Remembering Borussia Dortmund’s 1997 European Triumph: Interview with Jörg Heinrich

Editor’s note: twenty years ago, Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League in sensational style, topping Juventus 3-1 in the final at Munich’s Olympiastadion. BVB’s triumph shocked many people, given Dortmund’s underdog role and the talent that likes of Juventus had on display, such as Zinedine Zidane, Christian Vieri, Didier Deschamps, Alessandro Del Piero, and Antonio Conte. To win the title, Dortmund tied for first in its group with Atletico Madrid. In the knockout stages, Dortmund beat the endearing Auxuerre (from Ligue 1), then Manchester United before facing Juventus in the final. 

In this piece, on the 20th anniversary of BVB’s Champions League win, Ben McFadyean, founder and president of the Borussia Dortmund Fan Club London, interviewed Jörg Heinrich, the incredibly versatile do-it-all, who played for Borussia Dortmund from 1996-98, winning the Champions League trophy in 1997. The East German enjoyed a long football career (1988-2007!), before taking up coaching in 2013.

Artwork by Bernd Röttgers.

Heinrich played 37 matches for the German national team between 1995 and 2002, including the 1998 World Cup. Moreover, Heinrich’s transfer from Borussia Dortmund to AC Fiorentina in 1998 was the then-highest transfer fee ever achieved for a German player (£22m). This highly acclaimed player could play in defence and midfield on both sides, and he was described by David Beckham as “his fiercest opponent.” Finally, Heinrich won the Bundesliga title twice with Borussia Dortmund in 1995-96 and 2001-02.

Ben: It is outstanding for me to have the opportunity to interview you Jörg Heinrich, as a BVB fan since 1984 I have had the chance to follow your career since the early 90’s when you first joined Sc Freiburg, I also played in defence and always watch the defenders carefully when watching football, you always struck me as a tough opponent as a player and I remember you well not least for the fact you brought the champions league title to Dortmund in 97 –  a great day for any BVB fan indeed! The first thing I always like to ask any Borussia Dortmund player is about the BVB fan scene in England, have you heard about the English fans of Borussia who come to the matches? What do you think about the fact that BVB has fans abroad, for example, in England?

Jörg Heinrich: First of all, thanks for asking me to do an interview, I am very happy to do so, since the beginning of this year, I have been a brand ambassador for BVB and the role takes me all over, I have recently visited some fan clubs in Poland where there are many fans of BVB. I had not heard a lot about the English fan clubs although I have seen British fans in Dortmund for some time sometimes in large numbers. It is very interesting seeing you have a fan club in London and such a big one and I am pleased to be in touch with you. My role with BVB encompasses amongst other things, looking after fan clubs and perhaps there will be the chance soon to visit the London fan club on the ‘island’ (Great Britain)?

Ben: Of course we would be very happy if you would join us at ‘Stammtisch’ our regular meet-up where our members regularly meet up in London to watch BVB matches on the big screen over German beer and good food. We would love to have you down and share with us memories of your inspiring career with the BVB but also of your times in Serie A with Fiorentina two legendary clubs.

Jörg Heinrich: Sure, of course I would like to visit, in my role as a fan ambassador I definitely support the international fans, it would be great to come down and meet the London fan club and the beer on ‘the island’ isn’t as bad as they say it is is, is it?

Ben: Perhaps we even have a Dortmunder beer available for you by then! No it’s not bad especially Guiness, although that’s an Irish beer – Laughs – I am here today to pull together some memories of that great match in Munich in 1997, Borussia won the Champions league against tonight’s finalists Juventus, a great BVB evening in which you played a decisive role as a defender.  Tell us about the game, what memories do you have of that classic final, the biggest game of BVB history? The Champions League final against Juve? I has just finished University and I couldn’t be at Munich for the game in May 1997, although it was a lot easier in those days to get tickets for matches than it is now. I watched the game in a London pub with girlfriend of the time Gesine who is from Düsseldorf and some English football friends. It was not easy being an English BVB fan, and we got a fair bit of abuse from others at the pub, especially as the Borussen had just knocked out the English champions Manchester United in the semifinal but growing up in Schwerte near Dortmund, I have been a BVB fan since I was 12 and I can’t help asking what was that feeling like lifting the Champions league cup for the black-yellows?

