An unassuming host to one of the enigmas of modern day football, Dortmund hardly appears terra firma for prodigious starlets Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic and Emre Mor – forwards with explosive pace, guile and ingenuity from rural Normandy, industrial Pennsylvania and the culturally diverse suburban Brønshøj region of Copenhagen respectively. Representing the second senior career club, and the natural progression from mid-table local first division clubs in Rennes and Nordsjælland, for both Dembélé and Mor, and the sole senior base to date of the much-travelled Pulisic’s career, Dortmund – previously an industrial heartland now representing, with its well-renowned scientific and environmental developments, the cultural crux of western Germany’s Ruhr region – could’ve easily played second fiddle to opposing European homes in Madrid, Barcelona, London, Turin, Paris, or even Munich, at this decisive stage in the progression of such youngsters. Alas, despite its inferior climate, financial prospects and nightlife, the city, which continually defies its mere 590,000 or so city population and roughly 5,300,000 urban population to surmount all domestic and continental expectations, drew this gifted trifecta of wingers, alongside 17-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Isak, 20-year-old Spanish midfielder Mikel Merino, 26-year-old Barcelona victim of riches Marc Bartra and 23-year-old Portuguese European Championship winner Raphaël Guerreiro, to ply their trade in the Bundesliga, regularly condemned as a second-tier league competition paling in comparison to the muscles of La Liga and the Premier League. How has Dortmund transformed from a band of religious backlashers in 1909 to the continental titan it now sustains today? How do their internal politics function in an era that has otherwise corrupted practically any trace of moral resolution, and, ultimately, how far are they prepared to withstand their regiment stance in the perennial conflict of ethics that football obstinately promotes?
Founded by a conglomerate of nineteen revolutionary fußball fans in the industrial swathes of pre-war Dortmund, who opposed the local priest – Father Dewald’s – oppressive stance at the Church-supported Trinity Youth club, Borussia (taking its name from the favoured tipple company’s brewery) had their early flirtations with financial collapse in 1929, though perhaps not for the reasons history would have us perceive. Far from reliant on Wall Street’s riches for their part-time forays into municipal and regional football, overly optimistic investments in a relatively elite sporting park and formerly professional players posed a serious risk to their future after results failed to resultantly improve, with the fledgling club only salvaged by generous local supporter Heinz Schwaben, while heeding the lessons from such dire circumstances to never repeat such foolish actions. As the club’s President was removed by the far-reaching force of Nazi Germany’s sporting regime enforcers, and, amongst the typically retaliatory underground atmosphere at the club’s offices – which were used to print anti-Nazi pamphlets – footballing fortunes were stabilised in the newly formed Gauliga Westfalen, which allowed a top-level Rhineland platform for local rivalries such as the quickly established Revierderby with the dominant Schalke (another side of profound principles whom should be equally admired).
Emerging from the war and the consequential allied devolution of organised league competition unscathed, Borussia prospered in the semi-professional Oberliga West - a state-wide first division amongst four others in West Germany’s footballing system - victorious in three editions of the league in 1956, 1957 and 1963, the last before the introduction of the professional Bundesliga. Having earned their right to compete in this new nation-wide premier division, Dortmund almost immediately was forced to expand its trophy cabinet to accommodate the 1965 DFB-Pokal and the 1966 European Cup Winner’s Cup – dramatically secured in an extra-time victory against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, following a semi-final 5-2 aggregate defeat of a West Ham side boasting Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Bobby Moore on the year of their World Cup triumph – while only missing out a 1966 Bundesliga title after a late-season capitulation. The turn of the decade, however, spelled paralysing financial issues that saw the team inexorably relegated in 1972, though under the silver lining of the construction of the now-mercurial and much-loved Westfalenstadion, which played host to the side’s 1976 resurrection to the big-time.
A subsequent thirteen-year lean spell arose serious questions of the financial credibility and ambition of the organisation, as mid-table finishes prevailed until a 1989 cup double-salvo struck, with boss Horst Köppel delivering the DFB-Pokal and resultant DFB-Supercup before Ottmar Hitzfeld became the favoured candidate in 1991. Best known recently for his former employment at the helm of the Swiss national side, Hitzfeld – then a 42-year-old with no experience outside of the Swiss leagues – beckoned an age of financial prosperity in the 1990’s which stemmed from, and allowed for, outstanding achievement. Sustaining a tremendous run of season-on-season form that witnessed second, successive fourth, successive first and third-placed league finishes from 1991/92 to 1996/97, not to mention a 1992 UEFA Cup final defeat to Juventus, 1995 and 1996 DFB-Supercup victories and a 1996/97 Champions League slice of revenge, defeating Juventus 3-1 in Munich with a man-marking masterclass from Paul Lambert, of all players, on Zinedine Zidane, Hitzfeld’s stay was a nigh-on miraculous exert of the Dortmund history books, culminating in an angst-fuelled move to sporting director before successor Nevio Scala achieved the 1997 Intercontinental Cup to lacquer-finish a rarely-realised period of triumph on practically all fronts.
Floated on the stock market at the turn of the millennium, Dortmund made more than a few shocks in their ownership direction for a new era in German football, establishing themselves as a public-traded club on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in which everyday citizens, including, most vitally, fans, could invest in the sporting fortunes of Die Schwarzgelben – the Black and Yellow – with 81.05% of the club owned by stock market investors. While bringing with it the very obvious threat of insolvency in the event of a stock market collapse or in a prolonged period of competitive downturn – as witnessed in the post-2002 Bundesliga title period, with poor results and financial management leading to the leasing off of the now 81,000-capacity Westfalenstadion, as well as the reliance on a monthly €2 million payroll cover from Bayern Munich in 2003, while in 2005 a 80% stock value decline resulted in 20% pay cuts for all first-team squad members – stock market ownership has eventually proven sustainable for a club as prominent as Borussia now are. Amidst the renaming of the Westfalenstadion to the Signal Iduna Park for financial motives in 2006, successive seasons of relegation-flirting and repeated sales of promising young players at least sustained survival, while failing to deliver on the expectations of support.
As the noughties passed into the 2010’s, fortunes in the Ruhr dramatically changed. The unheralded Jürgen Klopp, hired in 2008 and delivering 6th and 5th -placed league returns in his first two seasons (not to mention an unofficial 2008 DFB-Supercup title), went one, if not four, further in 2010/11 with a title under little previous expectation, mellowing the experience of a squad originally boasting Roman Weidenfeller, Sebastian Kehl, Florian Kringe and wingback Dede – all of whom had been present at least since the summer of 2002 – with the youthful exuberance of a 19 year-old Mario Götze, a 21 year-old Sven Bender and Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels, all of 22 years of age, in a toppling of the established guard in the deposed Louis van Gaal’s Bayern. Perhaps more momentous, however, was the consecutive title won in 2011/12 and DFB-Pokal victory to complete a double over Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern, with the 21 year-old İlkay Gündoğan blooded alongside the aforementioned Klopp products as a truly pioneering squad project reached what could argued to have been its peak, if not the Champions League Final defeat at Wembley a season later, where Arjen Robben’s memorable late flourish swiped a tangible shot at a second continental title from under the noses of the Westphalians.
From such prominent and consistent results, assumptions could have easily been made about the continued assertion of Dortmund power over all German challengers forthcoming, but to do so was to undermine the extent of what had been achieved in the midst of what, not long before Klopp’s arrival, was a financial basket case consistently lacking the prompt and vigour of a side inspired to rise to their truly astounding 1990’s heights. Subsequently, as the final three seasons of Klopp’s reign – 2012/13 to 2014/15 – amounted to only two DFB-Supercups and famously concluded on a meteoric run-in resurgence to stave off relegation and qualify for the Europa League, the perspective of events does have to be weighted alongside such a competitive stall. They aren’t a club to attract managerial candidates of the calibre of Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti, they’ll never have the financial power or unemotional cunning to sign the Arturo Vidal’s, Thiago’s or Javi Martinez’s of the world for a combined €105 million and they certainly wouldn’t fend off opponents by wielding financial might to cherry-pick their best players in the manner of which Lewandowski, Hummels and Götze departed for pastures greener, and the 2015 appointment of Thomas Tuchel, a man very much in predecessor Klopp’s mould, lays testament to that. Reasoning soon becomes obvious when observing these facts why Bayern are now known in some circles, aside from being the dominant German club unwilling, under any circumstances, to relinquish their firm grasp, as FC Hollywood.
Evocative of Tottenham Hotspurs’ long-term project, Southampton’s transfer policy and perhaps Jules Rimet’s socialist Red Star in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet developed with flavours of community ownership, Borussia’s long-term ambition – forged on the foundation of a regimentally youth-friendly, fan-focused and generally heartening club ethos – has personified the true values of the sport both on matchdays with the clear manifesto laid out by Klopp and successor Tuchel, and away from the pitch, where eventual aims have been detailed and developed throughout the 21st century. Unlike Manchester United plc. (based conveniently in the Cayman Islands), whose $16.50 shares on the New York Stock Exchange are worth practically nothing in contrast to the approximate 90% ownership of the Glazer family and 9.2% stake of Baron Capital, an American investment group whose 37.8% of all MUFC NYSE shares equated to well over £135 million upon purchase in 2014, Dortmund, with 81.05% of its shares floated at €5.91 on the Frankfurt Stock Market, allows for each of its 145,000 members, not to mention foreign fans and local business leaders, to invest in the club’s future for almost a third of the price of an equivalent, or even less relevant, share in the Red Devils. Granted, such financial dependence on the goodwill and fortune of the stock exchange has allowed Puma, Evonik and Signal Iduna to invest in large shares themselves, but as existing sponsors of the club’s operations, their involvement seems largely supportive of the club as a wider entity in accordance with their visible backing in the form of being kit providers, kit sponsors and stadium sponsors – supported by Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke’s affirmation that these investors were admirable “companies who deal with sporting or economic development” - in contrast with the ilk of the Glazer’s fellow investors in the Stretford club.
Having gradually ascended to their current eleventh place on Deloitte’s annual Football Money League – which they have occupied for four seasons running now – Borussia’s unique financial structure proves by no means ineffective, notably delivering them a coveted position above the likes of Premier League Spurs, nationally and continentally ambitious Athletico Madrid and the eternally popular Roma, all despite boasting the third lowest broadcast revenue at £61.7 million of the entire top 20 (only paling to 14th-placed rivals Schalke and 17th-placed Zenit). Highly reliant on commercial income – 49% of their total revenue in 2015/16 at £104.9 million – it is understandable, then, why Der BVB are so enthusiastic about the properties of stock investment from the likes of Puma and Evonik, effectively sustaining their finances in the face of comparatively meagre match-day income, an obvious side-effect of the Bundesliga’s much-hailed ticket prices, which at Dortmund can be as affordable as £14.05 at the current exchange rate or £31.72 for a mid-range seat. In comparison to Manchester United’s minimum price of £31 and mid-range of £41.95 (not to mention the ostentatious fees for programmes, teas, beers and pies at Old Trafford, which surely pale palatably to a Borussia bier und bratwurst), the affordability of a day joining the famous Yellow wall in ballad must appeal to the romantic groundhopper in all of us, notably attracting an apparent contingent of English fans which now sustain 10% of seasonal Westfalenstadion attendances – proving the universally attractive factor of the Borussia project.
Little of this enviable but ultimately insignificant match-day padding would prevail unless the club itself providing such an atmosphere matched the ethos of supporter clamour and foreign attraction, however. Personally, my representation of a hollow footballing experience is where supporters wield the power to overthrow the blatantly harmful forces infiltrating the interior structures of their local club, yet do, on the whole, very little to oppose these enemies of the spirit of the game, instead obediently enjoying the ride and trumpeting the supposed ‘benefits to the community’. Billericay Town, Saltdean United, Margate, Whitehawk and Greenwich Borough represent synonymous examples of this crazed ideology, one which Borussia Dortmund, while operating on a drastically differing scale, vehemently oppose through their (hopefully) sustainable ownership structure, realistic transfer cash outflows and opportunistic capitalisation on demand for talented young players, much in the same mould as Southampton, while being tempered with a Spurs-like ambition to continually develop academies and uncover hidden gems in the market which can be personally forged into effective squad options by exceptional man-managers Tuchel and Pochettino.
Having produced Marco Reus and Kevin Großkreutz – only for them to depart similarly to Rot Weiss Ahlen and return directly for Großkreutz and via Borussia Monchengladbach for Reus – and produced and given senior debuts to Mario Götze, Nuri Şahin and Marcel Schmelzer, Borussia are far from famed for their academy alumni, but have in the past employed a savvy scouting approach that has identified the likes of Lewandowski, Weidenfeller, Kagawa, Matthias Ginter, Julian Weigl, Erik Durm, Łukasz Piszczek and Sven Bender before they had yet reached their second permanent club, demonstrating the efficiency of a crucial money-saving system that has propped the likes of Klopp and Tuchel up to prosper with squads well managed enough to directly challenge Bayern Munich for national and continental honours. While Jakub Błaszczykowski proves an exception to this rule – Dortmund his third career club, but his first outside of Poland, in similar circumstances to Raphael Guerreiro, his first outside France, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, having permanently represented AC Milan and Saint Etienne – possible stars-in-the-making Dembele, Isak, Mor, Merino and third-choice goalkeeper Hendrik Bonmann fit the bill as second-club additions, and as an increasing contingent, currently encompassing Danish Olympian Jacob Bruun Larsen and current German under-19 internationals Dženis Burnić and Felix Passlack, of home-grown talents pads out an affordably-sourced squad, opportunities to take the fight, both morally and sportingly, to Bayern, appear rife.
