Marco Reus is old. He’s 32, which is young-ish for the general population — he’s only two years older than I am — but the world of sports has a more condensed timeline. Generations of players come and go, especially at a club like Dortmund, and the fortunes of a team can change several times in a handful of years.
Reus has been at Dortmund for almost 10 years. There are young Dortmund fans for whom Reus has been the face of and possibly the only consistent playing figure of the club. Though players are able to play at the highest level longer into their 30s (Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo) and potentially into their 40s (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), Reus is admittedly closer to the ending of his career now than he is to the middle of it. His graying hair is visual proof that he’s no longer the boy of endless possibilities.
Toward the end of our video interview in the middle of September, I jokingly asked him if we will ever see him do something fun with his hair again, like his time with frosted tips or the spiky comb-over, and he said that he would have to ask his teammate Erling Haaland for ideas, but that his own hair just isn’t what it used to be when he was a young man. But we’ll see.
That Reus is old is a banal fact and a strange reality. People get old, things change, the years stack on top of one another; it’s the most simple rule of the universe. What’s strange about Reus being old is that because he has stayed on a team for which young players are consistently coming in and leaving from, he is an outsider within that machine. Talented players like him aren’t supposed to make Dortmund their forever homes.
Robert Lewandowski came and left. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came and left. Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa, Ciro Immobile, Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele and Jadon Sancho have all come and gone. Donyell Malen, Youssoufa Moukoko, Jude Bellingham, Gio Reyna and, of course, Haaland, will surely leave while Reus is still there. He could have at least left and come back, like Mario Gotze and Mats Hummels, but that also never happened for him.
The other reason Reus’ age is strange is that his career has been interrupted so much by injuries that his narrative arc seems incomplete. Or rather, his story reads like one of possibilities deferred. Deferred and then erased. His list of injuries can cover pages, and even just a month ago he suffered another knee injury while on international duty. The most consistent thing about his career is he’s sure to be in the stands more often than the average player.
I asked him about the natural frustrations that come with his career being hindered by all of those injuries, and whether it angers him now as it used to when he was younger.
“I have become more relaxed in that regard,” he said. “One gets to know one’s body better. One learns that maybe today it is good to do a bit less, to give the body time to recover. I am 32 years old, but I still feel at the height of my powers. Maybe what I missed with all those injuries in the past I am now able to bring back. How one prepares for the game, for training and to simply to know that every day is important. To bring the body to the right balance, and then of course to be mentally prepared: that setbacks are part of life but to not give up.”
As Reus came in and out of the picture, the years kept passing as he recovered and his teammates changed around him. Then suddenly, in the proverbial blink of an eye, he’s 32. He shows up to an interview as a man with graying hair. He goes from being frustrated at his body and losing time, to making the best of the time he’s afforded. He starts thinking and talking about a life after football. As Louise Gluck wrote in her poem “Dawn,” “Years and years — that’s how much time passes. All in a dream.”
I asked him if the quick transition from promising young boy to elder statesman has been odd for him.
“Yes, definitely. It is always unbelievable how fast the time passes. Now there are 17- and 18-year-olds that are at such a high level that I was at when I was their age. It is very crazy to see, but this is the time and now I am almost one of the oldest players. It shows that one simply has to enjoy this time because you will not be able to get this time back.”
From one perspective, Reus can be seen in the tragic sense as another case of what might have been — a story as old as the game of football itself. There was once a time when his name was as hot on the transfer market as the talented youngsters he now mentors. He was voted the cover star for FIFA 17, joining the elite group of cover stars like Messi, Neymar, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe. Yet, unlike most of them, he has remained at his club, so long that he’s now the second-longest-serving player at Dortmund, after Marcel Schmelzer.
Reus could have ended up at Real Madrid or Barcelona. Bayern were naturally in the conversation, as they’ve taken so many of Dortmund’s best (Lewandowski, Hummels, Gotze) over the years. Or he could have landed on a team in the Premier League. None of those moves materialized. He stayed at Dortmund. He chose to stay as much as his body forced him to stay.
I asked him if he sometimes regretted never leaving.
