Saturday, 1 May 2021. It wasn’t even a tackle. It was a sprint that led to Mateu Morey’s serious knee injury. He’s since had two operations on the joint. The young Spaniard has now completed the first part of his rehab. The second stage of a long journey has begun. We’re accompanying Mateu on his road back to the pitch.
On the day when autumn casts its first shadows over Dortmund, Mateu Morey arrives at the BVB training centre in Brackel wearing cut-off jeans and in a summery mood. He flew in from Mallorca two days ago. After 35 degrees in the shade, the weather in Germany had become a little unfamiliar. A black brace is wrapped around his tanned right leg - a small souvenir of the cup semi-final against Kiel and of the two operations that the Borussia Dortmund right-back has since had to undergo. Mateu spent the summer in rehab at home. Now he's back, and you have to look very closely to see a hint of a limp in his gait. He strolls briskly into the conference room of the club’s offices for this interview. His eyes immediately fix on the tactics board next to the door. He has a bit more work to do in this area, but more on that later.
It's great to see you back in Dortmund, Mateu! How are you?
Really good, thanks! And the knee as well!
What does a footballer who can’t play football do?
He has all the time in the world to watch football matches. I had a great summer doing just that. First there were the European Championships, where a fantastic Spain team were very unlucky to lose to Italy in the semi-finals. Then the Olympic Games, when we came close to winning the gold medal in the final against Brazil before going down in extra time. Well, I was happy for Reinier. If Spain couldn’t be the Olympic champions, at least a Dortmund player was. Apart from that, the last few months weren't easy, but the rehab is going well. I just spent three months with my family in Petra, the last time I spent so much time at home was when I was 14 years old.
After some browsing, we found a YouTube video showing Mateu in the summer of 2017 after his return from Croatia. He had just won the European Championship with the Spanish U17s, beating a young England side in the final, led by a certain Jadon Sancho. The mayor of Palma de Mallorca welcomes the young hero of the island, who has turned up in shorts and a polo shirt, the gold medal dangling around his neck. It was just a short visit to his native island, because Mateu Morey had long since been playing for Barcelona. Even after his move to BVB in the summer of 2019, Mallorca was a long way away for Mateu. Until he returned two years later for a whole summer, that is.
How was the unexpectedly long reunion with your home?
Wonderful! The days spent with family and friends have been really good. My family means everything to me and the old friends will always be the best friends. Don't you think so?
Absolutely! All the better that you were able to complete the first part of your rehab at your youth club RCD Mallorca.
It was a very special experience. Shortly after arriving in Mallorca, I went for a walk with my father and the family dogs. He asked me if I would like to work on my fitness again at my old club. Of course I wanted to! So I drove the 45 kilometres from our house to the club grounds every day. That brought back some good memories.
A sentimental journey through the past...
No, please let’s avoid any misunderstanding: it wasn’t for nostalgic reasons. I'm a professional footballer. I didn't go on a romantic holiday, I worked on my rehab under the best possible conditions. My Spanish physiotherapist lives fifteen minutes from our house, we have known each other for a long time and I have great trust in him.
There’s a positive side to everything. Even a horrific injury, like the one you suffered in the cup semi-final against Holstein Kiel back in May.
That's exactly how it is. I’m a person who always tries to have a positive mindset, as hard as that may be sometimes. If at some point you stop having a positive mindset, then you’re doing things the wrong way. In this instance, it was good to feel the affection and support of so many people. My friends, my family, my teammates, everyone was there for me. I never thought the BVB fans would respond so well. The people here are really very special, they helped me a lot in this difficult phase. The fact that so many people posed with my jersey on social media - unbelievable! Even in Mallorca, the German tourists recognised me and wished me all the best.
How was your connection with BVB during this time?
Very intense! We were in constant contact, with the medical department of course, but I also had daily exchanges with my teammates. They always gave me the sense that I was there with them. Now I'm ready for the next step and I'm working with the excellent physios from BVB to prepare myself to get back out on the pitch.
