In part 3 of our ‘Before they were famous’ series, JACOB ROUTLEDGE examines Borussia Dortmund and their many revivals along their journey to become one of Europe’s largest and most intensely supported clubs.
Die Schwarzgelben (The Black and Yellows) are now one of the most supported football clubs in Europe, and arguably amongst the biggest in terms of fan base and finances. However, things have not always been so golden. Throughout the club’s history they have had to battle just to stay alive.
Borussia Dortmund was founded on the 19th of December 1909 by a group of men in protest of the treatment they were receiving from their church whilst playing for its sponsored club ‘Trinity Youth’. Despite being directly run by local Chaplain Hubert Dewald, Trinity Youth players claimed they were specifically attacked and defamed by the church because of their love for the game. This discrimination by the church lead the players to form the first version of BVB.
Dortmund’s first bout with bankruptcy came in 1929, a mere 20 years after its creation.
Following the development of the ‘Borussia Sport Park’ in 1924, a stadium the club could call their own, Dortmund’s board decided to take out a loan of 12000RM, roughly translating into half a million pound in today’s money. With their new found wealth, Dortmund bought a set of professional players with the hope that they would spur the club on into the 1920’s top sphere of German football. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned, despite gaining promotion into the Ruhr national league; subsequent lacklustre performances meant the club was relegated and left with a pile of debt which they could not repay.
Such lending practices were at the time against the DFB rules. The scandal that ensued resulted in board member and former president Heinz Schwaben along with fellow board member August Busse being made to stand in front of a court and give an account of the club’s finances. The result was an election being called at the club and both Schwaben and Busse resigning. However, Borussia were saved from financial ruin, with Schwaben stepping in and paying the entire 12000RM out of his own pocket. This meant the club was financially sound, at least for a little while.
The Third Reich rose to prominence in the 1930’s and after its defeat at the hands of the Allies, Borussia Dortmund – along with every other organisation in Germany – was legally dissolved in an attempt to set about a new era for Germans, completely independent from previous Nazi rule.
Reportedly, there were attempts to merge the club with two other German sides at the time, but it was in their original form – ‘Ballspiel-Verein Borussia e.V. Dortmund’ – that the club reformed to compete in the maiden 1947 season of the ‘Oberliga West’, a new league setup containing teams from the then British occupied zone of Nordhein-Westfalen. Dortmund along with rivals FC Schalke 04 and Cologne side FC Koln would go on to dominate the league for its duration until the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.
In 1972, Borussia Dortmund once again faced the possibility of going under.
Following years of success unlike anything they had experienced before in the 1960’s, Dortmund found itself relegated to the second tier of German football in 1972. The team was a far cry from the one that had beaten Liverpool in the 1966 European Cup Winners Cup. Dortmund had simply become too bloated and complacent. Financial mismanagement was rife and the club were relegated as a result.
BVB’s mammoth home ground, the Westfalenstadion, opened in 1974 – its massive running costs did nothing to ease the financial pressure.
Promotion back to the top flight in 1976 was not enough to quash worries, with the team struggling throughout the rest of the decade and well into the 1980’s. A play-off victory to avoid relegation in 1986 meant the club would hang on to top-flight status. Relegation at that juncture could well have well spelled the end of Borussia Dortmund story but like the infamous movie character Rocky Balboa, Die Borussen picked itself up off the canvas and refused to be defeated. The club struggled with its finances for years to come.
During the dark ages of Dortmund – 1972 to 1988 – the club went through an eye-watering 25 first team managers, none of which delivered a single trophy.
The man who put an end to the 16-year curse of short-lived unsuccessful managerial appointments was Horst Köppel. Brought to the club in July 1988, Horst delivered the first pieces of silverware in over two decades during his maiden campaign. He led BVB to victory in the 1989 DFB-Pokal final with a 4-1 win over Werder Bremen. Then followed a win over giants Bayern Munich in the DFL-Supercup. Horst, then, was evidently the steady, experienced Admiral the Dortmund ship needed. He managed them out of the mouth of a storm and into the beginning of the golden era.
After guiding BVB to an unremarkable 10th place finish in the Bundesliga at the end of the 1990/91 season, Köppel and Dortmund parted ways for the first time (Köppel would return to the North Rhine-Westphalia club in 1997 as a scout and again as manager of Borussia Dortmund’s second side in 2001, in a reign that would last three years).
Köppel’s relatively brief but successful spell as first team coach afforded the club a chance to restore financial stability, something the managerial turbulence of the previous decade had not allowed.
