Book Review: When Your Favorite Writes about Your Favorite Club

Yes, I slightly swooned when Uli Hesse shared on Facebook that he was writing an English language history of Borussia Dortmund. For me the news was book magic: one of my favorite writers authoring an entire book devoted to mein Lieblingsclub‘s history. Something like 99.3% of all readers will spend their entire live without the blessing of such a convergence of favorite-author-writing-about-favorite-thing. Just ponder this sobering fact. In my case, it helps that a) I’m a football lover, and b) Uli Hesse writes about football.

Because a relatively small body of books are published in English about German football, anytime Uli Hesse publishes a book in English, it immediately makes an impact in the English language Bundesliga world. For us, Hesse is our synoptic gospels, our chronicle of kings, and song of songs. With titles like Tor! The Story of German Football, Who Invented the Stepover? And Other Football Conundrums (co-authored with Paul Simpson), and Bayern: Creating a Global Super Club, Hesse’s canonical status with English readers is well deserved. Personally, Hesse is one of my very favorite writers; he was one of those writers who inspired me to write in the first place. Plus, the guy even translated me into German, a task for which I’m immensely indebted.

A native Dortmunder, as well as frequent chronicler of the club in German, Hesse is the insider’s insider for bringing die Schwartzgelben‘s entire history to English readers.

Building the Yellow Wall: the Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund was published late last year by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the U.K. At 259 pages, the history is comprehensive enough to satisfy the BVB diehards, while cursory enough to please neutrals, and even haters like Schalke supporters. Like his Bayern book, Hesse chose a sensible chronological narrative for Borussia’s story, which is the most feasible way to write a club history, given the progressive layering of achievements, coaches, players, and oddities that accrue to form the traditions—communal joys, anxieties and memories—that both haunt and animate a football club into its current iteration. Chronology is the most effective way to peel back then re-install these layers in a way that can take someone into a club’s heart. For an American like myself, reading a club chronology like Building the Yellow Wall is an essential component of further ensconcing myself within the tradition that binds together and animates the current BVB community. Yet Hesse has a pitch-perfect sense for relieving chronological tedium with anecdote. (For example, how Dortmunders call the BVB “Borussia” instead of “Dortmund; how “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or “Heja BVB” became club anthems; how the Yellow Wall became a very recent phenomenon; how the color change to black and yellow reflected a rebellious Protestantism; or those Kutte vests, or the origins of pyrotechnics in football grounds, or that the one time a police dog bit a player, etc.)

However, Hesse recognizes that a history of Borussia Dortmund doesn’t have the same self-evident level of importance for English audiences that a history of Bayern or global superclubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, or Juventus does. In fact, Building‘s first 20 pages is Hesse’s attempt to establish Borussia’s significance to a wider English audience. Hesse establishes his book’s exigence by trying to make sense of the club’s sudden popularity around 2013-14 and rise of Borussia’s label as “everyone’s favorite second club.”

Hesse begins looking for answers in the most sensible spot: the 2013 Wembley Champions League final against Bayern, BVB’s 21st century breakthrough moment. In the aftermath of this final, the key media event was  the FourFourTwo cover story (written by Hesse himself!) featuring a grinning Jürgen Klopp with a crew of yellow-clad lads (Sebastian Kehl, Marco Reus, Mario Götze, and Robert Lewandowski). Although Hesse downplays the actual article he authored, he emphasized the eye-catching cover photo showing off Borussia to the world.

This image shows the FourFourTwo cover story that brought BVB much exposure in the English-speaking world.
“Europe’s hottest club.”

Unbelievably, this instance was the first time FourFourTwo, the world’s most widely circulated football magazine, featured a German club on the front cover. And instead of Bayern, BVB earned the honor, thanks partially to the 2013 Champion’s League, but crucially to Jürgen Klopp’s charisma and gegenspressing philosophy, as well as the band of unassuming relative no-namers he assembled to win back-to-back Bundesliga titles. But you all already knew this story. However, Hesse’s skill lies in understanding how this confluence of circumstances grabbed everyone’s attention, leading to Borussia becoming “everyone’s second team.” Indeed, Hesse wryly observes that, according to Sports Venues 2016, BVB “are the second best supported [pro] team on the entire planet (only the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys draw more people per home game).” From this breakthrough moment, Hesse poses the questions why and how it all happened, because Borussia’s rise was anything but inevitable. As a native of the scruffy Ruhrgebiet, Hesse himself seems genuinely surprised that his boyhood club from Germany’s only 6th-largest city could become a global phenomenon. The rest of Hesse’s book uses historical chronology to explain how Borussia became the club we know today.

