In the world of sport, we have a tendency to dichotomise rivalries that define their eras. The mercurial genius of Ayrton Senna fought against the cold pragmatism of the ‘Professor’, Alain Prost. Poster girl Chris Evert took on the robotic Martina Navratilova. The noble Jim Fox duelled with the crafty Boris Onishchenko.
In German football, whatever the era, one thing has remained constant: Bayern Munich will always represent the fearsome evil which must be battled against whatever the cost. Many a challenger has come and gone, trying to destabilise the Bayern empire, and the latest to try and depose them are the men in yellow and black from the Ruhr, Borussia Dortmund.
The rivalry between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich is one which has really come to the forefront of the imagination of German football in recent years, and coincided with Dortmund’s hiring of charismatic coach Jürgen Klopp in August 2008. Under Klopp’s guidance, Dortmund were transformed from the sleeping giant they had been since success in the Champions League in 1997 into the giants they had always threatened to become.
Klopp’s Dortmund quickly became a favourite of football fanatics worldwide with their swashbuckling style of play marked by lightning quick transitions from defence to attack, exhibited by home-grown talents such as Nuri Şahin and Mats Hummels and bargain purchases like Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski alike. After finishing fifth in Klopp’s first season in charge, Dortmund won two consecutive titles to surpass Schalke as Germany’s third most successful Bundesliga club.
Predictably, however, this brought Dortmund into direct conflict with Bayern Munich, the undisputed kings of Germany’s Bundesliga era. From 2010 until 2012, relations between the two clubs remained relatively civil as Dortmund bossed proceedings on the pitch. The 2011-12 season saw Bayern and Dortmund face one another on four occasions, with Dortmund winning every one of them, including a vital 1-0 victory at Signal Iduna Park late in the season to all but secure a second consecutive title.
As it turned out, it was this game which marked the turning point in the recent history of the 50 year-old rivalry between the giants of Bavaria and the Ruhr. With Dortmund 1-0 up through Lewandowski’s intelligent flick, Die Schwarzgelben looked on course for a deserved win. But just five minutes from time, Bayern forward Arjen Robben went down under the challenge of goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and was awarded a penalty to the fury of the majority of the 80,000 in attendance.
Robben stepped up to take a penalty that could not only lengthen the Bundesliga title race, but also allow Bayern to believe that they could beat this incarnation of Dortmund after all. Perhaps it was this demon – the pressure of so many consecutive defeats – that led Robben to scuff a tame penalty into the grasp of Weidenfeller. As Weidenfeller smothered the ball to the adulation of the Yellow Wall, Serbia’s Neven Subotić made a decision that could have changed the course of the rivalry for some time to come.
As Robben stood aghast after missing such a wonderful opportunity, Subotić charged from the edge of the area and screamed at Robben in scenes reminiscent of Martin Keown and Ruud van Nistelrooy’s infamous encounter at Old Trafford in 2003. The previously cordial (relatively, anyway) relationship between the two sides would now be replaced by indifference. A rivalry which once meant more to Dortmund than it did Bayern now meant the world to both of them.
Dortmund’s staggering 5-2 demolition of their rivals in the final of the DFB-Pokal in Berlin gave no clue as to what was to come. Inspired by Manchester United-bound Shinji Kagawa, Dortmund tore Bayern to shreds in a devastating display of attacking football. The biggest final defeat in Bayern’s history was branded “an embarrassment … every goal was like a slap in the face”. The fires had now been stoked; Bayern were riled and embarrassed. Something had to be done about Dortmund’s new-found dominance.
After another catastrophic high-profile defeat against Chelsea in Bayern’s home Champions League final, Jupp Heynckes set about improving his squad for a renewed push on the European and domestic fronts, signing Spanish international Javi Martínez from Athletic Bilbao for €40 million and prolific Wolfsburg forward Mario Mandžukić for €13 million. Meanwhile, BVB lost Kagawa to Manchester United, but replaced him with former academy product Marco Reus.
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These transfers were to prove vital as Bayern seized control of confrontations between the clubs in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League, with villain Robben the match-winner in both the tense Pokal quarter-final and, most cathartically, escaping the challenges of Piszczek, Hummels and Subotić to secure a monumental win for the Bavarian giants. As Subotić lay on the floor, devastated as Robben had been a year before, Jérôme Boateng stood over Dortmund’s centre half, roaring his approval. Bayern were back on top.
After the game, Klopp made a comment comparing Bayern to the Chinese in industry and accusing the Bavarians of trying to copy Dortmund’s style of play, to which Heynckes coldly responded: “It’s important for one to show respect in both victory and defeat – but especially in defeat.”
Despite the even nature of the rivalry, and indeed the major flash points being provoked by Dortmund, the rivalry between these two storied clubs is viewed in a familiar light by German football observers and neutrals alike. Bayern, as ever, have been cast as the bad guys, just as they were in their rivalries with Bremen in the late 1980s, Hamburg in the late 1970s and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the late 1960s to early ’70s. For in German football culture, Bayern are still viewed with contempt as a lucky club.
The Bayern-Dusel (Bayern Luck) myth, prominent since the beginning of the start of their period of unprecedented success in the early 1970s, is almost as old as the Bundesliga itself, and despite Bayern’s recent bad luck in major finals – defeats to Inter and Chelsea in Champions League finals and Robben’s pivotal penalty miss being the most obvious of these – their image of the force of evil in German football continues unabated. For many, if they are not lucky, