I never thought I’d be writing about football in my blog. But then a single article changed all that. Browsing through the shelves of a branch of WH Smith at Shannon airport whilst waiting for a flight to Heathrow, the cover a magazine caught my eye. I’d previously been a subscriber of World Soccer for many years, a magazine for the football connoisseur that marked its 50th anniversary in 2010, so I’d never heard of FourFourTwo before, but the leading article had grabbed my interest, which, coming from what I assumed was an English magazine, was even more startling.
Above an image which included the manager and some of the players of the German team Borussia Dortmund, the headline read: “Dortmund – Inside Europe’s Hottest Club“. The article was conceived during the time Dortmund were training at La Manga, Spain, during the winter break, which also included a photoshoot. I read the entire article on the short flight and felt sufficiently motivated to write about it. This post is almost exclusively about the contents of the article itself, interspersed with a few comments of my own. The magazine, coincidentally, is published in a number of countries and languages, including Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Nigeria, Poland, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.
My interest in German football stems from the time I spent 3 months in the country as an engineering student way back in 1979-80. However, to get to the gist of the article. Borussia Dortmund, a club in the heart of Germany’s Ruhr, formed in 1909 and have been one of the most successful clubs in German football history. They have been German Bundesliga champions for the last two seasons but it has been their form in the group stages of the Champions League this year that attracted attention, finishing top of their group ahead of Manchester City, Real Madrid and Ajax.
Last season they finished bottom of their group but that was put down to inexperience however this time around, they took Man City apart at the Etihad with a brilliant display of football, where the average age of the team that faced City was barely 24, whilst nine of the players hold German passports. Only one player in the entire squad cost more than £4, a mind-boggling statistic. Marco Reus, Dortmund-born, was brought back to the club, despite being openly courted by Bayern Munich. The gifted Mario Gotze however has been playing at Dortmund since he was nine. Kevin Grosskreutz, a tireless runner, good but not supremely talented, was targeted because he was almost “pathological passionate” about the club.
To quote from the magazine: “…..the one thing that has left the most lasting impression on the rest of Europe this season is something else – the team’s football, an often thrilling style based on constant movement that is breathtaking in every sense of the word. Yes, there are individual flashes of brilliance…..But above all, what stands out is the total team effort.” Their recent success has not only been down to the exceptional group of young players, but to the colourful team coach Jurgen Klopp, who is something of a fitness fanatic, hence the grueling training sessions. Their playing style is termed Gegenpressing in Germany, the idea that if you lose possession, you don’t fall back and defend but move upfield to win the ball back immediately (similar to what Barcelona and Spain do). The article talks about his side’s “Monsters of Mentality” philosophy i.e. never give up.
The article notes the very relaxed style that exists at the club. Marco Reus is quoted as saying: “Playing for Borussia is a lot of fun. It’s a loose, casual club.” The coach is always seen clad in comfortable sportswear, not the latest Italian thread, though he does tone this down during Champions League games, which is why Jose Mourinho approached him before a Champions League game against Real Madrid with the words: “Where’s your tracksuit?” This relaxed approach even extends up to the executive team that includes CEO Joachim Watzke, Marketing Director Carsten Cramer and Director of Football Michael Zorc.
The current success story could have been very different however. At the turn of the century, Dortmund became the first and only club in German history to float shares on the stock market. They branched out into other businesses and started signing star players for huge sums (now where have I heard this before?) and paying them absurd wages. It all went horribly wrong and they nearly went bankrupt in 2005. They had to turn things around and change the club’s business ethos.
Watzke, brought in to save the club, recounts: ” In a 2000 prospectus, …..I saw that Borussia Dortmund were seeking to develop other business activities in order to become independent from sporting success. It was the greatest rubbish I have read in my entire life. If you stink on the pitch, it’ll never work. Which is why our credo now is it’s only about the football. There’s a headline above everything we do……we want to have maximum sporting success but we will never again go into debt for it.” German clubs that go bankrupt are banished to the amateur ranks.
In general, the German club structure is totally different from the English model. The emphasis is on the word verein, translated as “club”, but it’s meaning is something entirely different to what is understood in England. “German clubs were public, non-profit, multi-sports associations operating for the common good of the community they represent and run by the members.” It was only in the late 90’s that German clubs could be become limited companies. One rule was put in place however that 50 % of the shares, plus one share, must be owned by the parent club i.e. the ’50 + 1′ rule. This means that you don’t have oligarchs, sheiks or foreign (or even local) individual businessmen or companies buying up the entire club. When you have investors, some kind of corporate demeanour begins to envelope the club.
In England, the fan is just a paying a customer. German supporters resent that notion intensely – they need to belong to the whole, feel connected to the club. It is acknowledged that English clubs might be in a better financial position, but not due to investors’ money rather because they earn more from television rights and international marketing. The other factor is the extent to which fan power plays a part in German football clubs. “German fans have a knack of organising themselves and creating pressure groups. Examples such as standing areas, cheaper tickets and TV highlights shown on screens within the ground after the game exist not because of the club’s benevolence but because the fans have fought for them”. Fan power is discussed at length in this interesting Guardian article written around the time of the return leg against Manchester City.
The lasting image when watching Bundesliga highlights packages week in and week out, is the existence of an almost carnival-like atmosphere, the massive flags being waved or the streamers being thrown which, for me, distinguishes the ambience at German games from those in England (as one used to see at FA Cup Finals). The other thing that stands out for me is that you rarely see fans turn against individuals or the team so vociferously as has been the case at certain English clubs, Chelsea, Newcastle, Blackburn and Arsenal being cases in point. Oddly, Dortmund fans adopted the Anfield anthem “You’ll never walk alone” some years ago, as do a number of other clubs.
Since 1974, they have played their home games at Westfalenstadion, now known as Signal Iduna Park – the name reflects their sponsors. It is the biggest football stadium in Germany and in 2011 a Q-Cell solar system was installed on its roof. In 2008, they opened the “Borusseum”, a museum about Borussia Dortmund. They have almost fanatical support. “The mythical terrace, the South Stand, holds 24,500 people alone, almost all of whom have season tickets. Dortmund now have the highest average attendance in European football – 80,645 per home game – but even in the worst years following the near-crash, the average attendance never sank below the 70,000 mark.” Extraordinarily, the cheapest adult season ticket sells for just £160!
Germany’s dismal showing at Euro 2000 led to a complete restructuring of the country’s youth system, with clubs forced to invest in their training facilities. For Dortmund, this ultimatum came at a bad time i.e. at the height of their financial crises, when money was tight. On the other hand, the investment paid off because it coincided with the fact that a number of promising youngsters were coming through the ranks when the club needed them most. “There are now six full-sized pitches and two smaller ones, on which each of the club’s many teams play, from the under 9’s all the way up to the Bundesliga side.” Dortmund’s upgraded complex also boasts the Footbonaut, a training device invented by a creative mind from Berlin some 5 years ago. You have to trap a ball fired at you by a machine Dortmund are the first club in the world to use it regularly.
It is unlikely that Borussia Dortmund will win this season’s Champions League but they have an outside chance if they play well enough. They have already relinquished the Bundesliga title they won for the last two seasons, to rivals Bayern. The question is whether they will keep the likes of Lewandovski or Gotze or whether they will be prised away by richer clubs in the Premier League or La Liga. There is even talk of coach Klopp being a potential target. It is my hope that they will be able to keep current promising squad of young players together for a few seasons more. Next season, the battle between Dortmund and Bayern is likely to intensify even further with the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Bayern.