Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dortmund: A Club Reborn

'Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity.'

They’ve learned the hard way, Dortmund.

16 years ago, they were crowned Europe’s best. 8 years later, they stared bankruptcy in the face. But since then, with a couple of diversions along the way, they’ve dominated domestically to such an extent that their bitter rivals Bayern have enticed some of the world’s most sought-after youngsters and seduced the world’s most sought-after manager to try and grapple control of German football again.

This year’s Champions League decider at Wembley - a showdown between two German sides - has sparked plenty of debate about the current state of football in the country. The Bundesliga is being trumpeted as the best league in Europe. It’s entertaining, it’s economical and it’s sustainable. But, for Dortmund and Germany, it wasn’t always this way.

By November 2005, the club’s financial situation was perilous. A Munich-based analyst Peter-Thilo Hasler warned that “you cannot make a business plan based on the best-case scenario". This was the root cause of Dortmund’s predicament - basing future earnings on past successes and gambling millions on inflated wages and ‘expected’ Champions League qualification. An old cautionary tale perhaps but this was different. This wasn’t just any club. Giddy on excitement, drunk on possibilities, a high-profile European side embarrassed itself with its lack of basic business acumen and brought a powerhouse to its knees.

In the summer of 2001, Marcio Amoroso was signed for a German record 25m euro. He had an instant impact. The club won its sixth league title with the Brazilian finishing the campaign as joint-top scorer. But less than three years later, Amoroso would have his contract cancelled due to increasingly volatile behaviour. Dortmund involved themselves in other short-sighted transfers, dropping 6 million for Victor Ikpeba, a similar amount for Fredi Bobic, even more for Sunday Oliseh. Within a couple of years, all three would be moved on. Within a couple of years, the club was a mess. A third-placed league finish in 2003 meant a Champions League qualifier the following season. They lost on penalties to Club Brugge. It got worse. The supposed tranquility and safety of the UEFA Cup spectacularly backfired with a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Sochaux in the second round. The second leg was in Dortmund. They were humiliated 4-0. This was not in the script.  

Dortmund’s plight got so bad so quickly that Bayern loaned them 2 million euro to pay staff for a number of months. They sold their stadium to a real estate fund and leased it back. By early 2005, share prices were at an all-time low. Dortmund couldn’t afford to pay their rent anymore. Having so desperately desired the deep end of the pool for so long, they were now drowning in it. By March, desperate for cash to secure a license to compete in the league the following season and avoid administration, the club was thrown a lifeline. Its landlords, Molsiris, agreed to Dortmund’s proposal of a buy-back of the Westfalenstadion. A deal was arranged which saw the club get a crucial net cash-flow of 9 million euro. Molsiris allowed Dortmund use a 52 million security deposit to buy back 42.8% of the stadium. Rent was reduced from a crippling 1.3 million euro per month to 300,000 euro through 2006. After the five-hour meeting with investors, club president Reinhard Rauball said 'I hope I never have to endure another day like this.'  He had only been in the role for a number of months, replacing the long-serving Gerd Niebaum. He and Managing Director, Michael Meier, were seen as the architects of Dortmund’s downfall, the focus of fans’ frustrations and fury. By the end of the season, both had been banished from the club for good.

The club’s problems had deeply worried German football authorities. After all, even hardcore Dortmund fans had surrendered to the likelihood of the club going bust. But financial problems were threatening a number of teams, not just one. In 2002, Kirch Media, who owned German football’s biggest TV contract, went bankrupt. Bayern’s Karl Heinz Rummenigge questioned the future of the country’s second division and  “about a third of the clubs in the first". 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign and commanding big salaries. By 2005, the 36 Bundesliga teams had a combined debt of 698 million euro. One financial expert was deeply pessimistic about the future, ‘The situation is very tense and very critical. It's five minutes to 12 for the Bundesliga," said Angelika Amend. Schalke were struggling, though their risk of carrying a heavy wage bill paid off as they racked up numerous Champions League qualifications and unearthed a string of quality underage players later sold for decent money. Hamburg also battled bravely against heavy debt – their clever transfer policy keeping them consistent. For Kaiserslautern, the 1998 Bundesliga champions, years of off-field problems finally resulted in their relegation in 2006.

Dortmund meanwhile acted fast to rebuild the club. By December 2005, the Westfalenstadion had been re-christened Signal Iduna Park, ironically enough through a sponsorship deal with a German insurance company. The transaction netted the club about 20 million euro. Salaries were slashed by, reportedly, as much as 30 million euro when compared to late-90s figures. Between 2004 and 2005, Dortmund spent next to nothing on transfers. High-earners like Amoroso, Frings, Lehmann and Heinrich were sold. Youth was given a chance, essentially by default. Roman Weidenfeller was brought in on a free from Kaiserslautern, sixteen year-old Nuri Sahin was promoted to the senior side, making an historic debut against Wolfsburg in the opening game of the 05/06 campaign. The average age of the Dortmund starting XI that day was 25. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said, ‘The young players are our future and so won't be sold’. This wasn’t quite true. Watzke was intent on operating a business, not an unsustainable fantasy like his predecessors. At 25 years old, Tomas Rosicky was sold to Arsenal for 10 million in the summer of 2006. At the same time, 22 year-old David Odonkor was moved on to Betis in Spain for 6.5 million. Watzke knew a good deal when he saw it. Those young players were hot commodities. It was his job to get the club back on a relatively even keel financially. Performances on the pitch came second to performances in the boardroom.

