Clubkultur is a new Box To Box series exploring the true essence of the beautiful game, a look at the intangible feelings that keep us coming back to support our club, no matter how they’re playing, no matter where. In Clubkultur, we will explore the important cultural aspects of football clubs from all over the world, as our contributors see them.
The idea of ‘more than a club’ permeates football and is used as much as a marketing tool to get people along to the ground as it is a statement with any real significance. Many teams lay claim to the label of belonging to this elite club, but for Borussia Dortmund, it doesn’t really matter. They don’t have anything to prove.
They are one of the most distinctively singular clubs in world football – a club with such a deeply ingrained culture that they have come to be regarded as an institution unlike any other in the game. But what is it that creates this culture and gives them their world-renowned devoted fanbase?
Borussia Dortmund’s story is one of loving your football club over anything else. Politics, economics and geography are largely subsidiary to the elemental and unconditional bond between the club and the fans. It’s no surprise then that the club’s slogan is ‘Echte Liebe’ or ‘True Love’.
Very few clubs put the fans at the heart of everything they do, but Dortmund can be counted as one of them – they are the quintessential Against Modern Football team. Football can be philosophised as a game of sacrifice. The players, as young men, must give up their social life, turn their backs on late-nights, alcohol, girls and all the other things their friends are doing. If their career takes off, even at a relatively mediocre level of football, they are well compensated economically.
It’s not just the players though, those watching the game also make sacrifices. There’s getting to the game, buying your tickets, buying the merchandise – and that’s only the financial side. Football also manages to tap into your emotions in a tribal way – this means occasionally sacrificing happiness and non-footballing commitments.
Not many clubs pay much attention to that complex relationship dynamic between fan and club. For the ones that do, it is often the key to success, as it has been for Dortmund. They realise that their players are paid well, but their fans need something back too. What they get is more than just the match-day experience, although I’ll talk about that later, but they become a part of something bigger. This is an elemental human desire that the club sates – to belong. Dortmund does this mainly by making the matches accessible.
Marketing director Carsten Cramer talks about this connection, “Why are tickets cheap? Football is part of people’s lives and we want to open the doors for all of society. We need the people, they spend their hearts, their emotions with us. They are the club’s most important asset.” Yes, it goes beyond ticket pricing, they’re also giving the fans a deeper access and role at the club, closing the division that is becoming increasingly alienating in football grounds around the rest of Europe, especially in the U.K.
This sense of belonging is crucial, but we can’t underestimate how important the pricing is either. It’s this ease-of-access that gives fans the opportunity to keep coming back. Borussia Dortmund have an average home attendance of 80,291 at the Signal Iduna Park – the highest in the world. They have a waiting list of 30,000 to get a hold of a season ticket, of which there are 55,000 in circulation with a renewal rate of 99.88%.
Another statistic of note is that every week they even have between one and two thousand English fans in attendance – the travel, beer and tickets work out cheaper than staying at home. This is a team that manages to evoke greater devotion than any Church service could dream of.
The fans are clearly the beating heart of the team, but their heart doesn’t beat red like ours. The heart of Dortmund beats yellow and black, to the tune of 25,000 fans bouncing and singing in the south stand. The ‘Gelbe Wand’ (Yellow Wall) is one of the most intimidating and intense ‘phenomenon’ in contemporary football. Maybe the only thing that can come close is the surging tidal waves of Argentinian fans that hurtle towards the pitch in their ‘Avalanchas’ style celebration. Even then, their momentary explosion doesn’t sustain for the duration of 90-minutes and beyond like the seismic Yellow Wall.
The other side of Borussia Dortmund’s unique culture is that they are seen as a very cool club to support – they’re the original ‘hipster’ football team. It’s hard to define exactly where these qualities are rooted, but they can be traced back to one man – Jürgen Klopp. The bespectacled and foppishly haired German was the pepper to Dortmund’s salt. He looked the part, donning sportswear to go along with his university teacher looks and his funny and often bizarre interviews became a spectacle for football fans all over the world. It wasn’t only off the field that he had this exceptional appeal – he also helped to refine a tactical technique known as Gegenpressing, or counter-pressing to the rest of the world.
