Borussia Dortmund's image as the underdog of European football is starting to cramp the style of individual players. Not everyone is comfortable in the role of the outsider -- and that might affect performance at the upcoming all-German Champions League final in Wembley.
It was a cold, wet evening, and Jürgen Klopp was still wearing a trench coat, his newly-transplanted hair dampened by Madrid drizzle. The Borussia Dortmund coach looked exhausted as he fielded questions from the press at Bernabéu Stadium. But he quickly perked up when an opportunity arose to confidently parry one question in English: Asked if he had ever been to Wembley, the cult soccer stadium in London and the venue of the forthcoming UEFA Champions' League final on May 25, Klopp replied, "Of course not!"
What a preposterous idea! Why should he? Klopp laughed heartily. The master of the understatement was once again in his element. After all, the Dortmund players and their entertaining coach like being seen as outsiders.
Having overcome mighty Real Madrid to reach the final, the players now walk around in black shirts emblazoned with the inscription "Wembley calling!" -- an allusion to the famous song "London calling" by British punk band The Clash. The Dortmund squad are obviously out to brand themselves as punks amid Europe's football nobility: somewhat rebellious and not really on the guest list.
These carefree underdogs have come a long way, both on the soccer field and in the hearts of the fans. The role suits their style of play. Jürgen Klopp was therefore keen to point out last Tuesday "we are not the favorite" -- no matter who their opponent would be.
Of course not. Given that they will be up against their age-old rivals Bayern Munich, Borussia won't be hard-pressed to set their sights low. The Bavarians won the German first division Bundesliga early on in the season, fully 20 points ahead of Dortmund. And Munich's financial dominance is plain to see, written about in the press week after week. The Dortmunders mention the fact time and again in interviews and on talk shows, as if they had only been playing away games ever since being rescued from near-bankruptcy eight years ago.
Yet this season's Champions' League alone will net Borussia 60 million, leaving it with overall profits estimated at more than 50 million.
Last September, Dortmund chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke said he wouldn't be predicting that his club wanted to win every year until it was generating turnover upwards of 300 million. In other words, the kind of money Bayern makes. A few months earlier, the club's sports manager, Michael Zorc, had put the figure at 200 million. Now that Dortmund's turnover is apparently hovering around EUR 250 million, Watzke prefers to gauge its purported inferiority using the number of DAX-listed companies sponsoring the two teams. The current score in that match-up is 5:0 for Bayern.
It remains to be seen who benefits from such false modesty. It certainly fires the players up. This self-deprecation is intended to plant a seed of hope, give the team a jolt, motivate them.
Borussia Dortmund played against Real Madrid three times this season. Every time they proved themselves worthy opponents, at the very least. And yet before the fourth such encounter Klopp acted as if his team had reached the semifinal of the Champions' League purely by chance. By giving the impression of being dazzled by the bright lights, he was insinuating that they were mere soccer small-fry, up against the giants of Real.
The Klopp Comedy Show
Sitting next to midfielder Ilkay Gündogan during a press conference at the venerable Madrid stadium, the Dortmund coach flicked at the receiver in front of him, seemingly baffled by the device that relays the interpreter's words into his headphones. He finally gave up, laid the headphones aside, and tried as best he could in English. "You had my English answer translated?" he asked Gündogan, surprised. Later, when Dortmund's press spokesman translated a Spanish question for him, Klopp inquired, "Since when do you speak Spanish?" To which he received the reply, "I don't. I heard the German translation on my headphones."
The Klopp Comedy Show is a deliberate act. The purpose of the performance: To make Dortmund appear like a minnow in the great big ocean of modern football.
The opposite happens on the field. The first time Madrid's Brazilian superstar Kaká touched the ball, Dortmund immediately gave him a lesson in how modern soccer is played. Having taken a fraction of a second too long to pass, the man purchased for the princely sum of EUR 65 million found himself surrounded by five Dortmunders who had sprinted toward him with such ferocity that they seemed capable of tearing the entire stadium down.
The same fate befell the normally fleet-footed Ángel di María and Cristiano Ronaldo as they prepared to dribble the ball up-field with accustomed speed. They too found themselves up against the massed ranks of Borussia players.
That's Klopp football for you; an outsider's style of play that begins with a straightforward idea: "The other team are so much better than us that we have to run twice as far to have even a chance of winning." In the past, the Borussia coach has set the minimum distance -- say a total of 130 kilometers (81 miles) -- that his players should run during a game. Such stats are easy to measure. Even so, Klopp isn't interested in the distance itself, but rather wants everyone to join in at all time. It's the intensity and aggressiveness of the attacks that counts in his eyes.
In Madrid he explained the principle to the assembled Spanish journalists: "Our approach is always the same: Whenever the other team has the ball, we all defend together as if our life depended on it. Whenever we have the ball, we attack together, cheekily and bravely."
Of course by the end of the first leg of the semifinals, which pitted Dortmund and Bayern against Real and Barcelona respectively, even the Spaniards realized that German footballers were no longer tanks, "but Porsches," as El País newspaper noted. Even so, Klopp insists on playing the role of the probable loser. And no-one contradicts him. "We still aren't normal semifinalists, and we won't act that way either," he says. "We're going to behave like someone who has spent his whole life dreaming of taking part."
