Why I Watch: Borussia Dortmund

In the spirit of The Classical’s fabulous Why We Watch series, I wanted to write something similar about Borussia Dortmund. While The Classical’s series covers individual athletes (mostly basketball players), I’m going to extend this concept to cover a whole sporting club. I believe the why we watch conceit is one of the central generators of personal meaning for our sporting experiences, yet we usually don’t examine these whys, instead focusing our fandom energies on just keeping pace with the season, the stats, the narratives, the memes, whatever. And for good reason. Sport predominantly happens along these contours of action, so we usually leave the underlying motivations for fandom unexamined.

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Watching Borussia Dortmund (BVB) defines these first three years of my Bundesliga love. I fell for Die Schwarzgelben in the fall of 2010, thanks to ESPN3 broadcasting an ample number of their games when I was making my first foray into the Bundesliga. As it happens, I’ve spent the next three years trying to figure out exactly why I love this club. Normally, I’m pretty quick to identify the sources of my fandom affections. However, BVB is trickier for me to figure out, probably because of my own geographical distance from Dortmund, Germany and because of the language barrier. (Would I give anything to have learned German back in school now! I know, it’s not too late …) Meanwhile, I have this affective reaction to the club: emotions, attention, desire to associate, etc. It’s real stuff.

So Dortmund happened to win back-to-back titles during the two years I fell for the club. A critic (especially here in America) could accuse me of bandwagon fandom. Sure. Success helps. But I have no interest in defending my fandom by entering the faux-moral debates about the metaphysics and the “rightness” of one’s fan affiliations in this piece of writing. Instead, I want to explain why an American sports fan (or perhaps just any fußball fan across the globe), like myself, might fall so hard for Die Schwarzgelben

First, there’s the on-field optics. Dortmund look good playing, especially to those who might otherwise find futbol boring. It begins with the movement toward getting the ball back. BVB famously plays its “gegenpressing” game, in which the players work extremely hard to win back possession of the ball as soon as they lose it in the opponent’s half, thereby squeezing space from the opponents. (Here’s a quick example of Marco Reus pulling off the tactic) Optically, this style means that there’s constant on-field movement with possession changing hands relatively rapidly. For new or skeptical (“Soccer is so damn boring”) eyes watching fußball, it’s attractive stuff, cutting into the game’s “heavy boredom.” Because of this movement, there’s a breathlessness to Dortmund games. The back-and-forth movement is great visual spectacle both for the chances Dortmund create and for the chances the club gives up.

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BVB hunts in packs. BVB swarms the ball in the opponent’s half. BVB ambushes unsuspecting midfielders and backs. (Part of the fun here is describing Dortmund’s play with these verbs.)

Then BVB guns the ball toward the opponent’s box. The next phase is the attack, built on the credit of  a few years worth of fluid chemistry between their attackers (Götze and Lewandowski; even Kuba, Schmelzer, and Pisczyzcek; and now Gündogan and Reus).

More seasoned followers of Dortmund know that the optics belie an incredibly difficult, technical, and intelligent style of play that requires unearthly stamina, conditioning, footballing smarts, and a machine like this one for sharpening passing reflexes. Years of training and playing together are needed to build the positional awareness, movement, and patterns recognition to make it all work. Dortmund footballers play an intelligent game of shifting angles and vectors with the goal of squeezing the opponent’s space and winning the the ball back at the most opportune moments: just after BVB themselves have lost it.

Thus, watching BVB becomes an appreciation of the form, the labor, and the result. Perhaps like appreciating a work by Piet Mondrian or Georges Braque. More than any other team, watching Dortmund makes me want to create a visual to decode all the movement, pressing, and transitioning. Something obsessive, like this visual decoding of Ravel’s Bolero by Anne Adams:

Anne Adam’s “Unraveling Bolero”

My piece of obsessive digital folk art would somehow capture the lines of movement, the traps and ambushes, and the pivots upon which counters are sprung. Visual art is the best analogy I can think of here for describing the Dortmund style, since it’s all lines, angles, and movements on a spatial plane designed to warp space itself so that opponent has less and BVB has more. Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund is latest incarnation of the contemporary game’s obsession with space from the idealization that was totaalvoetball to current incarnation of the pressing game.

For me, watching Dortmund is watching the culmination of the design, training, squad chemistry, on-field decisions and movement all at once during the run of play. Naturally, it’s an aesthetic experience, as these variables meld together on the television screen. Appreciation might be a key word here, because of the sheer quantity of stuff – the labor, conceptualization, culture, and philosophy – the on-the-field product stands on.