In Tor! and Bayern, as well as his old ESPN columns, Hesse displays a talent for hunting down anecdotes full of human color, memorializing history. Moreover, these anecdotes scale down “capital H” History into clusters of discrete elements—the character of a place, a tavern, a gathering, single individuals, brothers, and accidental encounters—that seemingly (almost miraculously?) give rise to the emergence of (football) History itself. In this sense, Hesse’s philosophy of history eschews both “big events” and “big people,” or at least taking big events and big people at face value, or even acknowledging the self-evident importance of such phenomenon. In this way, Hesse does history in the same vein as an Isaiah Berlin, a Leo Tolstoy, or a W.G. Sebald. Of course, most works of football history read this way, built from the ground up on strings of details, but Hesse does this building most organically, probably because his research uncovers the most granular, gritty, and scuffed-up details. Hesse’s approach in Building is no different than his previous work in this regard, but if anything, the approach is deeper, given Hesse’s personal proximity to Borussia—a sort of apotheosis of Hesse football writing.

Immediately, Hesse’s own personal history, proximity, and connections in the Ruhrgebiet and Dortmund inform Building. For example, Hesse establish’s BVB’s origins by first describing the general characteristics of the Ruhrgebiet (past and present) and Dortmund itself. Borisplatz square, Hoesch steel, Export beer (“Welcome to Europe’s Beer City Number One”), the proliferation of Polish names—it’s all there. Once this setting is sketched out, Hesse begins introducing his characters, Franz Jacobi (“His family lived just off Borsigplatz square and only a short walk away from Trinity Chruch.”), Hubert Dewald (a catholic chaplain and early villain in Hesse’s tale), Reinhold Richter (“a truly cosmopolitan German,” the guy who brought a football to Dortmund), and Heinrich Unger (who especially attracted chaplain Dewald’s wrath with football passion). Of course, Jacobi, Unger, and Richter are legendary in Dortmund today for basically founding a football club in 1909 that eventually became BVB. Famously, Jacobi, Unger, and Richter withdrew from the local catholic youth sodality, forming a rival organization out of which Borussia Ballspielverein e.v. eventually emerged. So yes, a religiously-motivated splintering begat Borussia (I would’t expect less in the land of Luther). It’s details like these that make Building immensely absorbing and memorable.

Like in Bayern, Hesse conveys in Building the fragile contingencies that, in hindsight, prop up the solid structure that eventually becomes a well-known football club. For Borussia, it’s contingencies like the club’s existence owing to a band of defiant young men, who were ignored the socially-accepted moralizing of Father Dewalt; the rise of industrialization and the eight hour work day and free weekends that created the conditions in which a rabid spectating culture could eventually thrive in a city with little else happening for many citizens; football becoming the lone survivor for local attention and energies, after the collapse of local steel and beer industry; the good fortune of the local mines around Dortmund reopening after WWII, meaning the mostly demolished city wouldn’t become abandoned; the rise of the Revierderby itself with Schalke, which was neither inevitable or even likely (in fact, many early BVBers also supported S04); the centralized location of the old Rote Erde ground, which “turned BVB from a club for the entire city within a single generation.” The list of contingencies is long.

By the end of Building, Hesse creates the impression that Borussia’s emergence as “everyone’s second side” in the 2010s is slightly miraculous, especially amid the social and economic context that BVB defied to survive and grow into a globally-relevant football club (and I’m not just referring to the infamous near bankruptcy in 2005). Sure, any football club’s existence is ultimately a study of remarkable historical survival, but what, in the German context, sets BVB apart are is the unlikely city and regional economic circumstances that fostered the club. Simply put, Dortmund isn’t Munich, which implicitly anchored die Rekordmeister in an economic sense through die Roten‘s history.

What BVB had instead was the people of Dortmund.

Amid the chronology of sporting achievements, it’s the people of Dortmund who provide the theme of Hesse’s book. Today, we take the legendary passion and energy of the Yellow Wall and the sold-out Westfalenstadion for granted, but of course, there’s a story behind the current phenomenon. The story begins with the Ruhrgebiet itself: “For decades, the lives of the people living here and elsewhere in the Ruhr area were defined by coal, steel, beer and football. Now, there is football, football, football and football.” Basically, the collapse of the local steel and beer industries over a long period meant that Borussia in Dortmund and Schalke in Gelsenkirchen became everything. In the case of BVB, this total devotion began roughly after WWII. Hesse explains that “Dortmund was so thoroughly demolished (at least 70 per cent of all living quarters were gone) that there was a short-lived plan to not rebuild the inner city at all.” Luckily, the coal mines soon reopened, providing the impetus to keep the inner city alive.

