Borussia Dortmund show Newcastle and Europe there is another way of winning as new Champions League reforms loom
Source: Skysports

At the beginning of the second half, there is a banner that emerges at the foot of the famous Sudtribune at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. "You don't care about sport," it reads in big black letters against a yellow background. "All you care about is money."

The protest is directed at European football's decision-makers who have signed off on Champions League reform. But Newcastle United feel like appropriate visitors. The juxtaposition is irresistible for Dortmund fans who revel in their own club's authenticity.

As fake notes and gold bars rain down from the vast terrace, dutifully retrieved by goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, the message is clear. Souls are being sold in this modern game. Lines are being crossed. And Dortmund are a club that do not want to cross them.

Gregor Kobel of Borussia Dortmund looks on as fake money is seen on the pitch during the UEFA Champions League match between Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United at Signal Iduna Park on November 07, 2023 in Dortmund, Germany Image: Gregor Kobel of Borussia Dortmund stoops to collect fake money thrown onto the pitch Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

The banner was the work of the supporters on the Sudtribune but the executives are not so far removed from that ethos. Speaking to managing director Carsten Cramer at the weekend, he was eager to point out exactly what makes Dortmund different.

"We are still a football club. We are not a marketing entity. We belong to the people not a government or a fund. We have no Arabian owner spending money. We belong to 190,000 members. We have 55,000 season ticket holders. That is the strength of our club."

There are moments when that strength can be felt. The so-called Yellow Wall can be overwhelming. Even the stand's roof is angled downwards on advice from Dortmund's philharmonic orchestra so that 130 decibels of noise can be funnelled towards the pitch.

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Fans and supporters of Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United FC at the Signal Iduna Park on November 7, 2023 Image: Fans of Borussia Dortmund during their Champions League tie against Newcastle "That is the unique selling point of Dortmund," says Cramer. "The Yellow Wall is something that you can take a picture of but to feel it and to see what it means for the people to support this club, that is what makes Dortmund, from our perspective, very special."

There are prettier cities. There are prettier stadiums. It is big, of course. But it is functional. "It is just a stadium," says Cramer. "It is a bit rough." But it comes alive when 81,365 supporters are filling it as they do game after game. "The people are the ingredient."

A Dortmund fan is pictured prior to the UEFA Champions League Group F football match between BVB Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United FC in Dortmund, western Germany on November 7, 2023. ( Image: Borussia Dortmund's fan culture means that they do things differently Dortmund still pursue commercial opportunities. This is a club with offices in New York and Singapore. They toured the United States in the summer. Representatives from the Seattle Seahawks visited the stadium on Saturday in what is being called an exchange of ideas.

But unlike elsewhere in Germany, there will be no NFL game hosted in Dortmund. "We concentrate on football. We would never host any other sport. We never would host a music concert. It is an approach that fits Frankfurt and Munich. It does not fit Dortmund.

"Whatever we do has to be credible. I am not criticising other clubs. Bayern are trying to position themselves in a completely different way. They hire celebrities. They hire other players. For them, they are trying to reach a completely different level of attention."

Cramer acknowledges their own approach can be restrictive. "I always have to care about authenticity. It is sometimes a challenge. From a purely commercial perspective, I would be happy to pursue ideas like PSG have done. But that would not be Dortmund."

07 November 2023, North Rhine-Westphalia, Dortmund: Soccer: Champions League, Borussia Dortmund - Newcastle United, Group stage, Group F, Matchday 4, Signal Iduna Park. Dortmund fans protest the Champions League reforms. Image: Borussia Dortmund fans protest the Champions League reforms The next kit will be yellow and black. Changing the logo, as Juventus did, is a non-starter. "That would not be our approach," says Cramer, pointedly. Spare a thought for Benedikt Scholz, the head of marketing, whose task is to innovate without compromising.

Asked by Sky Sports how he treads that delicate line, Scholz says: "In some ways, you could say that we are economically lunatics. Look at the Yellow Wall. There are 25,000 standing there. If we just put seats in and 20 boxes, our commercial revenue would grow."

In the short term, perhaps. In the long term, maybe Dortmund will benefit from being distinct from other big clubs. "We have to keep that," says Scholz. "We are always in a competition with those clubs that do whatever is there. It is a different mindset."

Cramer is proud that when war came to Europe and Dinamo Kiev wanted to arrange a 'Match for Peace', raising money in support of the victims of the war, Dortmund were there first. "No other top European club answered. We did it in four weeks."

He is proud that chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke is a local fan. "No coincidence." Proud that the club is financially risk averse following their dalliance with bankruptcy at the start of the century. "We don't like debt," he says. "We should never do this again."

But where does this leave Dortmund? The temptation is to view them as a tragedy in the Greek sense, doomed to fail because of who they are. It does not help that, when needing to beat Mainz on the final day of last season to win the title, they were held at home.

"Whenever I am asked about it, the sadness comes back. I don't avoid it. It is part of our history now. We have to accept it. Positive and euphoric can be Dortmund. Sad and mad can be Dortmund. It is part of our DNA." At least one thing never changes.

"The stadium is still sold out," he adds.

"If you are looking for trophies, you have to go with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. If you are just interested in stars on your shirt, we are the wrong one. We cannot promise you that. We tried hard against Mainz but we failed. To fail is part of our history as well."

Dortmund can accept that. "We want to win games. We love to win games. But we are definitely not obligated to win games. That is not Dortmund. Compare the salary budgets. Bayern is spending more than double. It is a challenge to remain competitive."

Now fourth in the Bundesliga table, five points behind Bayern, that challenge is ongoing. Even now, despite topping Group F, there are a dozen clubs rated more likely to win this season's Champions League than Dortmund. There will be setbacks ahead.

But when they arrive, Dortmund's players will be applauded, just as they were on that final day of the season after being unable to beat Mainz. In part, it is because this club and this city believe that they represent something bigger than the pursuit of victory.

Players of Borussia Dortmund celebrate towards their fans after the team's victory during the UEFA Champions League match between Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United at Signal Iduna Park on November 07, 2023 in Dortmund, Germany. Image: Players of Borussia Dortmund celebrate with fans after beating Newcastle "Football is entertainment but it is more. It is connecting people. Who is able to attract 81,000 people for a minute of silence other than sport? Our target is to reach the people. As long as we focus on this I am sure that there is space for a club like Dortmund.

"It is a simple strategy. Try to be Dortmund. Authenticity is important. I am convinced because, whenever we play in the Champions League and meet the other clubs, our story and our club is unique. We are able to differentiate ourselves from the others.

"At some point, we will be rewarded for this strategy."

As their impassioned supporters, their members, protested on Tuesday evening, setting out their own vision of what football should be, they did so as the club with the highest average attendance in Europe, making a noise to match. Their soul is intact.

In that sense, maybe Dortmund are already being rewarded.

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