Jörg Heinrich: I can imagine it can’t be easy at times being a BVB fan on the Island (laughs) but you are doing a great job with the fan club keep it up – Winning the final that’s something colossal, something that takes quite a bit of time to understand what you have just done, you don’t get it in the moment when it happens. The moment when the final whistle blows you just want to embrace the whole world. You feel so proud and happy and you want to hug all the black and yellow fans. It’s hard to communicate you are just one of the few who have managed to win the Champions League, really takes a few years to settle in! People in Dortmund still talk about it after 20 years – that makes this Champions League victory with BVB so special for me, we knew we had achieved something very special for BVB.

Ben: Thanks, for me as a BVB fan it will always be a super moment in our club’s great history which will stick with me for a lifetime and it’s amazing hearing your reflections and the pride you felt as. player, although I played football for 20 years myself, even listening to you today I can’t imagine what that feeling must have been like – a great day! Let me ask you about a special part of the team, coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, he is often credited with being one of the keys to success in the 96/97 season, what was it that made Ottmar so unusual as a coach?

Jörg Heinrich: I believe that with his greatest strengths was his ability with people, he was able to deal very well with people, he always had ability to motivate people, I was lucky enough to play many of the champions league matches from the start, but Ottmar gave the players on the bench the same feeling as us, he motivated them made them feel they too were needed to win matches. He could keep the players onside and primed to play, just look at Lars Ricken and his goal after 30 seconds on the pitch in the final, whether you were playing or not you knew you were needed for the team to win, that was his greatest strength as a coach Ottmar’s ability to motivate players.

Ben: Ottmar achieved so much over his six years as a coach with BVB including two Bundesliga titles and was known for being a great motivator. It’s interesting hearing the effect he had on you  as players and of course who could forget Lars Ricken’s great goal the 3-1 for BVB. A friend of our fan club in London is Paul Lambert, who played on team with you as a midfielder, Paul is also an honorary member of Borussia Dortmund fan club London, of course he is as a British player is also a very special player who we can easily identify with, who were your buddies in the team? I have also spoken to Martin Kree and Steinar Pedersen who were both in the Dortmund squad at the time,  do you have special memories of the team spirit to share with the fans?

Jörg Heinrich: Paul Lambert, yes undoubtedly a great personality in my career,  to this day the only fan chant on the Suedtribuehne (Dortmund’s legendary fan terrace) that featured two players was ‘Paul Lambert – Jörg Heinrich’ there has never been a chant like it in Dortmund!  When the players were announced the fans chanted our names together not individually, a unique and special memory which connects us as players I believe it is not different for Paul. Also Martin Kree was a friend we both played on the same side of the pitch, during the 96/97 season there were many injuries and we played many matches together, we also share the same sense of humour which contributes to a friendship which has stood for many years. As Steinar and Martin will have said the atmosphere was great in the squad; sure there were high expectations but it was a super squad and I have really nice memories of that time at BVB which is one of the reasons I am a fan ambassador for BVB now.

Ben: Really cool to hear about those great friendships in the team, from my own playing years at amateur level I know how team spirit and cooperation can really be a game changer and the results for Dortmund including that awesome final win over Juventus could be seen! Martin Kree, the Dortmund left back at the time, is here today and I can see the great friendship that exists between you. Similarly I have interviewed him too and Martin shared that he is a Liverpool fan and even had talks as a player to play in Liverpool but with Everton; I would like to ask you too which is your favourite English club? Have you ever been as a spectator to a Premier League game? Which team would you have liked to have played for in the Premiership?

Jörg Heinrich: I was, of course, in England as a player in the Champions League many times, for example v Manchester United in the semifinals in 96, what an atmosphere!  I always looked forward to the matches in England the home of football. But we also have a special atmosphere in Dortmund, a special atmosphere and I am especially happy to hear about your good experiences as English fans here at Dortmund, I have actually never attended a match in the premier league although I would like to especially Manchester United or Tottenham.

Ben: I held a season ticket throughout the 1980’s and have attended over 300 BVB matches and, even when it was 54,000 at the Westfalenstadion and it was seldom sold out as things were in the 80’s it was a unique atmosphere at Borussia Dortmund, something very special for me – actually unique. We treasure our visits to Dortmund as English BVB fans in our fan club. Martin also shared his memories of the Manchester semifinals and as we are based in London  we would love to take you to a Tottenham or another London team next time you are in England. Did you ever have the chance to play in the Premiership? Which club would you have liked to play for?

