There’s a myriad of reasons why one falls in love with a team. It could be because your favourite player plays for them; it could be because they were the best side, or played the sort of game that attracted you, when you were an eight year old. Or it could simply be because you have to make lemonade out of the lemons given to you. In this case it was because having to wake up at 7:30am for six days a week meant that staying up till 5am on a Monday morning to watch middling football from Italy and Spain became slightly unappealing. The fact that your cable operator had lost the rights to the Premier League, and the fact that you lived in the wrong time zone meant that the Bundesliga became your default league to follow – well before it became hipster-ish to do so.
And this is how the 2010/11 season started. Had it been most other seasons, or a different league (Ligue 1 for example), the one-sided adoration might not have been that quick. But this season was the dawn of a new Bundesliga, and the team that even in my conscious attempts of neutrality has become the one that I hold the most bias for.
Matchday 10 of that season was a top-of-the-table clash, but not as you’d expect it. In first were FSV Mainz, an attractive team built around youth, speed and precision. Mainz had been a lower level side for most of their history. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that they competed in the top tier of the German game. They had come up to the 1.Bundesliga that season playing a technical and high intensity game. They had continued that tradition under Thomas Tuchel – who had been appointed in 2009. Tuchel had continued in that tradition; their style of play could best be portrayed by two of their front three, who are more familiar to international audiences now: Lewis Holtby and Andre Schurrle. Facing Mainz that day was another young team built on a shoestring budget – except theirs was a club of far greater history and prestige. Borussia Dortmund were competing for the first time in a true top of the table clash since 2002. They were being managed by the same man who had brought Mainz up that very first time and had laid the groundwork for Tuchel’s success at the club: Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp’s men ran out deserved winners that day (Raphael Honigstein’s piece after that match is still a good read. He describes the match as having “The two best Bundesliga teams of the season… [featuring] youth and high-tempo pressing v high-tempo pressing and youth”). Mainz would eventually fall away and finish fifth that season. Dortmund, though, would never look back. They were top from then till the end of the season.
Yet most people believed that this success was down to Bayern’s failings under van Gaal that season rather than anything that Dortmund did, and that order would be restored the very next season. With Heynckes and a bunch of summer signings, Bayern would have little trouble dealing with Dortmund.
The history of domestic German football is rather unique when compared to most big European countries. Most significantly, they did not have a national league until 1963 (or 9 years after winning their first World Cup). That newborn league should have dominated by Hamburg (biggest club in the north), Koln (biggest club from the largest city in the football heartland) or Eintracht Frankfurt (big city, had been to European Cup final only 3 years before). Instead, as no one grasped the mantle – there were five different champions in the first five years of the league – so it came down to two teams who were promoted in those first few years – relying on two of the greatest generations in club football history – who dominated from those first few years onward. It was Vogts, Bonhof, Heynckes and Netzer against Maier, Breitner, Muller and Beckenbauer; Borussia Monchengladbach versus Bayern Munich. It was that which would create the narrative for the following few decades. The conservative, dominant and haughty Bavarians against the underdog, attractive rebels; no comparison better illustrated this than between Beckenbauer and Netzer. Bayern were the “shitty club” where they didn’t even know how to party. Netzer was the first rockstar of German football.
Netzer’s legacy is best illustrated by the final goal he scored for Gladbach. A detailed version of that story is in Uli Hesse’s remarkable book, Tor!, but a paraphrased poorly told version will do for now. Before the German Cup final in 1973 against Koln, Netzer had informed Hens Weisweiler (the manager) of his decision to leave for Real Madrid (random thought: it’s amazing that a club as conservative as early-70s Madrid had both Netzer and Breitner). Added to the fact that Netzer’s mother had died just before the match, Weisweiler decided to put him on the bench for that match – a match most people already knew was Netzer’s last. After 90 minutes, with the scores level, Weisweiler instructed Netzer that he should come on; his response was that the team were doing fine without him so there was no need for him to come on. Later, his replacement Christian Kulig started struggling with cramp; Netzer on seeing this stripped off, and told the coach that he was coming on. And so he did. And followed it up by scoring probably the most famous goal in German cup history: A one-two that took five defenders out; a goal that won Gladbach the cup. This would be remembered as the match when Netzer brought himself on and won the German Cup. He went to Madrid having fulfilled a child’s dream.
