For many Dortmund fans, CEO “Aki” (as he is called) Watzke is a savior to Borussia Dortmund. To others, he has worn out his welcome in the “Ruhrpott.”
He was absolutely successful in saving Dortmund from the brink of financial disaster in 2005, not even 10 years removed from the club winning the Champions League in 1997 and only 3 years after winning the Bundesliga in 2002. Watzke rebuilt the team with his vision, slow and steady. He stabilized the team’s finances and brought them back from certain death. The thought of giants Borussia Dortmund playing in the 3rd or 4th tier of German football is simply unthinkable, especially in the modern era. This was precisely the course they were travelling. In large part due to Watzke, thankfully, this did not occur.
Shortly thereafter in 2008, perhaps the greatest hire in the history of Borussia Dortmund was finalized in that of manager Jürgen Klopp. Within a mere five years the team outperformed even their own highest expectations by winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles and advancing to the 2013 Champions League Final. It is post-2013 where this fairytale takes a slightly different turn than one might expect. That particular roster had the promise to achieve greatness for much of the next decade, in not only the Bundesliga, but also in Europe. Slowly but surely however, the pieces of the Dortmund pie started to be cut out and shipped away.
During the first all-German Champions League Final in 2013, against their arch-rivals Bayern Munich, it was already known that young phenom Mario Götze would be playing the next season for the very club that stood on the pitch opposite of Dortmund that night. Star striker Robert Lewandowski was the next big departure, likewise to rivals Bayern. The replacement for Lewandowski was Ciro Immobile from Serie A club Torino. He was back in Serie A not even two years later. In the 2014/15 season something quite astonishing happened to Dortmund. A last place standing in the Bundesliga during the winter break ultimately led to Jürgen Klopp leaving the team at the end of the season, despite a miraculous turn-around in the second half of the season, a 7th place finish, DFB Pokal runners-up and Europa League qualification. The future looked very uncertain. Watzke’s next managerial hire would have to be the jackpot. With very few prospects on the market at the time, Watzke hired Thomas Tuchel from Mainz 05 and quite literally pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
It was during this time that a pattern seemed to be forming in the front office at Dortmund. Watzke seemed to be adopting a small or mid-table club mentality at Dortmund. In other words, buy a player when he is young, develop him into a superstar and sell him for a profit when one of Europe’s elite makes an inquiry. Wait, isn’t Borussia Dortmund one of Europe’s elite? Don’t they always advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League? Haven’t they won the second-most Bundesliga Championships in history? For many fans, the answer to all of these questions is undeniably: “Yes.” So why is Dortmund operating like SC Freiburg, or Mainz 05? The club has come a long way since 2005 and the horrors of the bankruptcy are a distant memory. It seemed as if though Dortmund was becoming a feeder club for Bayern Munich much the same as SC Freiburg or Borussia Monchengladbach. Must Dortmund operate in such a manner?
The polarization for Watzke reached its height only last month. After the hiring of Tuchel following Klopp’s departure, Dortmund still seemingly had a roster that could contend with just about anyone on the continent. In his first season as Dortmund manager, the former Mainz coach guided the team to the most points ever scored by a Bundesliga runner-up and would have won the Championship in most seasons. Bayern were simply on a different stratosphere during the 2015/16 campaign and were not to be caught.
But the summer of 2016 was particularly painful as Dortmund lost three players in the same offseason that were largely responsible for the success in this most recent era of Dortmund football. After initially saying he wanted to re-sign, Dortmund assist ace Henrykh Mkhitaryan was sold to Manchester United along with Ilkay Gündoğan who departed for Manchester City. The biggest blow however, would be delivered when Dortmund captain Mats Hummels was sold to, of all clubs, hated rivals Bayern Munich, for less than was desired and originally demanded by BVB. The water was starting to boil in the Ruhr.
Despite these massive departures, Dortmund quickly signed some promising young players, one of whom was selected as 2016/17 Bundesliga newcomer of the year: Ousmane Dembélé. The 2016/17 season certainly had its ups and downs. The monumental rise of RB Leipzig proved to be much more than just a first half of the season phenomenon and 1899 Hoffenheim took Borussia Dortmund to the final match day in the battle for third place and a coveted direct qualification for the Champions League. There have been rumblings though, that the relationship between wildly successful manager Tuchel and CEO Watzke had deteriorated, after not even quite two years, beyond the point of repair. This became very apparent after some opinions were made public between the two sides in the aftermath of the bus attack before the 1st leg of the Champions League quarterfinal fixture against AS Monaco.
Despite the turmoil, the Black and Yellows were able to defeat Bayern Munich in the Pokal semifinal en route to a German record 4th consecutive Pokal final. And thus the climax, after five seasons without a meaningful trophy, and despite the cloud of Watzke hanging over his head, Tuchel guided Borussia Dortmund to their first piece of silverware since 2012 with a 2-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt.
In the aftermath of this victory, Tuchel’s image would flash on the screen at Berlin’s Olympiastadion and was met with overwhelming cheers. A similar image was displayed of Watzke and was loudly booed by the Dortmund fanbase. At some point the television broadcast happened to catch a glimpse of CEO Watzke who looked visibly displeased, almost as if to say: “I am about to fire the most popular kid in the classroom.” Only a few days after this triumph, during a meeting that lasted only about 20 minutes in the team hotel, Watzke sacked the Dortmund manager with the highest win percentage in club history. This decision was met with much criticism.
Where does Watzke go from here? He has gone from knight in shining armor to villain in the eyes of many. The same man that built the Dortmund juggernaut of the early 2010s is also the same man that has continually allowed key contributors to leave. As the Dortmund futures of Bundesliga golden boot winner Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and first year sensation Ousmane Dembélé hang in the balance, isn’t it time to keep the two stars, and with newly-hired manager Peter Bosz replacing Tuchel, officially announce that Dortmund IS one of Europe’s elite? Has the time not come for Watzke to retain his players and build continuity instead of constantly having to rebuild around fresh faces? If you look at Europe’s five biggest leagues, (English Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga and Serie A) there is perhaps no greater gap between #1 and #2 as there is in Germany.
Dortmund fans are tired of being a distant second place to Bayern Munich. The’ve become weary seeing key players leave every off-season while Bayern has been able to retain key pieces for many years such as Lahm, Ribery, Müller, Robben, Boateng, Neuer and Thiago all the while, taking key pieces of Dortmund’s roster in the process. It is time for Hans-Joachim Watzke to bridge the gap between his detractors and his supporters and allow for Dortmund to truly realize its full potential and not just be a slightly more mature version of Bayer Leverkusen. The rest of this summer and 2018 will paint the final picture of just how far Dortmund will be able to go under the leadership of Watzke. I think I speak for all of us “Borussen” when I say that I hope he makes the right decisions.