The line-up for this year’s UEFA Champions League has three usual suspects and one gigantic wave of energy
It is called Barça fatigue and it has a remedy now. For those who love attractive football served with romantic narratives but are tired of counting Leo Messi’s goals and Xavi Hernandez’s passes, there is now Borussia Dortmund—the most attractive team in the world’s most attractive football league, Germany’s Bundesliga.
For three years now, Borussia Dortmund (BVB) has been scripting a football fairytale that can potentially rival—who knows, maybe even top—the more-than-a-club Barcelona narrative. It has all the ingredients: a great comeback story; a young maverick of a coach with ideological obstinacy and a deep emotional bond with his wards; a slick passing game that has harmony and speed; sparkling young players who prefer the football rolling around their feet than, say, the long-ball-fuelled aerial combat that passes for the English Premier League.
Like former Barça manager Pep Guardiola, Dortmund’s manager Jürgen Klopp comes from a humble backgound. Like Guardiola, he wasn’t the greatest of players. But unlike Guardiola, Klopp was not handpicked by a legendary coach like Johan Cruyff and groomed for footballing glory, first as captain and then as manager. Klopp spent his entire playing career in a second division side called Mainz. After his retirement, he began managing it, inspiring it to a miraculous promotion to the first division without any expensive players or transfer budgets. But they got relegated again in 2006-07. After failing to get them promoted back to the top league in 2007-08, Klopp quit the club of his life.
Borussia Dortmund (BVB), meanwhile, had finished that season in 13th place in an 18-team Bundesliga, after losing to several lower ranked clubs. Since winning the Champions League in 1997 and the Bundesliga in 2002, the club had fallen on bad days, with financial mismanagement and indebtedness. Bankruptcy loomed. BVB sold its stadium and then sold off its best players, cut the salaries of those who remained, hired and fired a series of managers.
Klopp had already become a football pundit on TV, acquiring popularity for his incisive analysis, hyperactive delivery, floppy hair and unshaven looks. But he didn’t seem the best candidate to pick up the pieces of a great club. Der Kloppo, as he is called, was a jester compared with the German coaching gold standard—Franz ‘Der Kaiser’ Beckenbauer, the only man to have led a national team to World Cup glory both as captain (1972) and as manager (1990).
German football went downhill after that 1990 win. The national team was knocked out of subsequent World Cups by the likes of Bulgaria (1994) and Croatia (1998). In 2002, it reached the final due to the heroics of a great goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn. The 2000 European Championship was an all-time low; Germany scored just once and lost all games. While BVB (1997) and Bayern Munich (2001) won the UEFA Champions League, Germany had declined in the world of football.
The national football association, Deutscher Fussball Bund (DFB), got to the task of rebuilding, not least because Germany was to host the 2006 World Cup. DFB resolved not to go the English way—Germany does not allow corporations and foreign investors to own its football clubs. Members and local supporters must own them. The only two exceptions are Wolfsburg and Bayer Levekusen, which were creations of Volkswagen and chemicals giant Bayer, respectively. So, foreign capital and foreign players that big money can buy are not the defining themes of German football. Think the people of Bangalore, and not Vijay Mallya, owning Royal Challengers Bangalore, and you will get the picture.
This means the Bundesliga does not get the international marketing attention the English game does. It also means most Bundesliga clubs are relatively unknown outside Germany, and do not have fans killing one another over their games in faraway places like Palestine (yes, a Barça fan in Iraq did that recently to his friend who supported Real Madrid). What this also means is that the bond between cities and their football clubs (not to mention their players) is more emotional and administrative in Germany. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich cannot hope to buy a German club and run it according to his whims like he runs the English club Chelsea—buying/selling players and hiring/sacking managers like stock on the share market.
Germany pumped millions of euros in stadiums and facilities in its programmes to revive football in the country, but more than anything else it focused on youth programmes under the DFB with a long-term vision of finding young talent and grooming it. The 2006 World Cup was a runaway success—Germany came third, the stadiums were packed with enthusiastic spectators, the buzz was back. The stage seemed set for new protagonists to script a new play—talented young footballers, unaware of the cynical football of the past, and adventurous managers, willing to take risks, try new ideas, devise new systems to maximise the ability of young players.
Der Kloppo was the man. He favours full-throttle football, aimed at producing games worth watching; not a cynical approach to finish at a gainful position in the table at the end of the season. Other managers, too, had realised that people were desperate for beautiful football. Crowds began to throng stadiums. In the 2010-11 season, BVB had the highest average stadium attendance in Europe—more than 80,000 per match. Last season, six of the top 10 clubs in Europe with the highest average attendance were from the Bundesliga.
The national squad began to show this excitement. Several young players, products of this revival, charmed everybody at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, handing the overrated English team a bruising 4-1 drubbing in the knockout stage and winning the quarterfinal 4-0 against a highly rated Argentina, full of the most expensive stars playing in top European clubs. The team lost the semi-final 0-1 to Spain, which went on to win the World Cup.
This German squad was the youngest of the tournament, with an average age of 23. Captain Philip Lahm, the elder statesman from Bayern Munich, was 26 then. At the age of 20, Thomas Muller was the poster boy of the competition. Everyday followers of football loved his goalscoring prowess; the aesthetes loved his languid movement with the ball and without it. Two years later, at the European Cup 2012, this team was stopped 1-2 in the semi-finals by an Andrea Pirlo-inspired Italy. By not caring too much about the results, German teams were winning more often and with far greater pizzazz.
