On the night of May 1, most of Borussia Dortmund’s players celebrated along with their fans, singing at the tops of their voices high up under the roof of Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Dortmund had just suffered the sweetest of semi-final defeats: Real may have beaten them 2-0, but no matter. At the end of this second leg, having overwhelmed Real 4-1 at home in the first leg, it was Dortmund who would face Bayern Munich at Saturday’s Champions League final at Wembley.
Slightly aside from the uproar, three Borussians – captain Sebastian Kehl, goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and sports director Michael Zorc – hugged each other silently. A few years earlier, the same three men had embraced on another away pitch in the wake of another momentous result. It was 2007 and Borussia Dortmund – only 10 years on from winning the Uefa Champions League – were second from bottom in the Bundesliga table and facing relegation. But that afternoon, they had beaten Alemannia Aachen 4-1, and ensured their survival.
“This is precisely what makes today’s achievement so incredible,” said Weidenfeller after the Madrid game. “Back then, we were on the brink of both financial and sporting disaster, but we have now reached the most important final in European club football.”
I understood only too well how moved they were that night in Madrid. I am working on a book about football in the Ruhr region, and about how passionate the people there are about it. I grew up in the Ruhr, that region stretching between Duisburg and Dortmund, but in the 20 years that I lived away from it, football has become even more popular. While FC Bayern coolly stormed into the final, Borussia Dortmund’s victory was a particularly emotional affair, and the special celebrations of the three longest-serving Borussians is only one part of the story.
The Ruhr was once the industrial heartland of Germany, but almost all the coalmines and steelworks have closed down. Dortmund, once one of the great beer cities, has even lost most of its breweries. As Borussia Dortmund’s marketing director Carsten Cramer told me: “People here have lost everything; the only thing that is left is Borussia Dortmund.”
Obviously this is not the full picture, but at 13.6 per cent Dortmund has one of the highest unemployment rates of any of the country’s large metropolises. There are districts in the north of the city that can rival the most depressing areas of Manchester or Liverpool. Yet alongside such dreariness, in the south of the city there is an odd revitalisation. A decade ago, an entire steelworks was dismantled and sold to be re-erected in China. Now the city has created a lake on the site, surrounded by modern town houses.
Dortmund has also successfully transformed itself into a service hub but, set against the many changes caused by social and economic upheaval, only Borussia Dortmund is a true constant. Little wonder then that fans have such deep affection for the club. Half a million people applied for the 25,000 tickets available for the Wembley final; only half as many fans requested tickets from FC Bayern.
If there is anything that defines Borussia, it is intensity. Indeed, the concept is even laid down as something to strive for in the club bible – a little black leatherbound book with two ribbon bookmarks in the club’s black and yellow colours. The intensity that marks Borussia partly stems from the club having survived a kind of near-death experience: “If one has a serious illness and the doctor says ‘That’s it!’ and one recovers from it, one is going to experience things more fully. That’s how we feel,” Cramer told me.
He was referring to the debts that threatened to overwhelm the club back in 2005. At the time, Borussia was in such bad shape that, when it was looking for potential investors, it was tempted to head for sometimes shady outfits. I even heard one story about a potential investor, a Dutch businessman who was willing to invest a multimillion sum without asking too many questions. Unfortunately, he was shot dead two days after he met with club representatives.
These days there is a buzz of energy in what were once deserted corridors at the club’s head office, which looks across a motorway on to the huge stadium. During the club’s lean years, the stadium seemed above all a monument to the hubris brought on by winning the Champions League in 1997. In 2000, Borussia Dortmund became the first and so far only German club to publicly trade shares on the German stock market. The decision was prompted by a desire to increase stadium capacity to 81,000, including the largest standing terrace in Europe, holding 25,000 fans. As both building costs and the salary bill for an overpaid team soared, at the end of 2004 the club found itself on the verge of bankruptcy, with a loss of €67.7m and liabilities of €118.9m.
But Borussia Dortmund has since been restructured and everybody is thankful for the vast stadium, which houses one of the most passionate crowds in Europe. The club is also run by one of the continent’s most exciting coaches, Jürgen Klopp, who, Cramer told me, “fits the club like a bum in a bucket”.
Borussians like to use strong language; it goes well with the club’s hallmark intensity. And thanks to Klopp, things have become truly intense on the pitch. He has adopted the playing style of FC Barcelona and combined it with a proletarian toughness that fits in beautifully with the Ruhr. He has a telepathic sense for potential, and most of his players, whom he has brought in during the almost five years he has been in charge, were real bargains compared with what they are worth nowadays.
But, above all, Klopp is a masterful communicator, unlike any I have ever encountered in football. Klopp’s greatest performance to date in this regard was his press conference on the eve of Dortmund’s first-leg match against Real Madrid. That day, the news had broken that midfielder Mario Götze was to join Bayern Munich for a reported transfer fee of €37m. The revelation that Dortmund’s best player – a product of the club’s youth academy and something of a symbol of what has been happening in Dortmund since the team’s near-death experience – was going, and not merely to another club but to its biggest rival, threatened to destroy much of the excitement surrounding the semi-final. That is until Klopp, like a statesman defusing a crisis, stood in front of the cameras and appealed to angry fans, frustrated fellow players and disappointed club executives to support their team. The atmosphere during the 4-1 victory over Real that followed ensured that, even for Borussia Dortmund, it will be remembered as one of their greatest evenings.
Dortmund can’t operate without drama, excitement and pounding hearts. Or as Klopp put it after the game with Real Madrid, when his side had almost blown its 4-1 lead in the last 10 minutes: “This team is only able to offer all-inclusive football.” And if all-inclusive means drama, tears and nail-biting, then so be it. It is the thing above all that this year’s outstanding team of Bayern Munich should fear before today’s all-German final in London – Dortmund’s talent for overwhelming opponents with their fierce intensity.
And indeed Bayern, the current Bundesliga champions, were forced to respond to that intensity after the club finished behind Borussia Dortmund in the previous two seasons. That really hurt, and at the beginning of the 2012/13 season Bayern Munich changed its strategy, borrowing much, sport-wise, from Borussia.
“They have certainly spurred us on”, Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. The club’s ensemble of individual stars was turned into a cohesive group that really plays as a team, and players such as the Frenchman Franck Ribéry or the Dutchman Arjen Robben, who had previously been considered somewhat selfish, at last committed fully to playing an active part in defence. Successful signings such as the Brazilian Dante, the Croatian Mario Mandzukic or the Spaniard Javi Martínez ensured that the team’s fighting spirit was such that no player could get away with a slipshod performance. And, in this, Jupp Heynckes’ final season as Bayern’s manager before Pep Guardiola assumes control, the long-serving coach handled with aplomb the conflicts that could have emerged from this shake-up.
As a result, the two squads that will face each other in the Champions League final will display similar footballing and teamwork styles. Or, to put it another way, both teams seek to combine the style of FC Barcelona in their way of controlling the ball, alongside traditional German directness and dogged tenacity.
FC Bayern, which has so far played an almost perfect season, is certainly the clear favourite. Yet opinion polls show that a majority of Germans wouldn’t mind seeing them lose at Wembley. This, of course, has much to do with people generally rooting for the underdog, but also with the fact that the serial winners from Munich, with their cold fixation on success, are unlikely to deliver much in the way of thrills. For that, we should look once again to Borussia Dortmund.
Christoph Biermann is editor in chief of the football monthly 11 Freunde