‘Football made in Germany’
I was, this past weekend, one of 15 foreign journalists invited by Bundesliga International to witness the spectacle of the German Super Cup at Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund. The game itself was the culmination of a two-day event tagged ‘Media Visit Super Cup 2017’. It was quite an instructive experience, as we got the chance to interview Bundesliga representatives, visit Borussia Dortmund facilities, interact with a Bundesliga legend, Lothar Matthäus, and those behind the scenes at the DFL (Deutsche Fußball Liga).
We grew up in Africa watching, “Football Made in Germany” during the 1980s and 1990s. It was a weekly one-hour highlight show of the German Bundesliga, hosted by a British commentator Toby Charles. It was our only opportunity to keep tabs on African exports like Anthony Yeboah and Jay Jay Okocha (Eintracht Frankfurt), Hany Ramzy (Werder Bremen), Sammy Kuffour (Bayern Munich), Jonathan Akpoborie (Hansa Rostock) and others.
It was also our sole connection to mythic grounds like the Munich Olympic Stadium, Berlin Olympic Stadium and the Fritz-Walter-Stadion, because of course there was no live coverage from Germany’s top flight in Africa back then. But that connection to Germany ended in the mid-1990s when the show was discontinued.
Borussia Dortmund were one of the defining German sides of that era, boasting top players such as Stephane Chapuisat, Andreas Möller and Lars Ricken. However, the height of their 90s success – the 1997 UEFA Champions League title – came at a cost, as the club lost touch somewhat with its reality, going into debt to the tune of €180 million. Within a decade, there was a real prospect of bankruptcy, staved off at the very last. It was a sobering reality check.
However, a decade on and Dortmund have won two further league titles (no mean feat in a division routinely dominated by commercial juggernaut Bayern Munich), two German cups and got to the final of the Champions League in 2013. A record debt in 2005 has transformed to record revenues: €376.3m sales revenue and more than €29.4m annual net profit in 2015/16. How have they done this?
A refocus on core values and identity, espousing intensity, authenticity, and ambition. The BVB brand, unmistakable the world over with its black and yellow strip, is passionate not plain, forceful not delicate, radiant not bland, warm not arrogant, direct not diplomatic, hungry not modest, proud not elitist.
They are very much a people’s club, loved all around the world, and it is not hard to see why. Dortmund’s Director Sales and Marketing, Carsten Crammer, captures it succinctly. “We are a growing brand and club with the fans and football passion at heart. We need to build a sustainable relationship with the people. We always want to stay authentic and not sell dummies to the outside world for followers.”
It is this grounded, heartfelt outlook that has endeared the club to so many. Signal Iduna Park (or Westfalenstadion) has a capacity of over 81,000. The 25,000 capacity Südtribüne (South Bank) is the largest terrace for standing spectators in European football. Famous for its intimidating ambience, the south terrace has been nicknamed the “Yellow Wall”. Yet, for as little as €200, you can watch 17 home games at this ground.
On the footballing front, there has been an emphasis on wholesome youth development, with Ricken, hero of the 97 Champions League triumph, as academy director since 2008.
Their cutting-edge academy, which has seen significant investment into millions of euros, allows the club to live within its means, achieve Champions League qualification on a regular basis and challenge for domestic titles. Also, these youth prospects, when sold on, fetch sizable transfer fees.
There is much to admire in the German club management model, and lessons to learn aplenty. By retaining its “soul”, as it were, in a cash-crazy football landscape, it has kept the two biggest stakeholders – the fans and the players – onside.
Around 20,000 watch the 2. Bundesliga (German second tier) on a weekly basis at different grounds. Embarrassingly bigger than the average crowd in the French, Italian and Belgian top leagues.
This quote, by DFL CEO Christian Seifert, is particularly poignant: “Our logo explains it all [a player kicking a ball]… the player’ is all important and without the players, no football.”
Contrast with the English Premier League logo, an imposing lion’s head, and the symbolism is quite apt. As a model, it really does not get any better than that.
NB: This year’s German Super Cup was live on StarTimes and you can always follow the best of German football on this cable provider.