The football superpower was back and the world was noticing again. Just take a look at UEFA club competitions this season, and you will see the evidence. German teams—national squad as well as clubs—are wowing neutrals as much as they excite dedicated supporters.
As BVB does not have the money power of a Bayern Munich, it has looked for talent where large clubs typically don’t: in its backyard. The discoveries have been dazzling. There is MarioGötze. At the age of 21, the midfielder is already the attacking lynchpin of BVB and the German national team, especially in his partnership with deep-playing forward Marco Reus, 23. Reus and Götze are products of the BVB youth academy, though Reus left for a while and then came back. Both have the rare blessing of natural pace.
Running with the ball, they embody youthful abandon; their running off the ball is only sharper, tearing into dumbstruck defences. The two have a telepathic understanding, which has already drawn comparisons with Xavi and Iniesta of Barça and Spain. Beckenbauer recently said, “as a classic duo, there is nothing better than the prolific Reus and Götze”. That is saying something, because one would have thought the Bayern patriarch would want to draw attention to the partnership of Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos, Bayern’s attacking midfielders.
The pace of Reus and Götze up front is best backed up with thought and vision. Nuri Sahin provides that. In 2005, when he made his debut for BVB at the age of 16, he became Bundesliga’s youngest player and scorer ever, becoming club captain later. He went over to Real Madrid on a lucrative transfer, but then got loaned off to Liverpool in England. After travelling around, Sahin is back where he loves it the most: BVB under Klopp, though he is on loan. Sahin has that extra time on the ball, which along with technical ability and vision is the hallmark of a masterly playmaker. The Turk is among Europe’s most promising young central midfielders.
Without Bayern’s spending power, BVB couldn’t get many fancy foreign players from time-tested football nurseries in Brazil and Argentina. So, again, it looked where others don’t: Poland. It has three extraordinary Poles. Lukasz Piszczek is rated among Europe’s best attacking right-backs. Poland captain Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski is a pacy winger and midfielder on the right flank, who has 10 goals and 9 assists to his credit in this Bundesliga season. But the big impact player is striker Robert Lewandowski, the league’s top scorer now. It is not even just the attacking array; centre-backs Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic hold a very high defensive line, backing their ability to run back and quell a counter-attack.
A critical ingredient of the team’s success in recent years is the intense pressing of their opponents upon losing possession of the ball. Football tacticians say this is the impact of Argentine coach and ideologue Marcelo Bielsa, who was also a big influence on Barça and Guardiola. But there isn’t a team that can press like the youthful BVB, with a merciless asphyxiating intensity. When they have the ball, it is another kind of breathlessness. The players seem possessed. Call it the Der Kloppo effect.
Klopp is no mild medicine, definitely not every man’s idea of a coach and manager. Intensely emotional and outspoken, he has the air of an evangelist sent down by the gods of football to reform cynical tactics. Everything about him is direct, in your face, visceral. His press conferences are about as dramatic as his team on the pitch. He can bet his butt on a comment and ask reporters if they like his transplanted hair. He can taunt opponents, but be equally brutal with his team. After a derby loss to Schalke last month, he said plainly that his team deserved to lose. In such situations, managers usually blurt cliched excuses. Off the touchline, he is the most animated presence in the technical box, seldom seen seated. He has been called ‘a physical education teacher on steroids.’
His youth brigade is infected with his enthusiasm. Before making a substitution, you can catch him hold the incoming player in a long and tight embrace, rocking him side to side, smiling and whispering into his ear like he is singing a lullaby. When the player goes on to the pitch, it seems like he is responding to some magical command.
How long can such intensity last? The similarly driven Pep Guardiola suffered a burnout in three years in Barcelona, and the club handed over the Spanish league title to Real Madrid last year after three incredible years. BVB’s performance this season has fallen below the standard it set over the past two years, when it won the Bundesliga in record-breaking style. Bayern Munich has already secured the German title this year. Bayern is among the richest clubs in the world, and can buy the best players. The charismatic Guardiola will manage them next season.
There is already talk that Bayern may buy ace striker Lewandowski. Centre-back Mats Hummels has been linked to a move to Barça. But such threats are not new. Over the past five years, Klopp has managed to cover for every important player leaving the club with a great substitute, earning a neat sum in the deal. When Sahin left, he got the prolific Shinji Kagawa. When Manchester United swooped on Kagawa, Marco Reus was brought in.
In the ongoing Champions League (the first leg of the semi-finals was to be played on 23 and 24 April), the BVB stars are competing against players who earn more than some of them put together. A star-studded Bayern is in ominous form. In the quarter-finals, they made short work of an excellent Juventus side, which looks set to win the Italian Serie A title for the second year on the trot. After a blip in the season, Barça are back in form. Close to losing the Spanish league title, Real Madrid are hungry to save the season with a tenth Champions League title.
On the face of it, BVB are out of their depth. Madrid, Bayern and Barça are Hollywood studios; BVB a small-town theatre company. But they beat Madrid during qualifying. If there is one coach who can actually beat Madrid manager Jose Mourinho at his mind games, it is Der Kloppo. BVB may not have their bench strength and star power, but they also do not have the oversized egos of Madrid stars.
The Champions League semi-finals promise an incredible spectacle of attacking football—the four best teams from the two most watchable leagues, Germany and Spain. For neutrals, a Barça-BVB final is a droolsome prospect for the explosion of style it promises. Two high-pressing, intense teams, full of slick passing players who play in concert. Football does not get better.