The football hipster’s favourite team is in the midst of a bit of a rough patch at the moment. A home defeat to Hamburg two weekends ago condemned Borussia Dortmund to their fourth defeat of the season, leaving Bayern Munich’s only credible challengers for the Bundesliga title languishing in 13th place, ten points worse off already than their table-topping rivals from Bavaria after just seven games.
In many ways, Dortmund’s decline was almost inevitable in a game where very few footballers are immune to the lure of a big-money move. Winning the German title in two successive seasons between 2010 and 2012 was down to an immensely talented crop of players – some expertly picked out from relative obscurity, others educated and gradually promoted through the ranks at Dortmund’s prestigious academy of excellence – whose potential for success transformed into reality under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp.
In addition to their league triumphs, Dortmund also won the German Cup in the 2011/12 season and reached the Champions League final a year later. While that game may have ended in defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich, the mere fact that Dortmund had reached the final of the biggest club competition in world football after years of financial difficulties was, in the eyes of many, a cause for celebration in itself, and an emphatic announcement of Dortmund’s emergence as a genuine footballing superpower.
However, the west German side’s headline-grabbing achievements proved to be significant in an altogether different manner, as bigger – and richer – clubs started to become interested in its stars. Shinji Kagawa’s move to Manchester United in 2012 was a blow given that the Japanese playmaker was a well-liked figure amongst the fans, yet the loss of Mario Gotze to Bayern – confirmed prior to the Champions League final – was the real sucker punch and marked the turning point in the battle for supremacy in German football.
Gotze had been with the club since the age of nine and was regarded as the club’s brightest prospect. His transfer to Dortmund’s fiercest rivals not only left a bitter taste in the mouths of the fans, but was also a devastating reality check for the team in yellow and black – for all of Dortmund’s success, Bayern remained the definitive German side, a powerhouse with the clout and enviable prestige to snap up the best players with little trouble. The Champions League final appearance was meant to be a symbol of Dortmund’s phenomenal rise to the top; instead, it came to represent a false dawn, a beginning of the end for a great team whose dismantling was bound to happen in the modern footballing world where money rules all.
Lightning struck twice for Dortmund this summer as Robert Lewandowski – the talismanic Polish striker who had played such a large part in Der BVB‘s back-to-back title wins – also decided that the temptations of Munich were too much for him, and Jurgen Klopp’s side arguably haven’t recovered since. Although their performances in the Champions League – including a convincing victory over Arsenal – have been impressive and puts them in a good position to qualify, the loss of two highly important members of the team in consecutive seasons to their arch rivals and title challengers has been gut-wrenchingly demoralising.
Klopp deserves immense credit for his principled approach, sticking with the team after such galling setbacks despite some lucrative offers elsewhere, and he still has wonderful players at his disposal, not least Kagawa, whose return at least softened the blow of losing Lewandowski. Nevertheless, losing two key players has swung the balance of power firmly in Bayern’s favour, as reflected by Dortmund’s lowly league position. The way in which the Bavarians ruthlessly crushed Dortmund’s potential by taking their star performers means that the chances of Klopp’s side emulating their recent triumphs are very slim. Ultimately, what is most sad about Dortmund’s story is the fleeting nature of their success – given time, theirs was a team that could have won so much more.
And yet, there is more than one Borussia in the Bundesliga. After decades of underachievement with little to cheer about, Borussia Monchengladbach – five-times Bundesliga winners, two-times UEFA Cup winners and one-time European Cup finalists – are on the ascent once again. Under Swiss coach Lucien Favre, Die Fohlen have undergone a rapid change in fortunes, finishing in sixth place last season on their way to Europa League qualification after only getting promoted from the second tier of German football in 2008. Monchengladbach are currently undefeated in the Bundesliga and sit in third place, and with an exciting squad containing the likes of Granit Xhaka, Christoph Kramer and on-loan Chelsea midfielder Thorgan Hazard, expectations are high.
Replicating the Golden Decade of the 1970’s – the period when Monchengladbach enjoyed the greatest success – is fanciful, yet with the other Borussia side struggling, they may be the team to emerge as the next threat to Bayern’s crown. For the sake of German football, let’s hope that this Borussia does not succumb to the same fate as its namesake.