What’s Yellow and Black and Has More Buzz Than a…Kardashian on Crack?

By January 16, 2014 Issue 01

Borussia Dortmund—The Coolest Club on the Planet.

by Andy Brassell

A memorable season that catapulted Borussia Dortmund to world prominence was summed up perfectly by their coach, Jürgen Klopp. When he was asked for a reaction after his club’s Champions League quarterfinal win over Málaga in April, a beatific smile spread across his face as he said, “It’s really cool.”

When Dortmund—or BVB, as it’s often known by fans, an abbreviation of the full club name, Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund—went on to face Real Madrid in the semis, their boss was placed in direct comparison with the revered José Mourinho. While the two may be perfect opposites in terms of image, they share one key characteristic: their teams perfectly personify their coaches on the pitch.

In the past few years, fans worldwide have been charmed by how Dortmund has brought Klopp’s persona to their play. The energy, charisma, daring, and camaraderie evident all season in Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Mats Hummels, and the rest of the squad suggest they were all channeling the bearded, baseball-cap-wearing figure gesticulating on the touchline.

That irrepressible and irresistible style has brought Dortmund’s players a long way in a relatively short time. Of their current number, Nuri Şahin is perhaps best placed to comment on the squad’s recent growth, having left for Real Madrid after the team’s Bundesliga win in 2011 and returning to Signal Iduna Park on loan in the 2012–13 winter transfer window. “As happens normally,” he told Eight by Eight, “it’s the players that change, not the club itself. The players have become much better than they were when I left, and we play much better football.”

The team’s intuitive, vibrant brand of football has caught the imagination of fans. It was the club’s personality—as opposed to simply the team’s—that had much of London swooning in the days leading up to the Wembley final. While much of the football world had already been seduced by the verve of Klopp’s effervescent youngsters, this match represented a huge step forward in the club’s global appeal. Rather than being cowed by the occasion, the underdogs embraced it, off the pitch as well as on it.

BVB supporters brought the kinetic atmosphere of Signal Iduna—or Westfalenstadion as many still call it—with them and charmed London. Many of them roamed the streets in hats, shirts, pants, and hoodies in the team’s black and yellow, many of them attending boisterous fan rallies in London pubs and partying en masse in Trafalgar Square—with Paul Lambert, who played in midfield for BVB’s 1997 Champions League winners, even joining in. A billboard emblazoned with the club’s colors was driven over Westminster Bridge, past the iconic Houses of Parliament, decked with the slogan “Thanks a million for inventing the game we love.”

The magic of Westfalen is one key element of BVB’s charm. “It’s an 80,000 sellout every home  match,” supporter Marc Quambusch says, “and especially the ‘yellow wall’ is incredible.” The yellow wall, or Südtribüne, is a terrace that holds 26,000 people. “Once you see it, you will never forget it,” he says.

“What is also different from other clubs is that the fans are just more dedicated. Bayern has a bigger fan base, but they are not as fanatical as we are,” Quambusch says. After Dortmund won the championship in 2011, more than 500,000 people celebrated in the streets, he explains. “But BVP fans are also very active not only in supporting the team or in making some very impressive choreographies but also in fan political issues. We are, for example, very active in the Kein Zwanni campaign for fair ticket prices.”

Benedikt Scholz, the club’s head of business development and international relations, recognizes that the link to its fans is the club’s lifeblood, more important than television rights or revenue from the Champions League. “That intensity, authenticity, and the bond to the region of Westphalia and the people around it are some of the assets that form the identity of BVB,” he says. “Mixed with hard work, as well a bit of luck, this was the basis to recover from the crisis in 2005.”

Crisis may be an overused word in football, but Scholz isn’t overstating the dire circumstances the club faced eight years ago. The return of club president Reinhard Rauball—who had bailed BVB out of financial trouble twice in the 1970s and 1980s—in March 2005 helped stave off disaster for a club with debts of almost €180 million caused by years of frivolous spending. “It was horrible,” Quambusch says. “We were so close to financial collapse, and we would now be playing in the fifth or sixth level if [CEO] Hans-Joachim Watzke and Dr. Rauball hadn’t convinced our creditors to give us more time. I think that this is the reason why BVB fans are very active and involved.”