Klopp's constant downplaying of his team's abilities instills in his players a willingness to make enormous sacrifices for their club, a devotion that was plain to see in Sven Bender even an hour after the final whistle had blown. During the return game against Real, the limping German midfielder had forced his way past broad-stanced Real superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet Bender shrugged off his injuries when asked about them by reporters. "I don't give a damn about that," he said. All that mattered was that they had reached the final.
A Domino Effect
When Jürgen Klopp came to Dortmund from Mainz 05 in 2008, he trained his charges to play the way Mainz had. He didn't want them to dictate the game, but rather to force domineering opponents into making mistakes through clever off-the-ball running. Klopp's players hound their opponents. They also move very efficiently, running in short, intense spurts so they needn't run even more. If they don't snatch back the ball the moment the other side gets it, they needn't fall back too far to defend their own goal, and don't have to pull all the way back before attacking anew. They therefore hurl themselves at the player with the ball or into the space he hopes to pass it into.
This is how Borussia became German league champions in 2011. However opposing teams eventually stopped letting increasingly well-equipped Dortmund act like the underdog on the field, that is, as a team that only ever counter-attacks. Nor did Borussia's labor-intensive style of play bring them similar success in all competitions. Last year they won the national title again. This season it was the Champions' League that gave them an opportunity to underestimate their skills and then win big.
Placed in a "group of death" alongside Manchester City, Real and Ajax Amsterdam, Dortmund were never the favorites. They even came close to being knocked out altogether by Malaga on home turf in the second leg of the quarter-final.
Dortmund is no longer the only side that employs and masters the quick counterattack, switching from defense to offense and back again in an instant. Bayern has also adopted this ploy. However despite Klopp's recent assertions, the Bavarians did not "lift" this from Dortmund the way Chinese companies use industrial espionage to steal Western secrets. It's simply a modern and effective way of playing football.
Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes just took a little longer to train his players in the kind of discipline needed for this game of fox-and-hounds. That's hardly surprising since the squad counts among its ranks not only easy-to-coach players but also well-established icons like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben who initially had to be encouraged to run.
Dortmund's players run to become icons. Last Monday, Jürgen Klopp praised their intelligence. "They know football only works if everyone agrees to go down the same path, and that it's generally the coach who sets the direction."
Such unity based on team spirit and subjugation can fall apart if just one person breaks ranks. Mario Götze, Borussia's super-rocket, is moving to Bayern. Now Dortmund fears a domino effect -- precisely because of the club's carefully choreographed outsider's role, which can sometimes be a curse rather than a blessing.
The club never imagined that Götze's tremendous talent would mature so quickly. In fact Dortmund underestimated the speed of his development to such an extent when signing him just over a year ago that the early-departure penalty stipulated in his contract is just 37 million, a sum more than justified by now.
Borussia could probably cope with losing Götze. But what if Robert Lewandowski follows suit? The advisors of Dortmund's star striker, led by Polish former football player Cezary Kucharski, are dropping hints that they are extremely keen for their client to move to a bigger club this summer. Maybe Dortmund's constant self-effacement also gave Lewandowski the impression that far more separates Borussia and Bayern than is really the case.
Who's Pulling the Strings?
Kucharski, who also has a seat in the Polish parliament, allegedly agreed with Bayern Munich that Lewandowski would move there by no later than the summer of 2014, when his contract expires and he becomes a free agent again. If he wanted to go earlier, he would need Dortmund's permission. In the meantime his advisers are suggesting Lewandowski sees his time in Dortmund as a purgatory from which he must be rescued.
Bayern are keeping tight-lipped about the matter. Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge will only say that his club doesn't plan to negotiate with Dortmund. This may mean he will leave the player's representatives to convince Dortmund to release him, or to pave the way for such a move. It therefore looks like Bayern Munich is pulling the strings without getting its fingers dirty. In other words, it is dictating the game.
It has now emerged that Dortmund officials made Lewandowski a tasty offer over the winter in an apparent attempt to quiet the media. They allegedly gave Lewandowski until May 15 to find a club willing to put 29 million on the table. If he could, his present owners would be open to discussing a transfer.
That didn't buy Borussia a lot of time because the player's advisors chose an inopportune moment to lift the lid on the offer: Shortly before the climax of the season. They said they had a club and the money, so what else was there to discuss?
Dortmund Chairman Watzke says he hasn't agreed to anything. Arguments about off-contract agreements have been commonplace ever since clubs began transferring players. And everyone always remembers the details differently. However this time Lewandowski's agents could yet play their trump card: What if he were so frustrated with his current club that he simply didn't bother playing well in the final year of his contract? That would leave Dortmund with neither a world-class striker nor its 29 million.
Borussia Dortmund are the outsiders again. They refuse to even contemplate the prospect that Bayern fans might once again get to mock their rivals with the song that has become the soccer hit of the season. It's called "There's no shame in losing to Bayern."
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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