However hard Felipe Santana might try to turn the page on his heroics in Borussia Dortmund last UEFA Champions League match, and thus focus solely on tonight's semi-final first leg, supporters of Die Schwarzgelben have no intention of allowing him to do so.
“The days since have been really cool. People in the streets have been calling me a hero, a miracle man and asking to have their photos taken with me,” the Brazilian, a pivotal figure in Die Borussen’s epic late rally to oust quarter-final rivals Malaga, told FIFA.com. “Whether the fans liked me before or not, now I can truly say that they love me. It’s something that’ll never be forgotten here.”
There are indeed plenty of reasons for the centre-back’s second-leg display against the Spanish outfit to go down in Dortmund legend. After a goalless first leg in Andalusia, Santana it was who led the rallying cry when Malaga’s Eliseu made it 2-1 to the visitors late in the return. Making the decision to abandon his defensive post and charge up front, the 1.94m defender’s presence helped create the chaos that led to Marco Reus’ 91st-minute leveller and scrambled home the winner himself two minutes later.
Evena fortnight on from that unlikely turnaround, Santana can still remember the disappointment that gripped many of his team-mates and the vast majority of the 65,839 supporters at Signal Iduna Park following Eliseu’s 82nd-minute strike.
“I remember that at that moment a lot of the lads’ heads dropped and they couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “So it came down to me to say something positive, so we could find strength from somewhere. From there I went up front and told the lads to play the ball to me and it worked: it was a mixture of gutsiness and good luck.”
It was not the first time Santana and coach Jurgen Klopp had attempted the ploy, as the player revealed: “I think we tried the same thing against Schalke this season. I came off the bench and was sent straight up front to try and get my head on the ball, with [fellow central defender Mats] Hummels staying back to play long passes. It didn’t work that time though, which shows how special this Champions League run we’re having is.”
While Santana is currently riding the crest of a wave career-wise, just months ago a lack of starting opportunities had nudged him close to the Dortmund exit door. Two key figures in the club’s consecutive Bundesliga triumphs, the centre-back pairing of Hummels and Neven Subotic, continued to hold sway in 2012/13 – keeping their Brazilian colleague lower down the pecking order.
“I decided to go and speak to the gaffer and tell him that, after four years here, my time at Borussia was coming to a close,” explained Santana. “I hadn’t forgotten everything we’d won together, but I told him I felt I had to move on to play more regularly. But he asked me to stay and said that he needed me. And then came the injuries to my team-mates that opened the door for me.”
Stepping into the breach, Santana performed well in both Bundesliga action and the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, even scoring in the 3-0 second-leg win over the latter. What's more, following his heroics against Malaga, Santana now feels able to aim at previously unthinkable heights.
“When I’m joking around with my friends, I say that being a player like me and scoring goals in the Champions League is like a complete unknown getting married to a Hollywood star: all of a sudden you start making headlines and become a star too,” he said with a smile. “Jokes aside, the fact is I’m enjoying the best spell of my career and new options have opened up. Before I’d seen the Brazil squad as a distant dream, but now I can say reaching A Seleção is a bit more realistic because my profile’s high at the moment.”
With everything that is happening to both Santana and his club, not least the news of Mario Gotze’s summer departure to Bayern Munich, it increases the importance of focusing fully on the challenge ahead: namely tonight’s semi-final first leg at home to Real Madrid. Adding further spice to the tie is the fact Dortmund played Los Merengues twice in the group phase this season, winning 2-1 in Germany and drawing 2-2 on Spanish soil.
“The games in the group stage were a different matter. Now everyone’s approaching these games another way, but the fact is they’ve got a team capable of winning this title. That said, we’re stronger than we were back then too,” said Santana, before mentioning Los Blancos’ boss Jose Mourinho’s Dortmund scouting mission on 13 April. “He was at our game at Greuther Furth, who are bottom of the table. That shows he respects us and will do whatever it takes to stop us progressing.”
Even though the task facing Die Schwarzgelben is huge, Santana cannot help imagining victory in this season’s elite competition. “If life already tastes good at the moment, can you imagine what it’d be like if we got past Real and won the title?” he said as the interview concluded. “For me, that would feel like winning the World Cup.”