Gladbach continued to challenge Bayern for a few years even after that. Between 1968 and 1977 Gladbach and Bayern won all nine Bundesligas (4 Bayern, 5 Gladbach). Then Gladbach fell away while Bayern became one of the biggest clubs in the world – that is what economics does. Between that Gladbach team and the current Dortmund squad only three teams have come close to challenging Bayern – Hamburg in the early 80s, Otto Rehhagel’s Werder Bremen at the turn of the 90s and Borussia Dortmund in the mid-90s. The case of the latter two teams describes what Bayern have done to the rest. Both Rehhagel and Ottmar Hitzfeld (Dortmund’s coach in those glory years) would leave their posts to become managers in Munich. Hitzfeld would go on to reinforce Bayern as one of the most dominant clubs in Europe at the turn of the century; and pull them further away from the rest of the field (four league triumphs and two Champions League finals in his first five years there). Bayern were the biggest fish in this sea, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Meanwhile in Dortmund
Although Dortmund did try. Realizing that to keep up with Bayern they too had to become a financial behemoth, Dortmund threw money at everything. Between 1998 and 2004 they challenged Bayern everywhere but on the field – where they could never adequately replace Hitzfeld. Overpaying on transfers and wages became the norm; all that money spent led to only one title (in 2002). Dortmund even became the first (and thus far only) German club to float on the stock market – if money was the only obstacle between them and Bayern, they were willing to sell their principles for it. And so they did. Until 2004/05 – when they nearly went bankrupt; blinded by their ambition, they became Bundesliga’s Icarus . Thus they became the fallen giant who is seen as a stepping stone to greater things; Rosicky, Metzelder and, erm, David Odonkor left in the subsequent era of austerity that Hans-Joachim Watzke started (Note: on Watzke and Dortmund’s recent financial recovery, please read the Swiss Ramble – if you are into that sort of thing).
That was also why Klopp was appointed in the summer of 2008. He had shown at Mainz – his only job in management till then – that he could overachieve with little money. That was what Dortmund asked him to do; to make them regulars in Europe once again without spending much. He finished sixth in his first season, fifth in his second; establishing the Black and Yellow as a solid second tier team. That was how the 2010/11 season had started too, with Raphael Honigstein in his preview to that season predicting that Dortmund would finish fifth and that Klopp would “settle for another top five finish.”
This was why that season became such a pleasant surprise. There was so much unique about that Dortmund team too. When they beat Mainz to go top, the team that started that match was the youngest team in the club’s history. They would finish the season as the youngest champions in German football history (Average age 24.2). At least when Ferguson played his kids he still had Cantona, Irwin, Keane, Schmeichel, etc to fall back on; Klopp only had Weidenfeller and Barrios. There was so much to love that team for. They were young, incredibly quick, technically perfect. It was all one-touch passing and short guys buzzing around Lucas Barrios. In the era of information overload this was a relatively unknown team: Gotze, Grosskreutz and Bender – all of whom had made their Bundesliga debuts the previous season – played more than 30 league games that season. Their ethos was pretty clear: they were a team of nobodies (not one player in that team cost more than 5m Euros; their best player and captain, Sebastien Kehl, missed nearly all of the season through injury), except when they combined they produced probably the best football in Europe. They didn’t have the patient, methodological possession game of Barcelona nor the intense ruthlessness of Madrid or the English sides; instead they played with organized chaos. Before every game Klopp would turn it up to 11 and unleash them onto the field. Without the ball they hunted and pressed harder than any team I’ve seen in my lifetime, with it they were just a black and yellow blur.
And then there were the external factors. The black and yellow, as I keep mentioning, was key. In the sea of shades of red and blue that dominate western European clubs, they were always immediately recognizable. Then there was the Hollywood story of the fallen giant going back to its roots to become stronger than it ever was. There was also the stadium – every time you watched a match on TV you just wished that you could be there, just to hear and feel that stadium once in your life. There were the young unknowns who played like a dream. There was Kevin Grosskreutz, who’d spent his childhood on the terraces of the stadium where he now shone, and would now get a haircut there. There was also Klopp.
Unable to speak German I only ever got tidbits of his work; a quote here, a putdown there. They called him the German Mourinho – but with his tendency to not care about his image, to talk down his team and their chances, to be honourable at all times, to build a team from scratch with little and to not be driven by the media spotlight; for all that, and so much more, he always seemed the the anti-Mourinho to me. England and Spain are filled with managers who can be pigeonholed: the old angry man, the young buck who always seems pleased with himself, the middle aged hardman and the journeyman who just does a job. Most of them wear suits, some wear tracksuits, none were like Klopp. He looked like a homeless man who wore clothes two sizes too big (still better than what Cosmi and Prandelli do), never cared about his appearance and jumped around on the touchline more than the fans. In just being himself, he was a hipster. And every time you read about him, you fell more in love with him. He looked like a mad scientist, and as his creation excelled on the pitch, you thought he just might be one. He talked of micro-tactics, his system and the organism he built was stronger than any individual. Sahin left, Gundogan came in; Kagawa left, Reus replaced him; Barrios grew tired and Lewandowski became the first choice striker. He was forced to keep letting players go, yet the team became stronger. 6 matches into the 2011/12 season Dortmund were 8 points behind Bayern and nearly out of the Champions League at the group stage, seemingly on course to prove the doubters right. Even though they’d finish bottom of their CL group, they went on the longest unbeaten run ever in a Bundesliga season. They did not lose after matchday 6 – and became the first non-Bayern team since Hitzfeld’s Dortmund to win back-to-back titles; while posting the highest points total in the league’s history, as well. They also became only the third non-Bayern team to win the league-and-cup-double. And they did it all without ever losing that sense of pure adrenaline that they had shown the first time I had seen them. Sure there was method to their anarchy, but what they did, or rather how they did it, was unique. They played at 100mph, and yet always seemed in control. This team of rejects – for that is what they were (Hummels had been sold by Bayern for a couple of quid, Subotic had once been rejected by an American youth team – together they formed the best partnership in continental Europe) – had been brought together by Klopp to create something far greater than any of them. From that match against Mainz till this season, I watched them play almost weekly – always adjusting their tactics slightly for the opposition, without ever losing their own game. They shunned the labels of ideology but continued to create their own. This was, for the lack of a better phrase, post-modern football.
