittens fired home to make it 3-2, nor when Gio Reyna's half volley hit the back of the net to seal a 4-3 win.

They were all sublime strikes and ecstatic moments in a rollercoaster game, but the decibel levels didn't compare to the peak reached when Sébastien Haller came on a substitute in the 62nd minute, the French-Ivorian striker finally making his Dortmund debut six months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and having successfully undergone chemotherapy and two operations.

"Sébastien!” "Haller!” "Sébastien!” "Haller!” chanted 81,325 supporters. Whether of a black-and-yellow Dortmund persuasion or in the red, green and white colors of visitors Augsburg, it didn't matter as the 28-year-old was applauded onto the pitch by teammates and opponents alike, the message adorning his orange boots: "F*** cancer.”

Sebastien Haller
'It was a special moment for him and his family, and also for us as a team and our fans' — Dortmund coach Edin TerzicImage: kolbert-press/Marc Niemeyer/imago images

"We had goosebumps before the game when Sébastien addressed the team before we left the dressing room,” revealed head coach Edin Terzic. "Then the 62nd minute was a very special moment for him and his family, and also for us as a team and our fans. Everybody is very happy that he is back and we were proud to share that moment with him. That's the power of football.”

But as emotional as football can be, the elite level also remains ruthless, as Terzic also reminded reporters: "It's not just emotionally important that he's back; look at the qualities he has,” he continued, switching straight back to business. "The way he holds the ball up, the way he links up moves and brings better positioned teammates into the game. Also for those reasons are we so happy to have him back."

Familiar failings

Indeed, Haller had a job to do. Because, as extraordinary as his road to recovery has been, so typical had been Dortmund's performance up until that point.

Jude Bellingham
Jude Bellingham was a cut above again.Image: Moritz Müller/imago images

They had largely controlled proceedings against Augsburg but, as so often this season, Donyell Malen, Karim Adeyemi and Youssoufa Moukoko had underwhelmed up front. Moukoko is Dortmund's top scorer with six goals this season but, one day after putting pen to paper on a new three-year contract, he failed to add to that tally when he dragged his best chance wide when one-on-one with Augsburg goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz.

It was no surprise that it fell to the mercurial Bellingham, by far the best player on the pitch, to produce a moment of genuine quality to give Dortmund the lead but, in a spectacular five minutes at the end of an unspectacular first half, sloppy defending saw them pegged back at 2-2.

Haller provided a glimpse of what he might offer up front when he combined his physique and his touch to control the ball and flick it on in the box from a 70th-minute corner – but it was Dortmund's next two substitutes who really made the difference.

Dortmund's 'weapons' off the bench

Bynoe-Gittens had already come off the bench to score a vital goal for Dortmund once this season away at Freiburg, and he repeated the trick here, cutting inside from the left to curl a perfectly placed shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

"It's just a shame that there were five months between his two goals,” Terzic told DW post-match, lamenting the shoulder injury which has kept the English teenager out of action. "Jamie has been working so hard in rehab, in the fitness studio and on the training pitch. He has incredible abilities when dribbling one-on-one so, as a team, we want to get into positions where he can use that weapon."

Still, after Augsburg immediately again equalized to make it 3-3, it was American youngster Reyna who finally put the game to bed with a spectacular late strike.

"It's so important to be able to bring on such technically strong wide players in games like that,” explained Terzic. "We were already the team with the most goals off the bench, and we got two more today.”

Sebastian Haller high fives with Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko when entering the pitch as substitute player during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg
Dortmund coach Edin Terzic praised the impact Haller had off the bench.Image: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

High hopes for Haller

Whether it’s Bellingham dominating midfield, or young talents coming off the bench to score key goals, this Borussia Dortmund team’s best qualities are still clear to see. So, however, are their weaknesses: a blunt attack which, before Sunday, had only scored 25 goals in 15 Bundesliga games, and a defense prone to sloppy errors. 

All remained true on Sunday when the biggest novelty was Haller’s return: a moment not just of immense emotional importance, but of sporting relevance too. And that’s why it got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

Matt Ford Kommentarbild
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d
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