The fine work Köppel had done at Dortmund paved the way for a period of unmatched success for the club. His successor, Ottmar Hitzfeld, appointed manager on 1st July 1991, ushered in Dortmund’s most successful era, a period so fruitful it would be dubbed the ‘Golden Generation’ by fans.
Der General, as Hitzfeld was affectionately known, came from the Swiss league having lead both FC Aarau and Grasshopper to domestic success. During his first season at Dortmund he would do the same. Managing a second place finish in his maiden season was no small feat in the highly competitive Bundesliga of 91/92, not to mention the fact that they came within an inch of clinching the title, running VfB Stuttgart to the last day of the season in the battle to become Germany’s fussballmeisters.
Hitzfeld led BVB to a solid 4th place league finish and a UEFA Cup Final against Juventus in his second season in charge. Borussia lost 6-1 on aggregate in the old school two-legged final, but the 25 Million Deutsche Mark prize money given to the club for being runners up ensured they were able to buy success for years to come. In total, Hitzfeld led Dortmund to two Championships, two Super Cups and in 1997 they reached the club’s first Champions League final. The scene was set. At the Olympiastadion in Munich, home of their great domestic rivals Bayern, a Juventus team featuring the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane were the opposition and strong favourites. The final is a famous one, it finished 3-1 to the underdogs of Dortmund with Paul Lambert having the game of his life in the midfield of Hitzfeld’s 5-3-2 system.
Now, for people of a certain age, this period of Dortmund’s history, under Hitzfeld, was when Dortmund announced themselves as one of Europe’s elite, reaching levels of fame granted to a select few. But for the younger football fan, like myself, Dortmund would not announce themselves on the global stage for years to come.
Hitzfeld was named World Coach of the Year in 1997, but frictions between himself and members of the team became apparent and he moved upstairs to the role of Sports Director. This was not to last; a manager of that calibre was rightfully courted by the world’s best clubs. Bayern Munich, whose recent history is so intertwined with that of Dortmund, were the club to secure his services. He led the Bavarians to Champions League glory four years on from his first triumph with BVB.
Following the main man’s departure, Dortmund slipped back into the pack. Hitzfeld’s first four successors left having been largely unsuccessful – his first replacement, Italian Nevio Scala, won the Intercontinental Cup in 1997, largely on the back of Hitzfeld’s work.
Matthias Sammer, captain of the Champions League winning team of 1997, was the first manager since Scala to win a trophy with BVB. The league title win of 2002 and the UEFA Cup final loss to Feyenoord in the same year would be the last hoorah for the Golden Generation.
Financial mismanagement was once again the catalyst for the club’s decline, and by 2004 things were looking dire. A loan of €2million granted by rivals Bayern Munich kept the club alive. This, to me, is by far the most fascinating chapter in the Dortmund story. Imagine Manchester United lending Leeds United the money needed to stay in the Premiership, or Juventus giving a Serie A side a helping hand when times got tough. For me, this was an attempt by Munich to strengthen the league, thus driving competition which in turn would result in more eyes watching the games on a weekly basis and more money pouring into the Bundesliga. Either way, if not for this unexpected generosity, Dortmund’s story would have ended in the early Noughties. Further measures imposed by the club – such as a 20% pay cut for all players, the sale of the Westfalenstadion name to insurance group ‘Signal Iduna’, and the sale of key players, including Tomáš Rosický to Arsenal – left the club on the rocks, but still out of the water.
Dortmund would once again come close to relegation in 2007, new manager Thomas Doll, who was appointed halfway through the season, would keep the club up after them being just one point above relegation upon him taking up his position. Doll would manage the club to a safe middle table finish and a DFB-Pokal final defeat to Bayern in his second season before resigning.
Dortmund went from festival headliners to pub singers. But the appointment of a new heavy metal lead singer was about to catapult them into the stratosphere.
Jurgen Klopp became Borussia Dortmund manager on 1st July 2008, the same date as both Horst Köppel and Ottmar Hitzfeld years before him. Klopp’s story at Dortmund is almost as famous as the club; he took a sleeping giant back to the highest echelon of world football. He left the club having transformed it into a global phenomenon. He won two league titles, a DFB-Pokal and two German Super Cups and also took the club to their second ever Champions League final against their previous benefactors Bayern Munich. The send-off he was given upon deciding to leave speaks volumes of his legacy at the club – one that current manager Thomas Tuchel is still benefitting from today with his squad of highly talented players and relentless support from fans in the celebrated ‘Yellow Wall’.
Borussia Dortmund are now the envy of many clubs globally, such resilience and history has shaped the club into the unique entity it is today. Die-hard supporters and an ultra-aggressive playing style have made this once tiny, debt-ridden club, the envy of supporters around the world.