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 By Uli Hesse

The unique history between Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham

When the Europea League draw paired Borussia Dortmund with Spurs, the Bundesliga club's website quickly reported that the Germans had "never played Tottenham Hotspur in a competitive match before."

That's true, but it doesn't mean that there have been no memorable -- or even historic -- games between the two sides.

In May 1950, Tottenham celebrated promotion to the English First Division. A week later, the team left Britain for a five-match tour of the continent. Four of those games were played in West Germany. Spurs defeated Arminia Hannover, Tennis Borussia Berlin and Wacker Berlin before travelling to Dortmund to face Borussia.

Dortmund had met foreign teams before, but not many. In the summer of 1949, they hosted Austria Vienna and seven weeks before Spurs came to town, Belenenses from Lisbon had paid the Germans a visit. That had been it. The Tottenham game was Dortmund's first-ever match against British opposition.

This may sound surprising. Spurs had first toured Germany in 1911, then again in 1914 -- when Nuremberg and Furth, at the time little more than ambitious amateurs, held the professionals to sensational draws. During the following decades, countless English sides crossed the Channel to play teams in Germany, where all British clubs were held in high esteem.

They also travelled to the Ruhr valley, where Dortmund are based. A then-strong team called Duisburger SpV, no longer in existence as an independent club, hosted Oxford City as early as 1908 and later played Bolton, Burnley and Everton. In May 1937, Dortmund's fierce rivals Schalke celebrated a famous victory when they beat Brentford -- who'd just finished sixth in the old First Division -- by a stunning score of 6-2.

But Borussia weren't a big club, not even regionally, before the war. There was just no point for an English team to travel all the way to Dortmund to play a subpar side. However, when Spurs came to Germany for the first time after the war, the situation had markedly changed. Schalke seemed to be on the decline, while Dortmund had reached the final for the national championship in 1949 and made the round of 16 in 1950.

It was a special game for Dortmund's goalkeeper Gunter "Bubi" Rau, because Spurs had expressed a serious interest in his services the previous summer. On this day, though, he and his teammates were no match for Tottenham.

Although Spurs had spent the previous season in the second division, they had a very strong team (and would go on to win the First Division title in 1951). What's more, the English were fully professional, while Dortmund were techncially semipro.

Finally, the hosts must have been in awe of their visitors, unaccustomed as they were to playing foreign teams, let alone such a famous British club. Winger Sonny Walters opened the scoring. Len Duquemin, Eddie Baily and Harry Gilberg were also on target as Spurs won easily, 4-0.

The two teams met again only one year later. The occasion was the so-called Festival of Britain, a nationwide exhibition that ran from May to September 1951. It was meant as a celebration of British industry, arts, science -- and sports. Many teams from the continent received invitations to play British sides. No less than 154 individual games were staged across the nation during the second and third week of May. West Germany sent three teams, one of which was Dortmund.

Borussia met Derby County, then Spurs at White Hart Lane and finally Swindon Town. It was the first time the German club played football outside of Germany, which means that Spurs not only hold the distinction of being the first British side to face Borussia, they are also only the second team Dortmund ever faced abroad.

It seems this time the Germans weren't quite so overwhelmed by the occasion. They managed to draw with Derby County and kept the score against Spurs down to a creditable 2-1.

The match programme noted: "The hospitality and kindness extended to all our party on our visit to Dortmund was such that in offering the heartiest of welcomes to our visitors we express the hope that their memories of their visit to Tottenham will be as pleasant as ours are of our visit to Dortmund." There were even nine lines in German on the front page.

However, the two teams' budding friendship was put to a stern test -- because the Festival of Britain game would be their last meeting for the next 55 years.

During those decades, Dortmund met quite a few English sides in competitive matches. The most momentuous of these encounters were the games against West Ham United and Liverpool in the mid-1960's and against Manchester United in the 1990's, as they resulted in Borussia's biggest triumphs on the European stage.

Three years after the country's football had gone professional with the formation of the Bundesliga, in 1966, Dortmund became the first German team to win a European trophy. In the semi-finals of the Cup Winners' Cup, Borussia eliminated title-holders West Ham (with Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, who'd win the World Cup a few months later), 5-2 on aggregate.