“The extremely positive image and the wave of sympathy toward BVB is where our approach since then derives from,” says Scholz. Three years after the near financial disaster, Dortmund had recovered from the worst of its problems, and things were beginning to get better. At that time, the club worked out its strategy through discussions with supporters, employees, and management—basically all the stakeholders, Scholz explains. This identity still guides the club and all its employees. “Our story is almost like a fairy tale,” he says, “and many people can identify with that. I think this is at least part of the reason for our popularity.”

The club’s guardians are seeking to make the most of this surge of interest. The club’s unique relationship with its fans has been distilled in the club’s motto: “Echte Liebe”—real love. And even the club’s Twitter feed is special. It isn’t just a news aggregator—it, like the club it represents, has personality. It is chatty and fun and even quotes Daft Punk lyrics.

The club’s marketing department thought hard about how it would present BVB to the world ahead of the final. “Under the headline ‘From Dortmund With Love’,” says Scholz, “we engaged with our supporters and everyone who was interested in this final and started several activities such as a black-and-yellow double-decker bus touring around London.” The message got out, and Dortmund burst beyond hipster appeal to become a global passion. In a recent interview with a radio station in Edinburgh, English pop star Robbie Williams was photographed wearing a BVB sweatshirt.

How do the hardcore fans feel about their beloved club becoming globally cool? “I think we have a split opinion,” says Quambusch. “Of course everyone is proud when other fans look at our club, but on the other hand, this attracts the ‘glory hunters’—and that endangers what we have in Dortmund. Football lives through its fans and not through customers. It is important not only to consume but to involve yourself and feel like an active part of the match.”

The club is working hard to retain the magic. “It is our philosophy to engage with our hardcore supporters and club members and further enhance this strong bond,” Scholz says. “Last season we sold 54,000 season tickets—which was a European record—for the third season in a row. After allocating tickets to the away fans, this gives us almost 20,000 tickets we can sell on a match-day basis to people who come from other parts of Germany or even outside Germany. This allocation creates an intense match-day atmosphere and spreads the experience to other parts of the world.”

That positive ambience is more important than ever, if only to combat a less edified tradition in the region. Dortmund is in the heart of industrial northwestern Germany and has always been a hub of economic migration, which has led to tensions. In March, Associated Press reported a rise in neo-Nazi activity on the Westfalen terraces, with up to 100 far-right supporters apparently present on the Südtribüne. Siegfried Borchardt, a co-founder of the racist Borussenfront group, who has been convicted of several violent offenses, boasted to the German magazine 11 Freunde in January about redoubling recruitment among ultra groups.

This became an international issue after BVB’s Champions League tie at Shakhtar Donetsk in February, when far-right extremists attacked Dortmund Fan-Projekt workers Thilo Danielsmeyer and Jens Volke in the bathroom at Donetsk’s Donbass Arena during the match.

The club responded immediately: Watzke described the attacks as “despicable” and the club spent over $335,000 on extra security at its stadium. One of BVB’s most visible weapons in this fight is on the roster—highly-rated midfielder İlkay Gündo˘gan, Dortmund’s goal scorer in the Wembley final, and the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB)’s integration ambassador.

Gündoğan’s parents were born in Turkey, but he and his older brother Ilhan were born and raised in Gelsenkirchen—home to Dortmund’s archrivals Schalke, something his teammate (and childhood BVB fan) Kevin Großkreutz mercilessly teases him about. As well as being representative of the multiculti makeup of Germany’s modern national side, Gündo˘gan is a quintessential Dortmund footballer: young, diverse, and aware of life off the pitch. The 22-year-old told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a March interview that his parents’ decision to raise their children in a predominantly German area helped him but that “you can find both Turkish and German qualities in me—in football and in life … I think from the German side, I’m very disciplined in dealing with my job and doing everything possible to develop myself. I’m very ambitious. From the Turkish side, I’m very emotional. Turkish and German football—it’s just a great combination.”

It’s a combination that is winning new fans every day and deepening the already profound bond BVB have with their loyal base, win or lose. “Of course I would have loved to win the final,” says Quambusch. “Who wouldn’t? But I wasn’t really sad. The club was dead a few years ago, and without much money we’ve won two championships, a cup and have been in the Champions League final. Also, football isn’t only about winning. It’s about much more than that.” He remembers the end of the final. “I just thought, I have the honor of being a fan of the best club in the world.”

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