Before, I’ve argued that Klopp’s Dortmund is like a machine with interchangeable parts, punctuated by a certain style each footballer must enact.  Yes, the parts are replaceable; however, for the machine to exhibit its characteristic style, chemistry time is needed. For this reason, BVB has weathered the departures of “parts” like Nuri Sahin (and his return!), Shinji Kagawa, Lucas Barrios, and Ivan Perišic. We’ve now seen how a new “part,” like Ílkay Gündogan at first struggled as a part in the machine, but given enough training and playing time, came to thrive in his role, as the machine also adapted to his unique contributions (i.e. his shorter needle-threading passing game, his crafty dribbling toward to the box, and his ability to control to the pace of play by distributing the ball). So I’m confident that Dortmund will weather the latest storm of transfers: Mario Götze to Bayern, Lewandowski probably to somewhere, Felipe Santana to Schalke, etc.  However, I find something deeply sad about the departures (as deeply sad as sport can be), given the meticulous care, training, and playing time that is needed to get the BVB machine humming like it did this year to make the deep Champion’s League run.

To use my visual art analogy, it’s as if somebody has gouged out patches of the paintings canvas. Sure, the holes will be patched, but we’ll have to get used to the patch job, and, there’s no way around this step in the process – the painting will be a bit different. In footballing terms, Dortmund will have plenty of money to splash around on new parts for the machine, but the work will have to be restarted.

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My problem with Dortmund is that it’s so easy to create an idealization of this club – the Platonic form of “sporting club” – especially for an American sports fan. No wonder BVB has become a hipster club. The signature style of play is cradled within a fan culture that, in America football, is like the Green Bay Packers on steroids. (I picked the Packers because they are “publicly” owned, have a deep tradition of success, and perhaps the NFL’s most famed fanbase.) For crying out loud, the club’s slogan this year was Echte Liebe (translated to something like “unconditional love,” or “a love that is not dependent on anything”).

Dortmund's famed Yellow Wall
Dortmund’s famed Yellow Wall

If you’re reading this piece on this site, you probably don’t need me to meticulously explain the impressive Borussia Dortmund fan culture. Suffice it to say that seeing the visuals of the Signal Iduna stands and Dortmund supporters around their city, hearing the singing from the stands, and seeing Kevin Großkreutz’s calf signal a community and way of life that I can’t help but envy. The club and its culture are community catalysts. Who wouldn’t want this from one’s sporting club? As someone who grew up as a Dallas Cowboys fan in the American Southwest, sports fandom has always been about choice for me, as well as a grasping for some more tangible connection with your team besides the naked choice to become a team’s fan. So the idealization of Borussia Dortmund as sporting club is irresistible for me – dwelling in the land of expansion teams and occasional “franchise” relocation on an expansive continent where I’ve spent my own rootless life.

But idealizations are dangerous of course.

For one thing, I know that no matter how long I come to love this club and follow it from abroad, I’ll never have whatever it is the lifelong supporters in the city or area have. For another thing, I know that football fandom – well, fandom in general – is a Faustian bargain given the global scale, corporatism, consumerism, exploitation, violence, transfer market madness, etc. that accompanies big money football. “Pure” football clubs don’t exist. Everybody has a stake in the zero sum market and game. Sure, Jürgen Klopp can beautifully assert that BVB “are a club, not a company,” but we know that it is a company, too. Earlier in the same interview, attention is brought to the fact that Dortmund are the world’s 11th richest club, as it generated €189m in 2012, even if its wage bill is far less than, say, a Real Madrid, Barça, Chelsea, Man City, Man United, or Bayern. Furthermore, Dortmund are the only Bundesliga club traded on the stock market (“BVB.DE”). After all, this is the same club that, in a Bayern-esque move, poached Marco Reus away from Mönchengladbach to replace Shinji Kawaga (I know, the Reus case is sorta tricky, since Marco grew up in the BVB system – still Gladbach suffered the loss). And, surely, this is a club that will be doing plenty of poaching during this upcoming transfer season, thanks to €37m in profit from Götze’s release clause and to the profit windfall from its deep Champion’s League run.

For those of us who love this club, we want the poaching to happen, because this Klopp-led Schwarzgelben machine – and its attendant fan culture – is so damn fun to love. Besides, I would argue, clubs like Borussia Dortmund are irresistible anti-heroes within the narrative  confines of European football, which is dominated by main characters who are “big money” clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, Man City, and Bayern. At any point in our fatigued annual narratives for these massive clubs, there are protagonists (e.g. Barça good) and antagonists (e.g. Real Madrid bad). However, Dortmund plays an antihero role in these annual stories, because, despite the club’s recent success, it is no better protected from the ravages of the Terry Gilliam film that is the transfer market than anyone else.  Each year, the best Dortmund player is poached away: Sahin, Kawaga, Götze, and soon Lewandowski. So I want BVB to keep playing and winning the game with all the main characters. As an antihero by winning with less, Dortmund is disruptive to the big money (that is, big wages) ways of these protagonists and antagonists.

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So I watch Borussia Dortmund because the club is worth watching on the pitch. And I watch Borussia Dortmund because the sporting club and its fan culture is a form of association I can only dream of in my own life. But, perhaps, I also watch Borussia Dortmund because of the trauma of seeing the club you enjoy lose its best player every year, then triumphing regardless. That is, BVB symbolizes a way of managing loss, while still building and sustaining something worthwhile. I’m all in. And while Klopp is there, it’s worth remembering that his project is about feeling anyway, something that lingers beyond results. Besides, what else – operationally – is fandom made of?

 

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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