The key date in Hesse’s timeline is 18 May 1947 in Gelsenkirchen—basically, the day when the first meaningful Revierderby was won (shockingly!) by Borussia. This win granted BVB instant prestige as the champions of Westphalia. Significantly, a large number of Dortmunders traveled to the match, foreshadowing the supporter culture of total devotion that was to come. During this time, the old Rote Erde in central Dortmund with a key railroad link “turned BVB from a club that catered to a tightly defined community into a club for the entire city within a single generation.” Already the following was so great that 200,000 citizens welcomed home the BVB squad who lost the 1949 final. The photo of this occasion is my favorite in the book: amid the bombed out ruins of Dortmund’s ravaged inner city, a sea of jubilant male faces in the standard jackets and ties welcoming home their team. The next decade was kind to BVB, as the club achieved unprecedented sporting success, winning titles with the likes of the famed “Three Alfredos”—Alfred Preissler, Alfred Kelbassa, and Alfred Niepieklo. Throughout this defining decade and into the early days of the Bundesliga and formal professionalization of football in Germany (1963), large passionate crowds were commonplace in Dortmund. By 1966, Hesse writes that “BVB were at the peak pf popularity,” he continues: “You could find Dortmund fans everywhere, even in deepest Bavaria” (like a young Klaus Augenthaler).

Of course, Borussia was relegated in 1974-76, just as the new Westfalenstadion opened (a project for the 1974 World Cup). By this point, external trappings like the new stadium and club’s success in the mid-60s, suggested that BVB was too big to stay relegated. This status shift injected urgency to getting Borussia back into the Bundesliga. However, Hesse highlights an even more significant development from this time: the formation of the BVB Fan-Club (or BFC); as Hesse notes, this organization was hugely important in further deepening and expanding the already passionate Dortmund fans. Indeed, by 1978 the organization was prominent enough that Der Spiegel reported on its success. The seeds of BVB’s currently vaunted and organized formal supporter culture were largely sown here in the 70s is a key implications of Hesse’s story. The BFC allowed Borussia to organize, expand, and rally its supporters more effectively than just about anyone else (for example, the BFC opened a Kindergarten at one point). It’s thanks to the BFC that Borussia established its famed Fanabteilung, or formal supporter division, in 2004, which furthered intensified the relationship between supporters and club.

However, the line from the 1970s to the present is anything but a straight line. The late 70s and the 80s were unkind to Borussia—the infamous 12-0 loss to Köln, the rise of hooliganism and the hardcore Borussenfront, Branko Zebec’s substance abuse, piles of debt, and “the Pentecost drama of 1986” by which Borussia avoided another relegation thanks to Jürgen Wegmann’s goal, without which we probably don’t have the BVB of the 2010s, according to Hesse.

By 1992, the club’s fortunes swung up again as “Borussia mania reached a hitherto unknown scale in and around Dortmund,” when Otmar Hitzfeld’s squad finished 2nd in the Bundesliga and reached the 1993 UEFA Cup final against Juventus. Four years later, BVB achieved its biggest prize yet, winning the 1997 Champions League final over Juventus.

However, this sporting peak had almost disastrous consequences. First, club spending was out of control, as BVB relied on expensive signings to build the 1997 winning side and maintain the high level into the first years of the 2000s (e.g. the signings of Viktor Ikpeba, Tomáš Rosický, Jan Koller, and Marcio Amoroso). Hesse calls this era an “arms race” and doens’t mince his words when describing it: “I suppose the only explanation is that sudden fame and riches had resulted in a condition not too rare among the nouveau riche—an exaggerated opinion of oneself. Read: megalomania.” Soon, Nike was the kit sponsor, fans were chanting “If we want to, we can buy you up” at opponents, and BVB had spent the equivalent of 70 million euros on the squad who won the 2002 Bundesliga title.

In Hesse’s narrative Borussia is a club who lost its identity during this reckless era. This loss is symbolized by the much maligned decision of the club Ltd. to go public on 31 October 2000, as publicly-traded stock. To this day, going public is an indelible stain on the club’s identity, especially the integrity needed to market its total devotion culture to football fans.

The nouveau riche days of megalomania quickly ended, of course, when BVB faced insolvency in 2004-05. Given how extensively this story has already been covered, I’ll spare you the details, but for BVBers like myself, this chapter is mandatory reading, as Hesse assembles various strands of factors that influence the story: BVB going public, the Kirch media crisis, stadium expansion, the Molsiris investment fund, disastrous business diversification, out-of-control player wages, etc. It’s all here. But the scope of the story is much larger than I had been aware, which means relief is palpably conveyed in Building when Watzke (and a lot of help!) steers BVB away from insolvency. In fact, Hesse marks the achievement with a date: “Today, 14 March 2005 is generally regarded as Borussia’s second day of foundation and is deeply ingrained in the club’s collective psyche.” Later, Watzke would explain to Hesse: “I saw that Borussia Dortmund were ‘ seeking to develop other business activities in order to become independent from sporting success.’ It was the greatest rubbish I’ve read in my entire life. … Which is why our credo now is: it’s only about football … we want to have maximum sporting success, but we will never again go into debt for it.” Naturally, you can draw a straight from this credo to Echte Liebe campaign, the hiring of Jürgen Klopp in 2008, and the building of the back-to-back Bundesliga winning sides (2010-11 and 2011-12) with a bunch of no-name youngsters.