The fateful scene from 1 May has burned itself into the memory of all BVB fans, especially because the noise emanating from what would normally be a sold-out SIGNAL IDUNA PARK was not there due to Covid. In the empty stadium, Mateu's cries of pain could be heard clearly over the television microphones. It was as if you were standing right next to him and had seen at close quarters how he lunged near the halfway line in vain pursuit of the ball. In slow motion, with the merciless clarity of HDTV resolution, you could see how the ligaments in the knee gave way like rubber, with the leg bending backwards in the shape of a crescent. In the stands, the injured Erling Haaland turned away in horror and hid his face behind both hands. On the pitch, five or six Black & Yellow teammates stood in front of the injured man to form a protective wall, but they couldn’t stop the screams from getting through. For a horribly long time, the team’s progression into the final in Berlin seemed like a mere triviality. Emre Can later said: "This hurts us, it hurts everyone in the team. We all knew straight away how serious this injury was. And we heard it too."
Have you watched the video of your injury?
Yes, I have, several times even. I told myself: you have to face up to the reality! So I watched the video right away in the hospital. There were also a lot of photos on social media, you can't get around that nowadays. It didn't look pretty, but that's the case with pretty much all injuries. The deliberate confrontation with it helped me.
The incident happened with 15 minutes left, when the score was 5-0 and the result was beyond doubt. Looking back in hindsight, did you ever think you could have just let your opponent run past you...
No, I'm not like that. I was only substituted on a few minutes earlier, so I was obliged to give it my all until the end. Besides, it makes no difference to me whether I play five or 90 minutes. My job is to chase the ball when it's near me. To stop the opponent when he attacks. That's what I did in that sequence of play, and the fact that I got injured is just part of the occupational hazard. I would put in the same sprint again and again. We all saw what happened in the process. I came that one step too late, fell awkwardly and the leg bent. That's what happened, I can't change it. I am a fatalist. In Spain we say: Todo pasa por algo. Things happen the way they are supposed to happen, and you always learn. As a footballer and as a person.
It was your second long-term injury in Dortmund after the dislocated shoulder in the summer of 2019, and your second serious knee injury after a meniscus tear three years ago. Back then it was the left knee, this time the right.
You know what? The moment it happened, and I felt this excruciating pain, I thought very briefly: which knee is it? The left one again? No, the right one! Well, now both knees have gone through a severe injury and I don't have to worry about one more than the other.
Does the memory of the first knee injury help you? Because you know that you can come back stronger, even if it might take a year like after the meniscus tear in Barcelona?
Yes, definitely! Of course, I know it's something different this time, but... how do I say this? I'll try it this way: when you go on a trip, you never know in advance how it will turn out. But, based on the experiences of your previous journeys, you know with some certainty that you will arrive at your destination. It is the same with this injury. I can't seriously predict today when I will be back on the pitch. But I will be back, I am one hundred percent sure. Because I've been through it all before.
Is a sense of impatience the worst enemy during recuperation?
It might be. I try to defeat this opponent by always setting short-term goals. I don't know if I'll be ready in six, eight or ten months. It doesn't make sense to think that far ahead. It's better to make sustainable progress with small steps than to take overly ambitious steps and end stumbling. The important thing is to keep moving and never stand still. If you think in intervals that are too long, then things are likely to eventually blow up in your face.
What’s important is today and tomorrow, not next week.
Exactly! Everyday brings a new challenge. I think of them as little football games, and I want to win all of them. The first success was the support from the club and the fans. Then came the two operations, they both went well - two wins! Then I wanted to be done with the crutches, first the left one and then the right one - I won these games too. Now I’m playing against the brace on my right leg, I want to finally be able to run without it, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll manage to get another win soon. It will keep going on like this, until I’m back out on the pitch, at our home ground in Dortmund, with the stands full of fans. I’ve experienced that from the bench, but never out on the pitch. That will be the decisive win!
Enough said. Mateu jumps up with the ease of a newly recovered man. His girlfriend is waiting outside, but first he has to clarify something on the tactics board next to the door. There, on a replica football pitch, are eleven yellow magnets facing eleven red ones. BVB against Bayern? Mateu laughs, hesitates briefly, and proves unable to resist the temptation. He already has a felt-tip pen in his hand and writes under the yellow magnet on the right side of the defence: "Morey". And below that, in brackets: "Soon!''
It won’t be long now!
Author: Sven Goldman
Photos: Mareen Meyer