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Serie A

Lessons of Dortmund

Two days before Christmas, Germany's largest broadsheet, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung from Munich, and the country's premier football paper, kicker magazine, hit the stands with a rather unpleasant story about Borussia Dortmund.

According to these reports, the club was in talks with the London-based investment company Schechter & Co about a loan of up to 100m Euros, for which Dortmund would mortgage parts of their income through ticket sales over the next twelve years.

At first glance, this looked rather nice, thank you. After all, Schalke had struck a similar deal with Schechter & Co last April, and for a club like Dortmund, with a huge and solid fan base (average attendance 78,000!), paying back such a loan should pose no problem, while 100m euros in the bank right now would certainly buy fame and silverware and European glory.

There are only two problems. One is that Dortmund don't need Schechter's money to clear off old debts (like Schalke did) or to buy new superstars. Instead, the papers said, the club is on the brink of insolvency and has to collect money left, right and centre to stay afloat. It looks as if Dortmund could face a deficit of up to 65m euros compared to last year's turnover.

You will notice that I'm quite careful in my choice of words, that's because Dortmund held a press conference the day after the story broke, during which club officials not only vehemently attacked the writer for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung but also hinted in no uncertain terms that unfounded accusations could result in lawsuits because they might damage the club's creditworthiness.

In any case, what I can say is that the club has attacked this particular writer before. That was in 1997, on the eve of the Champions League final, when he said that coach Ottmar Hitzfeld would resign should he win the final.

Of course, as it turned out the report was spot-on. Moreover, while Dortmund claimed they are in no financial trouble, they did not challenge any of the figures brought forth. And on the next day, an analyst for the Deutsche Bank, whose job is to evaluate Borussia's shares, declared that while the situation was 'serious' it was 'not dramatic' because 'the squad is worth 150m euros and if Dortmund need money, they can sell a few players'.

Excuse me, but which planet is this analyst on? First, who told him that the squad is worth 150m euros? (The club, that's who.) Second, who's going to pay any real money for a bunch of underperforming players, half of whom are currently down with serious knee injuries? Not even Roman Abramovich is that mad.

And so the truth is that Borussia have maybe three stars they can offload - Tomas Rosicky, Jan Koller and the young Brazilian Ewerthon­. Everybody else could be flogged at dumping prices but not sold for the millions they were worth when the market was in full bloom.

What Dortmund failed to do was realise the one fundamental truth about German football: there is only one Bayern Munich.

But anyway, what I want to draw attention to is the second problem, the bit about buying fame and silverware and European glory. Because that's exactly what got Dortmund into this mess. Oh, of course the situation is not quite as bad as the one in Leeds, because Dortmund's spending sprees over the past ten years did result in triumphs: three league championships, the Champions League, the World Club Cup and two UEFA-Cup finals. That's a return on your investment you can't argue with, at least from a footballing standpoint.

But what Dortmund failed to do was realise the one fundamental truth about German football: there is only one Bayern Munich. We always have clubs that challenge Bayern's supremacy, but only for a short period of time, say four years at the most.

Hamburg did it, then Cologne, then Bremen, then Dortmund, then Leverkusen. During those precious seasons, the upstarts have to grab what they can­ and then run and hide, and rebuild.

Unless you're Bayern, you have to accept the fact that fat years will be followed by lean ones. That's the way it goes in this country, where we just don't have the two or three giants that are always there or thereabouts. We only have one giant, and while that may be hard to swallow for ambitious chairmen, Bremen's example proves that in the long run you fare better if you know your place.

Dortmund reached two crossroads in the past decade. The first one came in 1993, when the team had just lost the league title four minutes from time on the last day of the season and was cheered by the public as the moral champions.

That drama turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as a short-lived system was in force during the following UEFA Cup campaign, under which all TV money went into a pool to be distributed among the German teams in the competition. Yet only Dortmund made the final three stages and thus pocketed almost the whole pool, a cool 25m Marks.

The club decided to invest in new players and bought Matthias Sammer, Karlheinz Riedle, Andreas Moeller, Julio Cesar or Paulo Sousa. That side lifted the Champions League in 1997 before it slowly fell apart. Finally, in 2000, Dortmund almost got relegated; this marked the second crossroads.

Glory days: Moller again - this time with the European Cup. Again, Uli is out of shot but surely happy.
Glory days: Moller again - this time with the European Cup. Again, Uli is out of shot but surely happy.

The club could have decided to let nature take its course and rejoin the pack of the also-rans for a couple of seasons. But delusions of grandeur and the dream of overtaking Bayern had become too strong.

The club went public, earned 130m euros, enlarged the ground to the point of mindlessness (the capacity is now 83,000) and spent more than 100m euros on new players (excluding signing-on fees and salaries). It brought one more trophy (the 2002 league title), but tons of problems.

In only ten years, Dortmund have gone from being a hugely popular and financially stable club with a trophy cabinet filled with little more than layers of dust to a widely disliked, money-making and money-burning machinery that needs trophies to stay alive. You decide if it was worth it.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

  • Any thoughts? Email us.