Which, more or less, leads us to Hesse’s framing moment and exigence from 2014 and BVB’s status as a globally-relevant football club today.

*****

What is a football club? This is the question Hesse investigates in both  Bayern and Building. In a German context, this question is especially fraught and complex, given the origins German football clubs have as larger member-owned and community-oriented (i.e. fiercely local) entities, outside the explicit aegis of professionalization and market logic. At least this was largely true until the founding of the Bundesliga in 1963, after which things got complicated as many clubs created Ltd. spin-off companies, containing the actual football club, which emerged from the original parent clubs. Around here, the German club football began experiencing cross-pressures that have only intensified in the current age of your RB Leipzigs, Hoffenheims, Martin Kinds, etc.

The stories of Borussia Dortmund, and to a lesser extent Bayern Munich, illustrate these cross-pressures. On one hand, Borussia is probably world football’s most prominent example of a globally-important club doing supporter culture the right way and preserving the seemingly sacred status of this community; in this sense, the world famous reputation of BVB’s supporter-centric culture is legitimate and hard-earned. That image of the famed Yellow Wall you see as the cover image of Building is the real deal. Borussia does indeed do things differently and pain-stakingly maintains a distinct pool of supporter DNA. On the other hand, Borussia also represents full-throttle professionalization and the application of market logic that not even Bayern Munich can rival; after all, it was BVB who became a publicly-traded stock in 2000 while expanding into myriad business diversification projects in the disastrous first decade of the 2000s. Yes, under Watzke, BVB disavowed this path, while doubling down on its gritty, post-industrial, and supporter-centric identity, but meanwhile BVB has never been more globally recognized and the amount of money flowing in and out of the club has never been larger; furthermore, by consciously embracing and interacting with its international fan communities in Asia and the United States, Borussia is finally harvesting the fruits of globalization. The identity of the club’s fans has never been more diverse and geographically divergent.

Cross-pressures.

These pressures are here to stay. The history of German football clubs is fundamentally different from that of, say, English football clubs, who largely professionalized a hundred years before their German counterparts and are fundamentally disembedded entities in ways that German club might never be given their origins in non-profit community sporting clubs. This embedding is a distinctly German phenomenon and something that almost every football club in Germany must navigate. Put simply, supporters exert an out-sized and real influence on German club. Still.

Consider Borussia’s disastrous near-bankruptcy. In many ways, this event was a saving grace, giving Watzke the chance to pivot BVB back towards the only thing that could re-animate it: its community—and in Hesse’s telling, a community that’s been passionate about die Schwarzgelben since the end of WWII. With Watzke’s promise in 2005, BVB re-acknowledged and reaffirmed its fundamental embedding in Dortmund. It wasn’t towards outside investors or speculation via a parcel of shiny new players that Watzke turned, it was towards the supporters (and remaining debt-free). In a sense, BVB’s post-2005 history is one of the club acknowledging itself as a gift, first to the people of Dortmund, and second to the wider footballing  world. As such, you can read the club’s recent history as an attempt to offer its identity to the football world, an offer that Borussia seemingly makes with more and more awareness and openness via its large social media presence and international tours.

I became aware of this dynamic when I interviewed BVB’s managing director, Carsten Cramer, last summer over telephone for my 11Freunde piece. Cramer underscored how everyone working for the club feels the massive weight of that identity, which determines everything from which cities Borussia visits on its U.S. tours, to what kinds of players the club can realistically purchase, to what a possible U.S.-based office would look like (e.g. it certainly won’t be located in NYC!), etc. Everything was seen through the prism of the club’s identity and how it would play in the eyes of the supporter core back in Dortmund. In this light, the supporters are a very real counterweight and corrective force on BVB’s progressive journey onto the global stage.

If Hesse provides an answer—to the question “what is a football club?”—it’s that football clubs are sites of dynamism in Germany—of both progress and resistance, of  both branding and community, of both profit and identity. In world football, this dynamism is perhaps sharpest at Borussia Dortmund. Sure, Bayern Munich is a global super-club, but you could say that BVB is a global super-community. To my mind, this is the lesson of Hesse’s Building, which he embeds within the book’s framing exegesis  as the club’s current status as “everyone’s second club.”

Hesse’s narrative really is about two things: sporting achievements, which are the grist in any football club biography, and the supporters—their presence at matches, their numbers, the victory parades, but more importantly their reactions to wins, losses, and other events. It’s documenting these fan reactions that makes Building unique among football club biographies, and establishes the book’s center of gravity around the city of Dortmund, Borsigplatz square, and the Wildschütz pub.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. 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 Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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