Sébastien Haller’s first goal back from battle with testicular cancer felt like he was ‘in the cloud’

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Sébastien Haller’s first goal back from battle with testicular cancer felt like he was ‘in the cloud’

Sébastien Haller had big boots to fill.

In the summer of 2022, the Ivory Coast international had been signed by Borussia Dortmund to replace Erling Haaland who had left for Manchester City after a goal-laden few years in Germany.

After a few of his own prolific seasons with Dutch giant Ajax, it looked like an ideal replacement.

But just days after signing, during a preseason camp in Switzerland, the 28-year-old was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

After two operations and four rounds of chemotherapy, Haller completed an extraordinary recovery as he returned to football earlier in February, capping it off with a seismic moment; scoring his first competitive goal for Dortmund on International World Cancer Day.

On a day which was charged with emotion – Dortmund marked Haller’s return by putting a ‘tumor’ on the center circle before the match and at halftime to raise awareness of testicular cancer – Haller admits he has found it difficult to describe his feelings from that day.

“You remember why you play football is truly that kind of moment. Because scoring a goal, it’s like I said, you feel like you are in the cloud,” Haller told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies. “You feel like the atmosphere is changing.

“The stadium is always on fire. Your teammates are happy, you are happy. It’s a moment it’s difficult to describe, but especially this moment was really important because I knew that it was not only about me, it was also about this adventure, about this day, about everything. It was a present for a lot of people.”

 

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Fighting back
A photo of a smiling Haller accompanied Dortmund’s announcement of the squad traveling on its preseason training trip to Switzerland.

As the club’s marquee summer signing, excitement about his return to Germany – he previously played for Eintracht Frankfurt – was understandably high.

But then, after one day at training, Haller described to his doctors feeling “uncomfortable.” Within 24 hours, Haller had been whisked back to Dortmund for scans where it was found he had a tumor which was eventually diagnosed as testicular cancer. From there, the process was a quick one, Haller explained.

“It’s not like they take one hour to just tell you that you have a cancer. They say to you straight: ‘OK, you have a treatment, you will do this, it will take two days to have an operation,’” Haller said. “So it was really a real quick, let’s say in 24 hours, everything went quick and I knew it so I had to prepare myself quite fast.”

Haller began his rounds of chemotherapy, all while trying to remain around the club. Club captain Marco Reus described getting “goosebumps” when he first attended a Dortmund game at the team’s home stadium in September.

Such was the support from the footballing community for Haller during his recovery process that the striker came 13th in 2022 Ballon d’Or voting despite not featuring at all; he even made an appearance at the ceremony to present the award for the best goalkeeper.

Haller said that the toughest part of the process has been seeing the effect the illness has had on his family members. “To see the face of members of your family because obviously they are sad for you, they are sad, they’re worried about your situation. So I think that was the most difficult part to deal with the pain and the sadness from your closest ones.”

But having come through the other side of the treatment process, Haller admits football was “not the priority at that moment.”

“Because it’s a part of my life and part of my body, you can’t forget about football, but it’s just you take maybe a step back about the life, about everything and you just think about your family, the friends, the world, also football.”

After months of treatment, the good news everyone had been hoping for was announced: Haller had finished his treatment, was cancer free and could return to football.

He rejoined the Dortmund squad, meeting up with them on their trip for a winter training camp to Marbella. He made his Dortmund debut in a friendly against Fortuna Düsseldorf, before scoring a hat-trick against Swiss club FC Basel.

Haller played his first league game for Dortmund on January 22 and made his first start for the German side a week later.

And on February 5, Haller capped a remarkable recovery with his first competitive goal for the club, heading home from close range that put Dortmund 3-1 ahead in the second half of its league game against Freiburg.

The game was understandably emotional with tributes to Haller and his comeback from both the club and fans, with a huge emotional release when he headed home to cement his return.

Although he says he set some personal targets, Haller is remaining focused on the day-to-day process. But his journey has changed his approach to life going forward, he explained.

“The thing you’ve been through, even if I don’t really realize right now, you need to enjoy even more of your moments because this is something that you’ve missed for couple of months,” he said.

“And it was a really different life when you were in the hospital. You see things that you are not used to. So, of course, you just realize you have this life to play football. For everything, for all the stuff, you feel blessed. So it helps you to enjoy you even more of your moments.”