It’s Friday at the time of writing this sentence and that can mean only one thing – apart from all those other things. It’s Amy Eustace’s Friday column and this week she examines what European football clubs could learn from Dortmund’s ascent.
Every so often German football undergoes a pseudo renaissance, where the world stops and thinks to itself, “Damn, that lot really have it all worked out.”
The Premier League may like to think of itself as ‘the best league in the world’, but let’s be real: the Bundesliga has some of the highest average attendances in the world, is replete with technically gifted footballers, full of cracking goal fests and what’s more, their fans can be trusted to guzzle beer on the terraces without lowering the tone of the occasion dramatically.
Could you imagine an English crowd coping very well with that privilege? Yeah, thought not.
As you’d expect from Europe’s fiscal stronghold, German clubs by and large have their finances well and truly in order, many of them backed by the country’s industry giants.
Despite the heavy capitalist involvement, all clubs (apart from Wolfsburg and Leverkusen, whose origin as factory teams set them apart) are required to have at least 51 per cent fan ownership. No Sheikhs, no Russian oligarchs; these are peoples’ clubs, and a fantastic advertisement for the structure to boot.
Champions League semi-finals
For so long the Bundesliga has rumbled along as usual, earning quiet, adoring stares from its European neighbours whose domestic leagues are rife with flaws whichever way you slice it. This year, however, the exposure level has gone up a notch, with all eyes now focused on the two German clubs who have reached the Champions League semi-finals. Bayern Munich – last year’s runners up – take on Barcelona, while Borussia Dortmund (darling of football hipsters everywhere) face Real Madrid.
Munich’s appearance in the semis is no big surprise. Already crowned German champions for 2013, they are still sitting 20 points ahead of Dortmund in the league and boast a long-established European pedigree, winning the competition on three occasions and narrowly losing out to Chelsea in last year’s final.
Dortmund, on the other hand, are something of a wild card. Not even storming to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in the last two seasons could make them mainstream enough to ward off the loving attentions of football’s hipster fringe. European Cup winners in 1997, they experienced a downturn in fortune in the noughties, but in recent years have re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in German football under the control of the respected Jurgen Klopp.
Dortmund are now a production line for the German national team, supplying them with Mats Hummels, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze to name but a few. They nurtured the talents of Shinji Kagawa, now at Manchester United, and Nuri Sahin, who has returned to Real Madrid after a stint at Liverpool. Though their stars have more than proved their worth, they weren’t expected to perform so well in the Champions League.
After all, they haven’t reached the last four in 15 years. They were 35/1 to win the competition but Dortmund are 6/1 to lift the trophy.
They’ve already faced Madrid twice in this year’s group stages, beating the Spaniards 2-1 at home and forcing them to a 2-2 draw in the Bernabeu, so it seems as if Klopp has the measure of Mourinho’s side – so much so that he has already been touted as his successor in the Spanish capital.
Undefeated in the competition to date, Dortmund dumped Shakhtar Donetsk out of the competition fairly easily, but Malaga were no pushovers in the quarter-finals and it took two late goals and a controversial offside call to see the German side safely through.
There’s a lot to love about Dortmund, so it’s no wonder they’re the alternative favourites. Their players are exceptionally talented, bright and young. The average age of their starting XI against Malaga was 25 (compared with Malaga’s 29), and only four of the team were from outside Germany. Under Klopp, they play a high-intensity, pressing game, which involves a lot of energy.
It comes as no shock to find that five of the 10 players who have covered the most distance in the Champions League this year wear Dortmund’s black and yellow, running over 530km between them over the course of the tournament so far.
Their fans are devoted – many of them camping out for two nights in front of the club offices just to secure tickets for the semi-final – and creative, as evidenced by the incredible display they put on during the home leg of the quarters. Their stadium has a capacity of more than 80,000 and a standing ticket for a league match starts at around €15, while a season ticket would set you back between €187-€225. The cheapest Arsenal season ticket, for reference, is a whopping £985.
They are, in so many respects, the model club, as noted by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, who last week highlighted them as an example for the Merseyside club to follow.
Look at the example of Borussia Dortmund. A team that won the Champions League and then struggled financially. They went out and rebuilt and it took them four to five years to push on. Then they won the league and their European work suffered. This year you can see they have put their focus on Europe and they have lost their title. That’s a team that has been growing over five years.
Dortmund’s success, as Rodgers pointed out, did not come overnight and it certainly didn’t come as a result of some cash-laden sugar daddy’s injection of funds. In a week when Cardiff City have been promoted to the Premier League after sacrificing some of their culture and integrity for commercial gain, when QPR still languish in the drop-zone despite having thrown the kitchen sink at their transfer kitty and when Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness has urged Michel Platini to kick Financial Fair Play rule-breaching teams out of the Champions League, there’s no issue more topical.
Throwing money at the problem of poor results has become de rigueur in modern football, in much the same way that hoofing the ball into the mixer is often preferred from working up from the back. Simply put, it’s pure impatience, and if there’s any part of Dortmund’s blueprint for success that clubs around the world should take note of, it’s that patience is a virtue.
Quick fixes just paper over the cracks. Dortmund have put down the foundations for a future that’s as gloriously exciting as their present and I’m sure every football hipster will agree when I say long may the revolution last.
Lost in translation
- Remember Bébé? The Portuguese player that United signed in 2010 for a reported €9m without Sir Alex Ferguson having ever seen him in action?. Now on loan at Rio Ave, he spoke out this week about his relationship with the Red Devils boss, purportedly saying: “I never took Manchester United seriously and never understood a word about what Alex Ferguson was saying.” I guess that makes two of us.
- It’s hardly news anymore that Premier League footballers are paid an atrociously large amount of money, but yesterday it was revealed that top flight English clubs spent £1.6 billion on players’ wages in 2011/12. That’s 32 Fernando Torreses, 45 Andy Carrolls or 177 Bébés. Meanwhile, Swansea, Wigan and Reading are trying to hire videographers and data analysts on the cheap by advertising for unpaid internships. Hmmm.
PSG’s penalty points
- Having spent two years at Chelsea, you would think Carlo Ancelotti would be used to prima-donna players, but apparently not. The Italian slammed his PSG squad after their French Cup quarter final defeat to 9th placed Ligue 1 side Evian: “There was no concentration, no character, too much self-importance.” The Parisian outfit lost on penalties after a 1-1 draw in regular time, with Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both missing their attempts. PSG still lead Ligue 1 by nine points with six games to go, but with Zlatan in the team there’s probably a lot more self-importance where that came from, Carlo.