Beer, near-bankruptcy and breathtaking football – the making of Borussia Dortmund

By any possible measure, German Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund is a club on the rise, as FourFourTwo discovered first hand...

Based in a working-class city in the country’s north-west that was built on coal mining and steel processing, Borussia Dortmund have enjoyed plenty of success since they were founded back in 1909.

Eight Bundesliga championships, five Supercups, three German Cups and a Champions League trophy are testament to that success.

But just 10 short years ago, Dortmund were famously on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of limited on-field success and crippling debt.

The appointment of Jurgen Klopp in 2008 was a key to the turnaround, the former manager steering Dortmund to Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and a place in the 2013 Champions League final.

The club experienced another unexpected dip last season, finishing seventh and missing Champions League qualification in Klopp’s final year in charge.

Yet the club’s performance early in 2015-16 under new manager Thomas Tuchel has been nothing short of breathtaking.

Kagawa's form has been key to Dortmund's early success

So far in the Bundesliga, the ledger reads five games played, five games won, 18 goals scored and just three conceded.

It has put the team known as the ‘Black and Yellows’ on top of the table, ahead of the German superpowers and perennial contenders Bayern Munich on goal difference.

While Dortmund are striving to regain their place among European football’s elite, Bayern are chasing an unprecedented fourth straight Bundesliga crown.

At all-powerful Munich, success is demanded. Around 480km northwest in Dortmund, it is not a fait accompli.

“The core of the club is always to be ambitious,” explains Dortmund’s chief operating officer, Carsten Cramer. “But it’s been more successful than we could have expected.

“Sometimes we have to check if it’s really true. We have to be humble. We can’t be too self-confident. There is no guarantee it will happen again.

“After a victory like yesterday (a 3-0 triumph over Bayer Leverkusen on match day five), we have to really enjoy it.

“If you work for a club like Bayern Munich, you expect you will win the first five games. We don’t really expect it.”

This week FourFourTwo was part of a very fortunate four-man media contingent invited to Germany to experience exactly what Borussia Dortmund are all about.

We chatted to Cramer at Dortmund’s headquarters, just a short walk from the club’s famous home ground.

Known for many years as Westfalenstadion, the ground was renamed Signal Iduna Park in 2005 in a sponsorship move that helped keep the club afloat.

While ‘BVB’ are aware of where they currently stand in football’s world order, below the surface lies some serious ambition.

“We are definitely not a global brand like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United,” Cramer says. “We are a smaller brand and it will take another 10-15 years to gain success.

“Without playing Champions League and without being successful in international competitions, you never will be that famous in markets like the Asian market.

“The most important driver in our development will be success on the pitch. Qualification for the Champions League is the most valuable marketing asset you have because people are so interested in this competition.

“We are ambitious, there is no limit, but we have to do it step by step. We don’t have the resources the other big clubs have. So we decided to target some niche markets, like Southeast Asia.”

Club great Lars Ricken conducts a clinic in Asia

That targeting of Southeast Asia is a big part of why FFT has made the long journey from Singapore to Dortmund.

BVB have identified the vast populations across Asia, plus the intense passion for football, as ideal platforms to help grow their brand.

A key asset in that push has undoubtedly been Japanese superstar Shinji Kagawa.

A Dortmund player from 2010-12, Kagawa then earned a dream move to Manchester United, where he would spend the following two seasons.

Never able to fully establish himself at Old Trafford, Kagawa was then welcomed back to Dortmund with open arms in August last year, and he has since more than reclaimed his place as a fan favourite.

At the age of 26, Kagawa seems at the peak of his powers, playing a starring role in BVB’s triumph over Leverkusen on Sunday.

Kagawa’s appearances in a Dortmund shirt have done wonders for the club off the field – he and his teammates were mobbed at a trip to Southeast Asia earlier this year – but as Cramer is quick to point out, it all starts with his performances on the pitch.

“This is the most effective connection between a country and your club, if you have a player from this area,” Cramer states. “But we never would hire a player from this area of the world if he couldn’t fulfil the expectations on the pitch, because we are a football club.

“Marketing is an appendix, not the other way around. Therefore we are very, very thankful that Shinji is a kind of door-opener for Japan and other areas of Asia.

“Of course, the relationship to the people is a more sustainable one, because if you have a link to the people it’s easier. To be really honest, without Shinji it would be much more difficult to be successful in Japan.”

When the club decided to make that push into Asia, it started with the opening of an office in Singapore around 12 months ago.

Dortmund then made the decision to take the team on a tour of the region ahead of the 2015-16 season and they admit were unsure exactly what they would find when they got there.

“When we went to Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, we saw a lot of Borussia Dortmund fans,” club great and current youth coordinator Lars Ricken said. “I was surprised of course.

“It was really great to see so many people at the airport when we landed. Today it's easy to see who are the people who are interested, because of Facebook, Twitter and our homepage.

“In each home game, we have more than 100, and last time 300, supporters from Southeast Asia. We have a lot of supporters there.”

Carsten Cramer (right), with CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke (left) and BVB's head of asia Suresh Letchmanan

From some humble periods over their journey, Dortmund are clearly getting things right, on and off the pitch.

Their home stadium has the highest average attendance across Europe, garnering more than 80,000 to every game, while their extensive youth training facilities are second to none.

In a sign of their approach, BVB have eschewed offers from big European breweries to sign a sponsorship deal with Dortmund beer maker Brinkhoff.

While football is such a financially-driven business, superstars like Mats Hummels and Marco Reus have turned down significant offers from clubs like Manchester United to remain at Dortmund and help the club regain its former glories.

It is still early but the indications are extremely promising the club could be set to challenge for some top honours this season.

Those dark days of a decade ago should now well and truly be a distant memory.

“I jumped on the train at the right moment,” Cramer says, “And when I jumped on the train, I didn’t expect it would run so successfully and so fast through the country.

”The speed of change has been so impressive. If you look at the last 10 years, it’s a massive development the club has taken.

“Nearly bankrupt in 2004, 2005 and just five, six, seven years later we won the championship, we won the double (in 2012), and we qualified for the Champions League final.

“We also made a massive economic development, which is also very impressive, and in moments like yesterday against Leverkusen, it’s kind of unbelievable we have made such progress.”

FourFourTwo are in Germany with the help of Turkish Airlines and Borussia Dortmund.