“No,” he said. “I have to say that all the decisions I have made have come from the heart. I think that simply speaks to me as a person. No matter what decision I had to take, I listened to my heart.
“Of course one thinks about it if you get offers from various teams, top clubs, but that is part of it and you have to make a decision at some point. But my heart has always told me that I feel the most comfortable here. To play in front of 80,000 fans is not something one wants to miss out on, and therefore the decision was never really hard. But of course one has thought about it.”
It can be difficult to focus on the present in football. The endless cycle of seasons, along with an equally infinite factory line of talent, players and managers, and the fantasy football element that turns pundits and fans into armchair owners and directors, means that one is always looking at what’s next.
Young players are a great representation of the obsession with the future, so full of promise that it’s difficult not to fantasize about what they can be. The imagination runs wild. An entire industry of transfer rumors is built on them. Haaland is scoring goals for fun at Dortmund, but each goal only intensifies the urge to imagine him somewhere else, to think of where he can be and what he can do in the future.
In a way, those young players never truly exist. They’re hardly ever seen as they are at the moment. They are what they can be, what they will be. Once they hit that peak, become veterans, lose that promise, the gaze turns toward the new crop of young players who will replace them.
Ramon Calderon, former president of Real Madrid, once called Guti the “eternal promise,” a paradoxical nickname because the midfielder, through his own personal faults and external circumstances, never became what he was envisioned to be. He never stopped being young in the abstract sense, even as he neared the end of his career.
While talking to Reus, I started to think of him as the “immediate present,” and Reus by his admission is no longer thinking about the time he has lost or what’s to come. What he is concerned about is enjoying every moment of his time now. Trying to do his best for the team, himself, his body, and then leaving the future to come as it may.
When we spoke in mid-September, I was surprised by his deciding not to go to the 2020 European Championships with Germany. But hearing him illuminate the reasoning behind his decision matched perfectly with how at peace he is with himself.
“It was not an easy decision,” he said. “You don’t call off such a tournament, but it was well thought out because of my injury history or the long injury I had last year. My body simply told me or gave me a signal that over a long period it would be better to calm things down but at same time to keep working to get my body in a better condition for the upcoming season. So for this season, I tried that. I was not only at the beach and enjoying the sun, but I also worked. I believe the mix was good. I also did not in any way regret the decision, but I accepted it and gave my body the time to recover.”
This new concentration on the present, the focus on what he is right now without the anxiety of the future or regret over the time that he lost, has led to a renaissance. Even with the injuries he suffered last season, Reus had one of his best personal campaigns. He managed eight goals and six assists, and in the German Cup final, he was involved in all four goals in Dortmund’s rout of RB Leipzig. No one would have held it against him if he’d walked away from the game early or at least lost belief in his ability to reach the heights that he is at today. Yet for him, he always believed in his ability to keep rising up again and again, as many times as it took to get to the position to show the breadth of his talents.
“No, it was no surprise,” he said. “I believe that every athlete has self doubt and because I was injured for a long time and did not know how I would return, and that one needs some time to reach their level, I did not put myself down. I knew what was in me, and I knew I could always help the team. I had to keep working to believe in myself. Then everything is OK and everything comes back.”
With Reus focused on his present, I wanted to do the same and watch the present Reus without the feeling of his story being incomplete. To look at Reus as the player in front of us at the moment and appreciate him for what he is.
Within the first six minutes against Augsburg on Oct. 2, a match Dortmund won 2-1, Reus had a penalty shout. He was sprinting for a ball in the box, trying to beat a defender to it. Replay showed that the defender managed to get there a fraction of a second before Reus did, and my natural habit was to think that a younger Reus would have absolutely beaten the defender to that ball. Similar thoughts like that crept in throughout the match.
The most noticeable difference between Reus now and Reus then is just that he’s slower, which is an obvious and natural consequence of age and injury. He has the same gait, the same air of elegance and swiftness, but he doesn’t eat up space the same way he used to. He sprints, and defenders stay with him. Sometimes they catch up to him after he has had a head start, which still feels strange. Much of this loss of speed is mitigated by Reus playing more centrally these days, rather than out on the wings.