Jörg Heinrich: It’s no secret that I had more than friendly contact with Arsenal at the start of the 95 season and I had entered already into talks with Arsene Wenger, still Manager at Arsenal – 20 years later impressive in itself, Arsenal is a team with history in England, I would have liked to try it, but since I had a contract with Borussia, Michael Meier the CEO said ‘we have a good team here and we can not let you go’ so that was that was for the Premier League. That’s just how it is sometimes!

Ben: But you won the Champions league with Dortmund in 97 and then in 1998 you switched to  Italy’s Serie A and Fiorentina? That almost certainly made up for Arsenal transfer falling through right? Fiorentina was impressive even though it was only a season but you achieved the highest transfer at that time for any German player let with £22m huge especially for a defender that experience more than made up for it right?

Jörg Heinrich: That time in Italy was unique, especially working with the great coach Giovanni Trappatoni, I had talks at that time Inter and Parma in Serie A but the idea of working with coach Trapattoni who achieved so much with Juventus and Bayern and other teams impressed me because he Known as being one of the very best coaches in the game. In the Fiorentina team I played with greats like Batistuta, Rui Costa, Chiesa, Toldo and also Mijatovic who later went to Real Madrid in a team with such legends on the pitch – what a great time!

Ben:  My brother Oscar was a huge Predrag Mijatovic fan from when he played at Real Madrid and of course Trappatoni is well known in the British Isles as the coach of the Irish national team. When you returned to Dortmund in 2000 was it a good time to return to the Westfalenstadion or were you a bit disillusioned as a player at the time, did you want to play for another team abroad?

Jörg Heinrich: I was happy to move to Dortmund, a team I have always been proud to play for. Fiorentina at that time were financially at the lowest ebb, on the pitch things were going well, we qualified for the Uefa cup and reached the second stage of the champions league but the club were in the dumps financially. I was lucky that my former team colleague Matthias Sammer was made coach at BVB, he called me up and so that was that!

Ben: And you won the title again with Dortmund in 2002 – nice! My favourite football team is Borussia Dortmund but I am, of course an Englishman, but one who grew up in Dortmund, I am also a fan of the English national team the ‘Three Lions’. You played for Germany 37 times. Do you have special memories of English opponents Paul Gascogne or Gary Lineker or Teddy Sheringham? Can you tell us something about these players?

Jörg Heinrich: The national team matches were also special in my career but I never played England unfortunately. As I mentioned, we played Manchester United in the semifinals of the champions league, one player I remember well was David Beckham, he was my direct opponent on more than one occasion and was a special footballer; in his autobiography (My Side), Beckham was asked who was his fiercest opponent on the pitch and the response was my name “Jörg Heinrich,” a great compliment, don’t you think?

Ben: Definitely a great compliment, Becks was a brilliant England player. The national team must be a unique experience but Borussia Dortmund is the team we all agree on German or English; thanks for sharing that experience playing against Beckham. Jörg Heinrich we would be very pleased if you would pay us the compliment of accepting honorary membership of the Borussia Dortmund fan club London and we hope you will visit our Stammtisch meet up in London sometime. We will send you the membership card. Thanks again for the bringing so much honour with the Champions League win to Borussia and thanks for the super conversation Mr. Heinrich one last question I do have the opponents from 1997’s final Juventus play Real Madrid tonight in the Champions league final who do you tip to win?

Jörg Heinrich: That’s a tricky one, it wil be tight game. Let’s see. Thanks for the kind words, I am sure I would be happy to be a member and visit sometime; as a Borussia Dortmund fan ambassador I would like to say, I now really have the chance to give you the fans something back, to take time also for you, people like your members of the fan club have accompanied us as players for years and now I can give something back to you. That makes me proud. I am looking forward to seeing you all in London.

Ben: Thanks for the great conversation BVB Champions league winner 1997, Jörg Heinrich!

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As a commentator and media presenter, Ben is the founder and president of the Borussia Dortmund Fan Club London, an official BVB 09 fan club in England since 2013. The largest BVB fan club outside of Germany with over 400 members, they meet regularly in central London to watch matches, and have their own football team. A true "home from home" for all BVB fans. You can follow them on Twitter at @borussia09fanslondon.

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