This success, in part, is attributable to the very root of Germany’s power conflict; Bayern’s financial muscle. Having contributed €72 million to Dortmund’s coffers over the past four seasons – in the form of €35 million for Hummels’ services recently and €37 million for Götze’s, €28.9 million of which was admittedly recouped in the resigning of Götze and the capture of Sebastian Rode – in addition to the exploitation of intense market interest in Şahin and Kagawa by the Dortmund hierarchy to the tune of €22.1 million, of which only €12.75 million had to be stumped up for their re-signing, Bayern, in part, allowed for a pre-tax transfer profit of €52.45 million to be fed back into the Dortmund system from just four canny transfer sagas. Ingenuity has often been the practice of the oppressed in society, those not to be blessed with the inherent riches of the perennial crown, and in this transfer policy, when coupled with the aforementioned tendency to scout liberally and to great effect in search of unheralded youngsters, those at Dortmund have masterminded one of the biggest financial injustices in footballing history – to make such significant profit while running an effective, trophy-spinning business. Not quite operating on the same academy standards as a Southampton or Spurs, Borussia worked to their own hand in their scouting, perhaps a better reflection of Leicester and their cheap imports N’Golo Kante, Riyadh Mahrez, Christian Fuchs, Shinji Okazaki and Daniel Amartey in the never-to-be-repeated 2015/16 season, and have reaped the benefits of plotting an individual route to success.
This is all, of course, without noting the entirely compromising factor to their enduring appeal as the club of much more than the mere hipster; the footballing aficionado and the cultural connoisseur – their defined style of play. Borussia, throughout Klopp’s reign of exuberant, fluid offensive movements and highly organised gegenpressing, allowed opponents possession on the condition that, in their 4-2-3-1 formation, Dortmund’s energetic attacking trio of Reus, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, or earlier Großkreutz, Götze and Blaszczykowski, worked with striker Lewandowski to immediately hound those with the ball and force a goal-presenting mistake – most likely on full-backs who have limited means of escape – incisively profiting off the pressure-cooker atmosphere that both their play and the yellow wall imposed on opposition. Under Tuchel, a manager, not unlike Klopp, whose first employment was at Mainz, who promoted gegenpressing in his approach and who cut a continually passionate figure on the touchline, belying his mere eight appearances above German third division standard as a player, Dortmund retained their quick press, but with a second generation of young players now installed in Westfalenstadion life, have been tactically flexible under Tuchel, who preaches the strenuous yet plainly effective approach of continually altering tactics to counter an opponent’s strengths.
A major benefit to the meagrely-resourced Mainz, whom he led to two Europa League qualifications in a five-year spell, this ability to revert between formations negating the main threats, for example a 4-1-4-1 against a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-3-2 against a 4-1-4-1, of the likes of Bayern, Dortmund, Leverkusen and Schalke created easily exploited frustration for opposition. Certainly, this quick-thinking tactical reversibility has been a prominent spell in his reasonably successful Dortmund reign – employing a 3-4-3 false striker formation in last week’s 3-2 win at Monchengladbach, a 4-3-3 with Sven Bender in central-defence in a 3-1 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt, a 3-4-2-1 composed of many second-choice starters in a hefty 4-1 Bayern defeat and more familiar 4-2-3-1 with players in their natural positions in a 3-0 bypass of Hamburg in the past four weeks alone – leading the side to a close battle for third in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, another tactically stimulating side managed by the young and ambitious Julian Nagelsmann, as well as an unfortunate Champions League quarter-final defeat this season. The potential confusion or sheer inability of players to ascertain their true roles in such a vast array of systems may underpin the managerial approach, but it brings an unpredictability that unnerves the opposition, and boasting arguably the most naturally gifted young squad in Germany, Tuchel is in fine stead to launch future raids on Bayern and the suddenly disruptive force of RB Leipzig, who surely cannot sustain prominence at the Bundesliga’s summit under such richly deserved and fiery barbs from all angles.
Ultimately, Dortmund, who surely will not be denied a title tussle by the antichrist in Leipzig to their genuinely inspiring and idealistic footballing manifesto, can take great pride in what they have forged literally from an industrial heartland; the foremost hub of both geographical and commercial community ownership in world football, bar perhaps Barcelona’s model, complementing an affordable and attractive fan experience with effective exploitation of the transfer markets, an increased focus on academy production and above all, football played beautifully and to a clear aim. Borussia, from the fledgling dream of 19 frustrated Catholic church members in the early 20th century to the revolutionary club in staving off near-certain liquidation, opposing Nazi tyranny, becoming the first German continental trophy victors and defying repeated financial issues throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 2000’s - bookending a seven-year period of masterful domestic and international hauls – has manifested from a club that seemed seldom distanced from near-fatal strife or astonishing triumph to a family and beacon of hope today that can be relied upon to uphold the true values of football, discovered through hardship and majesty in equal spades, and showcase their effectiveness on each stage they take. It may have never been a smooth ride, nor can it currently be proclaimed to be, but Klopp and Tuchel have transformed Die Schwarzgelben into an incomparable haven of universal accessibility if ever the heart of football is ever in doubt. Triumphantly, their all-encompassing message rings; never mind the bollocks, here’s Die Borussen.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!