Klopp’s height at the club spanned from 2010 to the end of his tenure in 2015. In that period he won successive Bundesliga titles (2010/11 and 2011/12) and set many new records for Dortmund, largely thanks to his tactical innovation.
When the players lost the ball they immediately swarmed the player in possession. The effect, combined with the oppressive atmosphere in the stadium was overwhelming and it took opponents a long time to work out counter-strategies. Although not the only ones, their effectiveness in using this daring tactic set them apart from other teams in Germany and Europe. They were exciting, explosive and their on-the-field strategy became unified with the fans energy. The whole thing worked as a holistic entity.
Dortmund is a city of one well-loved club, with a population of 580,000. For the 2013 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in London, the club received 502,567 applications for their 24,042 allocated tickets. Being a one-club-city deprives them of a geographical rivalry. Instead, theirs is more ideological, it’s a battle between two teams that represent something entirely different.
The derby between Dortmund and Bayern Munich, dubbed Der Klassiker pits Germany’s two most successful teams against each other. The rivalry, was at one point cordial but took a nasty turn when Arjen Robben missed a late penalty against them late in 2011. This incident as good as gave the league to Dortmund and in the heat of the moment, defender Neven Subotić celebrated by screaming in Robben’s face – this was the start of a new dynamic between the two clubs. That year Dortmund lifted their second consecutive title in in 2010/11 campaign.
Tensions had been high between the clubs since and they bubbled to the surface after Dortmund’s 2013 Champions League loss to their rivals. It was the ultimate revenge for Bayern. In the post-match interview Klopp made an unfavourable comparison of Bayern to Chinese investors, “At the moment, they are like the Chinese in the business world. They look at what others are doing and copy it, just with more money.” This was more than a thoughtless throwaway remark though, it was an indictment of the very thing that sets the two clubs apart – their attitudes.
If it all came down to one thing that endeared Dortmund to the world, it would be just that, their attitude. In a footballing world that zigs, they zag. On field, they are exhilarating tactical pioneers that have developed some of the best young football player’s in the world over recent years. They are a club that does everything to cater for fans, always going the extra mile.
After home match’s the squad regularly line-up to salute the fans and the fans salute them back, win or lose. The club’s directors keep the price of beer cheap and keep a limit on the number of executive boxes that the stadium facilitates. Inside these expensive boxes, you can’t buy beer to make sure that even the VIP’s get involved in the atmosphere. The ‘football over anything’ approach gives the club a special attraction that many fans and officials at the club can’t quite articulate – they just feel it.
Being humble in football seems to have long died out. Players are forever on Snapchat ‘dabbing’ and posting pictures online. The haircuts and boots are getting ever more extravagant, but Dortmund remain unpretentious. They have one Twitter account, posting in both English and German, to maintain the personal relationship between the club and fans instead of utilising a more business-minded and tailored system of global communications. The club want you close to them. Even their Twitter feeds are unique, regularly posting funny GIFs and retweeting fans’ posts.
Bayern represent a footballing machine, hailing from the financially-driven capital of Bavaria. As Dortmund’s chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke puts it, “Bayern live in the country of milk and honey”, whereas Dortmund, hailing from a predominantly working-class city, have produced an authentic manifestation of the people. When the team made a global push, they were met with scepticism from those fans. Scaling a locally based brand into a global one is always a difficult task, especially when the team’s authenticity is their major selling point.
Borussia Dortmund need these global tours to be able to financially compete with the rest of Europe’s major clubs. Their dedication to low prices of beer, bratwurst and tickets – the things that keep fans coming back, has meant making their own financial sacrifices. If the fans want success, they’ll need to accept these business-led decisions, even if it means night-time games played for their Asian fanbase. It’s either that or lose more major players – a common symptom that the club has faced.
This is hardly a big price to pay if the club manage to continue their way-of-life and their deeply enviable culture and business model. They’re a club like no other, with the most dedicated fans in the world, built from the ground up, a true working-class success story. Dortmund fly in the face of contemporary money-minded football clubs that act more like businesses do. They are exciting, energetic and necessary. They offer a counterpoint in the contemporary game, something that hopefully other clubs will start aspiring to emulate.