Reus is still a fiery player, which is a wonderful contrast between the coolness of him away from the field or what’s expected from the captain of the team. At one point he was booked for dissent after retaliating on Augsburg’s Daniel Caligiuri after the referee refused to call what looked like a foul on Bellingham.
Janusz Michallik praises the performance of Jude Bellingham after Borussia Dortmund’s 3-1 win over Bielefeld.
His coolness also doesn’t seem to have translated perfectly to his finishing. Reus has a well-earned reputation for being technical, which makes it a funny sight when he not only misses a finish, but completely skies the ball or misses the target in general, which he did numerous times. It reached the point of him missing one particular chance and just laying on the grass in defeat for a few seconds.
He still gets fouled a lot, too, each foul carrying a hint of potential tragedy. Players grimace and roll around to sell the foul, but with him, I’m usually too busy hoping it’s not serious to really enjoy the comedy of the moment.
Regardless, Reus in the present is a superb player. He assisted Brandt’s goal in the match, and the process of the play involved all the little things that make him pleasurable to watch.
Dortmund counterattacked with Marius Wolf driving the ball up from the left wing, and Reus racing with him on the inside. As he was surrounded by defenders, Wolf passed the ball laterally to Reus, but a bit behind him. Reus has a particular habit of letting the ball run behind his back, rather than controlling it and turning with him. It’s one of those noticeable habits, along with his penchant for hitting passes with the outside of his right foot when he could have made the same pass in more practical ways. Reus let it run behind his back, met it on the other side and in the same motion sent the ball to Brandt, now at the edge of the box. As Reus was making a run into the box for a return pass, Brandt scored.
The second most noticeable thing about Reus when he plays now is how little he holds on to the ball. Playing centrally, he often acted as Dortmund’s point of reference when they wanted to start a counterattack. Usually that would be the job of a bigger striker who can hold up the ball and then release a teammate.
Reus is anything but big: he’s 5-foot-11 but slight, and was famously let go by the Dortmund youth academy for being too small. He still managed to accomplish the same job in his unique way, through quick interchanges. The ball would come to him, he would lay it off, move into space, receive it again, and then play the longer ball to a teammate on the wing or in front of him. He would accomplish this so quickly that his defender rarely had time to stabilize himself before having to look to defend that long pass.
That way of playing wasn’t just for counterattacks. He barely carried the ball in general. I don’t recall him running with the ball for more than a few yards, playing one- or two-touch the whole time. He released the ball almost the instant it came to him, and would then run to receive it again. It’s a simple style at the heart of a lot of footballing philosophies.
The failure to adapt one’s game to age and injuries can often lead to an early demise for many players. Some people play one way and struggle when that way is taken from them. Reus, in his older age, has made a wonderful transformation. He can’t beat fast defenders in a foot race anymore, but he can do even more damage by thinking quicker than them, taking advantage of pockets of space, buzzing around like the bee that he and his teammates are dressed as.
Reus’ playing style now is a great metaphor for Reus the person and athlete. There’s little anxiety to him, no need for him to prove anything. He gets the ball and lets it go, all the while trusting the spectacular, younger players around him. He does what he can to put them in positions to succeed, his natural fire accompanied by a greater intelligence and enjoyment of the moment. In other words, he’s having so much fun playing and enjoying being himself, gray hairs and all.
Before the Champions League match against Ajax in late October, Dortmund coach Marco Rose, praised Reus as the central figure. “He is our captain and he plays and acts like that. I can rely on him 100 percent. He is an outstanding footballer, he is at the service of the team and he is in a good shape. That’s the most important thing for me. He’s in really good form. If he’s missing, we’re missing a lot. Marco is an important glue that holds the team together.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Reus what he was most grateful for, even with all of the setbacks.
“To be able to do the job that I always wanted,” he said. “I always wanted to be a footballer. I never thought I could play professionally over a long period. I am thankful that I have this opportunity, and I am thankful that my family gave me this opportunity to play at such a level, to bring me up, to accompany me, and thankful simply that I am nonetheless healthy.
“Setbacks and injuries are part of every sport, but I am thankful that I always was able to do the job and was allowed to.”