Jurgen Klopp’s eventual arrival as manager led to much of the deadwood being swept away. The summer of 2008 saw 17 players leave the club, only three of them on loan deals. Klopp made shrewd additions to the squad, focusing on young, cheap players. 19 year-old centre-back Neven Subotic was signed from Klopp’s former club Mainz for 4.0 million. 22 year-old defender Felipe Santana was brought in from Brazil for less than 2 million. 20 year-old Marcel Schmelzer was promoted from the youth team. Tamas Hajnal came from Karlsruhe for next to nothing. Over 2 million was spent on Mohamed Zidan from Hamburg. Sahin was back after a highly successful loan spell with Feyenoord. After years struggling to find an on-field identity owing to the off-field pressures and blinkered transfer strategy, Dortmund had a solid spine to work with. And when there was an urge to ‘splash out’ on a player (Mats Hummels moving permanently from Bayern in 2009 for 4.2m, Lucas Barrios signed for the same amount), funds were raised from player sales (Petric, Valdez, Frei). The success of Klopp’s bargain-bin strategy in the transfer market has been commonly highlghted by Shinji Kagawa’s arrival from the J-League for 350,000. But between 2009 and 2010, Sven Bender, Kevin Grosskreutz, Lucasz Piszczek and Mario Goetze all arrived in Dortmund’s senior side for a combined total of 1.5 million.

Dortmund’s strategy used to be based on a simple economic ideal: spending more money on players means better results. But football has too many variables for economics to work flawlessly every time. Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity. The goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller, has been with the club ten and a half years - from the relegation and administration scraps through successive league titles to a Champions League final.  Captain Sebastian Kehl has been there even longer. Grosskreutz and Reus used to cheer on the team from the Yellow Wall when they were part of the club’s academy. Hummels, Schmelzer, Bender, Subotic, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek have all signed new contracts this season. When Reus explained his decision to re-join the club who let him go as a youth, he said,’ I just felt this is the best-supported team with players who work well together under a great coach. Players don't come and go as often as they do at Bayern. It's the same with the manager. I felt there would be more stability and consistency here. It was the best place for me, and I was coming home’. There’s a comfort to Dortmund now. They are a club once again.

On Saturday, Bayern’s starting XI will comprise of seven signings and four products of their youth system (it would be five if Toni Kroos was fit). The seven signings cost the club 140 million euro. Dortmund’s starting XI, by way of contrast, cost them 41 million. Four players cost them nothing at all. Bayern will always have the luxury to splash out on desirable objects of affection like Martinez or Goetze. They will always pay the biggest wages and offer the best incentives. It’s a unique existence. Years ago, Dortmund attempted to live in the same world. Now, they’re just happy to still be living.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

To Sir, With Love

'It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’

Following Manchester United’s treble-winning campaign in 1999, cameras were allowed unprecedented access to the club the following season. ‘Manchester United: Beyond the Promised Land’ is a largely forgettable documentary, the access-all-areas schtick providing little in the way of memorable moments. There is, however, one notable exception.

At one stage, the squad and management take part in a harmless table quiz. Sir Alex Ferguson sits alongside members of his backroom staff. ‘Which name is given to the tracks on which tanks and bulldozers run?’ There’s a brief pause. Ferguson answers in that thick brogue, ‘Caterpillars’. ‘Correct’. There’s a collective sigh from the players. The next question is for Roy Keane’s team. ‘Who composed ‘Rhapsody In Blue’?’ Keane shouts out at the quizmaster, knowing what’s about to happen. ‘John, were you asked to change the questions about two minutes ago?’ There’s some awkward sniggering. Keane continues, ‘You were asked to change the questions’. He swears under his breath. His team is pushed for an answer. Keane bellows, ‘What’s the question, man?’ ‘John’ duly repeats it. Time is running out. They go with Tchaikovsky. ‘Wrong’. The question is passed along. Teddy Sheringham offers a guess. ‘Schubert?’ ‘Wrong.’ Ferguson answers. ‘Gershwin’. ‘Correct’. Another sigh from the players. ‘Which sailor was captain of a ship called The Black Pig’?’ Ferguson answers again. ‘Captain Pugwash’. ‘Correct’. Ferguson’s team wins. He likes winning. He’s good at it.

In March 2009, Alastair Campbell interviewed Ferguson for The New Statesman. They chatted about a book Campbell had sent to Ferguson the previous summer, Team Of Rivals, about how Abraham Lincoln appointed a cabinet featuring three of his biggest critics, united them and won the Civil War. Ferguson was mesmerised – ‘What was fascinating was how he held together all these big personalities…to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. I can learn about the art of team building and team management from all sorts of places. It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’. And therein lies his greatest success.