And it was just a joy to watch them at their peak.
The Demise and Recognition
I decided to write this article on Tuesday, half an hour after I learnt about the Gotze deal. I was devastated. So a flashback ensued: reading Brian Phillips talk about Napoli and thinking that surely this should have been about Dortmund; being at a friend’s place and asking them to switch to the Dortmund game, with them refusing and instead watching their Premier League team grind to a boring victory; conversations on twitter and elsewhere discussing one of the five best teams in Europe as if no one knew about them – like trying to tell the world about this amazing band that everyone ignored; rooting for them as they took on, and repeatedly dismantled, Bayern’s Death Star. But more than anything else I was reminded of April/May 2012.
Bayern went into the end of last season with a treble within their grasp. But a loss to Dortmund killed their league chances. They could satisfy themselves thinking that they were just a missed penalty away from their desired result. They could still do a Cup-CL double though; and they were fully confident of achieving it. Instead the cup final had them on the wrong end of the biggest – and probably most influential – shellacking in recent club football history. It was that which shook them enough for the failures in the Champions League final and the Euros; it was that which convinced them to go out and buy Mandzukic, Dante, Javi Martinez et al that summer; it was that which convinced Heynckes and his players to act as a unit and press from the front; it was that which eventually led to Bayern wooing Pep Guardiola. But there was also the team facing them. That Cup final was the peak of this Dortmund team. The next season they would become the hipster’s choice in the Champions League as they took on the best and beat them, while laughing in the face of convention (6 group matches, all 6 times they had less than 50% possession, they topped the group, and played the best football in Europe. They piss on your tiki-taka principles). Champions of Spain, Holland and England – all beaten to a pulp by Klopp’s machine; but still nothing matched the previous year’s cup final. Now they were more sedate, more intelligent, more mature, and less fun. It was like a band who’d finally become popular, but to their early fans they seemed less unique (perhaps I should have been an NME reader after all). Sure they were still the most entertaining team in Europe, but they had grown up. That is also why they had been successful; Klopp had realized that they had been over-exuberant and naïve in their first season of the Champions League, so a more composed approach was needed. But I still missed that first hour of the Cup final. The whole season they had never played like I wished them to play… until last night.
As I said, I decided to write this article after learning of the Gotze news, and then seeing Bayern kill Barca only reinforced my belief that I needed to write about Dortmund’s greatness. Germany, if not Europe, was going to be Bayern’s playground. There was only so much that Klopp the magician could do. My hopes had been raised the previous year when Hummels rejected an approach from Bayern to stay at Dortmund, this followed Reus also rejecting Bayern to move back to his hometown club. Dortmund were going to challenge Bayern, regardless of the finances. Sure, Lewandowski was going to go Bayern eventually, but Klopp would squeeze everything out of him first; and I was confident that Klopp would have a suitable replacement. Perhaps he’d play a 4-2-4-0, or maybe he’d find another gem for nothing. But there was still hope. Then it was announced Gotze would leave before Lewandowski. Gotze, the product of the youth system, a once-in-a-generation player, around whom this Dortmund era was to be built, was going to go to Bayern. The fairytale was finishing before the happy ending. Of course, Dortmund needed to continue selling; they’d seen what financial mismanagement could do, but surely there was no way Dortmund could recover from this.
But I underestimated Klopp. There is nothing that man can’t do. Gotze and Lewandowski, guaranteed to leave the club in the near future, were motivated enough to give Madrid their biggest beating in Europe since van Basten’s Milan. The peak of this Dortmund team was a year after I thought it was.
Maybe Dortmund won’t recover from these sales, maybe Bayern will be too good from next season onwards, and maybe Klopp’s magic will run out. But we’ll always have the first hour of the Cup Final and the 2nd half of Madrid at the Westfalen. Two peaks for the most unashamedly fun side that I’ve ever seen.