Borussia Dortmund's famous 1966 Cup Winners' Cup conquest included a semifinal victory at West Ham.
Borussia Dortmund's famous 1966 Cup Winners' Cup conquest included a semifinal victory at West Ham.

Still, Billy Shankly's Liverpool went into the final, played at Glasgow's Hampden Park, as popular favourites. But Dortmund won a tense, ugly game 2-1 after extra time. The deciding goal still looms large in Borussia lore: Liverpool's goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence made a save at the edge of the penalty area and the ball fell to Reinhard Libuda, who scored from 35 yards.

Shankly was anything but gracious in defeat. "We were beaten by a team of frightened men," he said, obviously mistaking Dortmund's fairly modern counter-attacking game for timidity.

A fellow Scot was equally unhappy 31 years later. In the semifinals of the 1996-97 Champions League, Dortmund met Manchester United and won the home leg thanks to a deflected shot from Rene Tretschok. "There were some very disappointing performances," Alex Ferguson said. "I'm not sure it was a good game. I think Dortmund can play better too."

Two weeks later, another deflected strike -- this time from Lars Ricken ---put the tie out of United's reach, although the Premier League team created a plethora of opportunities. Dortmund then won the final against Juventus (who were even bigger favourites than Liverpool had been in 1966), 3-1. The deciding third goal, scored by Ricken, was a distance shot that reminded many people of Libuda's lob at Hampden.

Dortmund had to first overcome Gary Neville and Manchester United before topping Juventus in the final of the 1996-97 Champions League.
Dortmund had to first overcome Gary Neville and Manchester United before topping Juventus in the final of the 1996-97 Champions League.

Dortmund also played many friendlies against British clubs over the course of those decades following the Festival of Britain.

In 1957, Manchester City, with their German star goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, travelled to the Ruhr valley for Dortmund legend Erich Schanko's testimonial. In 1969, Borussia drew a preseason preparation match with Arsenal, 2-2. In 1975, as a second-division club, they hosted Liverpool. In 1984, Dundee United came to Dortmund. In 1990, Aberdeen beat Borussia 2-1.

But Spurs? No. Not until the summer of 2006.

On a sunny, warm Saturday in early August day, six days before the start of the 2006-07 Bundesliga campaign, Dortmund's dress rehearsal, their last game of the preseason preparations, reunited them with Spurs.

On the South Stand, some Dortmund fans held up a banner that read "Welcome to the Greatest Stadium" and the ground lived up to its billing, as no less than 39,000 fans came out to see Martin Jol's talented side that would eventually finish fifth in the Premier League.

Dortmund and Tottenham have squared off twice in preseason in the last decade, including a 1-1 draw in 2006.
Dortmund and Tottenham have squared off twice in preseason in the last decade, including a 1-1 draw in 2006.

A home team in dire need of rebuilding -- just 17 months after their near-bankrupcty, Dortmund were still 54 million euros in the red -- took the lead when Swiss striker Alexander Frei scored with a free kick from the edge of the box. But shortly before the break, Dimitar Berbatov finished off a solo run with a low drive for the final score of 1-1.

Having waited more than a half-century to renew acquaintances, the teams quickly met again. Barely two years later, in the summer of 2008, Feyenoord hosted the so-called Jubilee Tournament. To celebrate their centenary, the Dutch club invited the teams they had beaten in European finals: Celtic (European Cup 1970), Tottenham (UEFA Cup 1974) and Dortmund (UEFA Cup 2002).

Dortmund and Spurs won their games on day one of the tournament, so their meeting on the second day amounted to a final. The match was not quite as one-sided as the eventual 3-0 scoreline may have you presume. Darren Bent quickly put Spurs ahead, but then the Germans went close numerous times before Giovani dos Santos made it 2-0 from a counterattack and Jamie O'Hara added a third.

This game, incidentally, was one of the first that saw Dortmund's new coach in charge, a certain Jurgen Klopp. Seven years later, he would take over Liverpool -- and face Tottenham in his first Premier League game.

So there has always been something a little bit out of the ordinary about Spurs and Dortmund. It's about time they finally meet with something at stake.

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.


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