Firstly, he surrounded himself with the right people. He told the BBC earlier this year, ’When you go right down to youth level, there are members of my staff that have been with me for twenty years or more. That creates a loyalty from both sides, from me to them and from them to me. There’s a value in loyalty and consistency’. Secondly, he’s relied on fundamental principles to remain at the top and has never strayed far from them. In conversation with Campbell, he outlined ‘control, managing change and observation’ as the most important qualities required for leadership. Even at 71, Ferguson was a constant presence at training sessions. On a training pitch, players are in their natural habitat. If something is awry, however small, it will crop up there. And for Ferguson, he specialised in spotting things others failed to see, best illustrated by his selling of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995 and his promoting of raw, unproven youngsters who’d become the spine of the side for the next decade. When Ferguson erred, he carried it with him for a long time. In the case of Jaap Stam being sold to Lazio in 2001, Ferguson still considers it his greatest mistake. 

Like any leader, Ferguson’s career will be defined by the biggest decisions he made. Very rarely did he choose incorrectly. He seemed to flourish most under-pressure, when so many pretenders tend to crack. Many point to the FA Cup success in 1990 as the turning point in his United career. And it certainly was an important milestone. The following season, they lifted the European Cup Winner’s Cup, defeating Barcelona in the final. But in 1992, when the club had looked set to win their first championship since 1967, they lost three of their final four games and Leeds pipped them. The hangover lasted well into the following campaign. After 15 games, they sat slumped in 10th and couldn’t score goals. Two weeks later, Eric Cantona was signed.  From his 21 league appearances, United lost once. They had finally won the league. Ferguson had taken a risk by signing the ill-disciplined, volatile Frenchman. Cantona had repaid his manager’s belief and through everything Cantona involved himself with over his remaining years at the club, Ferguson always stood by him. Players can be replaced. But Ferguson could see that Cantona was much more than that. Ferguson said Cantona was a ‘catalyst’ for that mid-90s side. Perhaps he was Ferguson’s too.

His working-class background has ensured a lifelong admiration and appreciation for hard-graft and determination. He also holds a deep fascination for education. Every Manchester United side he has built features a mixture of raw, developing youngsters, imposing athletes who enjoy a battle and quick-witted, smart ball-players. His desire to produce a steady line of young players came as a result of Manchester City’s successful underage setup in the 1980s. Ferguson would often be an interested spectator at City’s youth matches and quickly went about setting up United’s School of Excellence shortly after arriving at Old Trafford. The success of returning the club to its post-war roots – as an academy for the country’s finest players - must surely rank as one of his greatest achievements.  

Ten years ago, a period of instability began under Ferguson’s watch. He faced the most severe challenge to his leadership since those dark days of the early 90s. Arsenal and Chelsea dominated domestically. United disappointed in Europe. Ferguson’s off-field problems quickly became on-field issues as Magnier and McManus questioned his management and his morals. More damningly, they questioned his future. In many ways, Ferguson had lost sight of his principles. A team in transition, badly in need of direction was allowed go through the motions. His observations were not as sharp as they had been.  He’d grown sloppy. He wielded the axe and went back to basics. He built another side – arguably his most successful ever. In his mid-sixties, his sheer competitiveness made him more relevant than he had been twenty years earlier. In the pantheon of great British managers, Paisley was 64 when he retired, Shankly was 60, so too was Busby. Clough retired at 58, Bill Nicholson at just 55. Different eras, certainly but in many ways, Ferguson has followed the path of his mentor, Jock Stein - the game proving so consuming, so addictive, so difficult to walk away from, regardless of the advancing years and inevitable health problems. Perhaps, Ferguson’s decision to retire had much to do with the haunting, lingering memory of Stein’s death in 1985 – Ferguson sitting alongside him in the Ninian Park dugout when he suffered a heart attack. Perhaps, at 71, he is smart enough to know that he’s pushed himself hard, maybe harder than he’s ever done, over the last six years particularly. 

His replacement is someone Ferguson has admired for quite some time. In 2009, when asked to name the best managers in the Premier League, he answered ‘Arsene Wenger, David Moyes and Martin O’Neill’. In 1998, Moyes (then at Preston) sat down with Ferguson who was looking for a new assistant. Moyes didn’t get the job but by 2002, he was in charge of a Premier League club of his own. Showing similar leadership traits as Ferguson, Moyes has spent a decade spectacularly overachieving at Everton. David Weir, now a coach at the club, recently told Simon Kuper in a Financial Times article that ‘he (Moyes) is always looking for a little half a per cent to make you better.’

There will be doubters, of course. Those who feel Moyes lacks the big-game experience, the big-money transfer history and the personality to carry off such a demanding job. But, 15 years ago, Ferguson saw something in Moyes that he liked. Perhaps he saw a will to win. Perhaps he saw the obsessiveness. Perhaps he saw a reflection of himself.