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Was football to blame?

Last week we said "quite a lot of eyes will be on a seemingly rather mundane clash between Cologne and Mainz", a prediction which unfortunately came true in an unexpected way and for all the wrong reasons. Some two hours before this game was supposed to kick off on Saturday, the referee in charge of the match, Babak Rafati, did not show up for the scheduled pre-game meeting with his assistants. They went looking for him and found Rafati in the bath of his hotel room, his wrists slashed.

Luckily, help arrived just in time to save Rafati's life, but German football has been under shock since. During a press conference on Saturday evening, Dr Theo Zwanziger, the president of the German FA, said that notes had been found in the hotel room but that the motives for the suicide attempt were as yet unknown. Then, despite having just made this statement, he went on to say that "refereeing has become a very difficult job and there are a lot of demands placed on referees nowadays", which seemed to suggest football was at the root of the problem.

German referees have been indeed in the headlines on a regular basis in the last couple of years, starting with the match-fixing scandal in 2005 that centred around the referee Robert Hoyzer. Last year, the spokesman for the German referees, Manfred Amerell, was forced to step down when a young referee disclosed having had a sexual relationship with Amerell which he claimed was not voluntary on his part.

And just four weeks ago, the tax authorities searched the offices of the German FA in connection with allegations of tax evasion. The allegations, which some people believe to have been made by Amerell, concern referees who have officiated games abroad and thus received payments from foreign countries.

Which is why the coverage of the Rafati case concentrates on his hobby, refereeing. (There are no professional referees in Germany. Rafati, whose parents are Iranian, works as a bank manager.) During the first days following the incident, there was hardly a newspaper that didn't run an editorial about how everybody in football, from fans to players and coaches, should have more respect for match officials.

Herbert Fandel, chairman of the German FA's referee commission, criticised the German magazine kicker for its half-yearly survey among footballers, because the paper asks the Bundesliga players to name, among other things, the worst referee of the season. (Rafati has finished last in this vote on three different occasion in the past six years.) "This poll is humiliating," Fandel said, "it needs to be abolished. Referees are being shown up, their character is being damaged."

Yet it remains entirely unclear whether or not Rafati's suicide attempt has anything to do with football. On Monday, a wire report quoted a policeman as hinting that it was a "personal" matter and that the reasons for his act of desperation were to be found in Rafati's private rather than his sporting life. But even that has not been corroborated, as the police point out that no crime has been committed and that they thus value the protection of an obviously mentally unstable individual, in this case Rafati, higher than the public's thirst for information. Put differently, they are not giving out private details, which means the speculations - and accusations - will carry on until Rafati himself decides to make a statement. Which also means that it's not insensitive but actually helpful - and probably what Babak Rafati would prefer at the moment - to not dwell on this tragic case for too long and instead look at the football.

Because while Cologne vs Mainz was of course called off, the other games went ahead, including the two very different and yet very similar clashes at the top, Monchengladbach against Bremen and Dortmund away at Bayern. The games were different because the former was more lopsided than anyone would have expected, while the other was a lot closer than some experts had predicted. They were similar because both times a club called Borussia played rather uncharacteristically and won the match thanks to a young phenom.

In Gladbach, Marco Reus underlined why he's pretty much the player of the season so far by becoming the first footballer in the long and proud history of this famous club to score a brace in three consecutive games. Against Werder, the 22-year-old even overfulfilled this criterion, so to speak, netting a hat-trick as the hosts won 5-0.

In Munich, Dortmund's Mario Gotze decided an encounter which Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes later rightfully called "a typical 0-0 game" when the young forward had the presence of mind to capitalise on one of the very few defensive errors that were made by either side over the 90 minutes.

The performances of the winning teams were insofar out of character as Gladbach are not known as a free-scoring side and often don't take their chances well, while Dortmund had a reputation as a team that takes the game to the opposition yet beat the league leaders with a masterclass in defensive organisation.

It probably didn't help Bayern's case that Arjen Robben started the game after a lengthy layoff. The winger not only lacked sharpness, his inclusion also triggered a chain reaction in that Thomas Muller, who's having a strong season on the wing, had to be moved into a central position, which in turn forced Toni Kroos, who's done brilliantly this year in offensive midfield, to fill a more defensive role.

Maybe Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes reached the same conclusion, because three days later, in the Champions League against Villareal, he fielded Robben again but kept Kroos behind the strikers (benching Muller). In any case, Bayern's second home defeat of the season not only means that the Bundesliga suddenly has a title race again - the top four are separated by only three points - it also means that the most heated derby in the land doubles as a big game in terms of league positions next Saturday: Dortmund vs Schalke.

And despite Dortmund's recent domestic form, Schalke are not at all the underdogs in this match. Dortmund have won only one single home game against their fierce rivals since 1998 and even last year, when Borussia were overpowering, Schalke earned a point, as their Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar points out: "Last season we weren't doing well and played 0-0 in Dortmund. Now we are doing very well - and hope for a better result."


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