Munich’s Olympic Stadium, 1997. It is among the autumn of a decade in which German football would lay claim to two international tournaments. Borussia Dortmund are relative locals to UEFA’s choice venue for the Champions League final of 1997. In the final they face a continental heavyweight; Juventus.
Two goals ahead with only half an hour played, with half an hour to go Alessandro Del Piero rendered some consolation for the giants; 2-1. Capitulation looming Ottmar Hitzfeld turns to local produce, Dortmund born Lars Ricken. One month shy of his 21st birthday and only on the pitch 16 seconds, Ricken chipped the ball over Juventus’ Angelo Peruzzi from 20 yards scoring the game’s third goal and securing Borussia Dortmund’s first Champions League title.
Yet in a recent edition of FourFourTwo magazine, Ricken mournfully revealed how the astonishing nature of this pivotal goal elevated him to a status of expectation that he was never truly capable of sustaining. Vanity withheld, Ricken described that although he would never be a great player, he had scored a great goal on the greatest stage of all.
In some regards, Ricken’s scenario is malleable to that of the only club he ever represented. As Jurgen Klopp announced a two year extension to his contract with what he deemed the ‘most exciting project in European football’, are Dortmund really a considerable force seasons to come, or have they set themselves a benchmark they are incapable of reaching again?
In the build up to last year’s Champions League final, eventual finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund produced performances that inspired further awe for the advances of German football. Come the final in May however and the austere magnificence of the host venue Wembley garnered greater praise than the football played. Had their semi-final conquests not been so relatively impressive the disappointment at such an indifferent finale may not have been so great. While Bayern Munich – 2-1 winners last May – are now operating under Pep Guardiola, a coach whose omnipotent Barcelona delivered their finest performance in the same venue two years before, Dortmund and Klopp have decided to continue together.
It is safe to assume that this is in the best interests of both parties. Of the eight Bundesliga titles Dortmund have won, Klopp has been in charge for the two latest. He has brought them to one of their two Champions League final appearances and won the third of their three German Cups claimed. All in all, he has been a success with a club that had celebrated reasonable success prior to his arrival. If Dortmund are going to maintain a domestic and continental competitive presence and not go the way of say Valencia – a posturing Spanish contender at the turn of the millennium – then retaining Klopp is a good start on their intended success. However, he is not their only reason for optimism; their recent win away to Arsenal revealed a few encouraging facts.
What stood out most prominently in the first 30 minutes of their tie in North London was the distinct lack of talking time that the commentators lavished on Dortmund. Although they moved the ball with a startling fluidity and ease, manipulating their passes in such small pockets of the pitch, ITV’s Tyldesley and Townsend were determined to focus on Arsenal’s counter proposal to this inauspicious start. Truth be told, Dortmund were making Arsenal appear unsuited to a major European night. After Giroud fortuitously equalised after Dortmund’s opener, the second half did resemble a more confident night for Arsenal. However, Dortmund sustained the pressure and grabbed a late winner through Robert Lewandowski. Thus they revealed the other secret to their potentially long running success. No, not Lewandowski himself – if he stays much longer it will be an amazing turn of affairs – but the incredible reaction of the Dortmund fans, so jovial in the Emirates that night. Far from their home, the sheer presence of their colour alone was overwhelming. These few thousand were but the remnants of what Dortmund may build their empire around; the ‘Yellow Wall’ and its place amongst the most consistently packed Westfalenstadion.
It truly is worth considering just how momentous a fact it is that Dortmund will attract around 80,000 spectators to each home game. While their recent success when viewed relatively against the club’s entire level of success does suggest something of a Golden Age, the number remains absolutely remarkable. To consistently attract crowds of this magnitude suggests a stability that allows expectations to rise. The importance of leveraging every possible advantage in the domestic sphere will become all the more important given the consistent presence of their most relative foe at this moment in time; Bayern Munich. As things currently stand, both clubs have had impressive starts to their Bundesliga campaigns although Bayern sit on top, a point ahead of Dortmund. Although Dortmund has under Klopp often bested Bayern Munich – they won back to back Bundesliga titles after all – it is difficult to see how this could become anything but an anomaly. Dortmund are chasing their ninth Bundesliga title, Bayern Munich are in the hunt for #24. Dortmund intend to reach Lisbon next May and challenge in their third Champions League Final, Bayern Munich hope to feature in their eleventh. This dynamic could continue, but what will soon become apparent is that Bayern lay direct or shared claim to most club records in the competitions they regularly enter. This scale of establishment will allow for transfers dealings such as that of Mario Gotze – Gotze moved from Dortmund to Bayern Munich at the end of last season – to be devastating for Dortmund but understandable when one considers the scale of Bayern. This does not dispel the possibility of Dortmund being successful as David does beat Goliath after all. However, Goliath will always be Goliath and for as many times as David will slay him, he does more and more to reinstate his magnitude in the interim. The occasional slaying will never turn David into Goliath.
The quality of player that Dortmund seem to so readily produce/purchase is a cause for great rejoice though. While occasionally they will lose a Kagawa, Gotze and ultimately a Lewandowski, the financial benefits – assuming they can maintain their relatively cheap intake costs – of each sale will allow for a steady growth. For a club that almost suffered financial meltdown within the last decade to be in a place of controlled prosperity such as this is highly promising. Being ‘stuffed a few times’, as a certain insurance broke advertises, can really show you what your made of. Dortmund will know the pain of being penniless and are scarcely going to make the same mistakes twice.
Ultimately, the proposition of Dortmund making the last few years a template for the next few years will depend largely on whether they can continually do exactly what they are doing. As simple and banal as that sounds, it requires a degree of patience that many clubs seem incapable of surrendering. What makes the contract extension of Jurgen Klopp so appealing to Dortmund’s fans – now the second longest serving manager in the club’s history after Champions League winning Hitzfeld – is the promise of sustained progressive action. In order to challenge on all fronts though, they will have to act as if they truly should be so competitive. Disregarding for a moment their inferior past – relative to Europe’s elite clubs – Dortmund must cling to that which makes them worthy of the top table; their incredible acquisition of players, their manager and most of all, their consistent stream of imposing fans. The past presents Dortmund with some glorious success and numerous cases of ill-judgement. With their eyes firmly facing forward, they must carry on as usual.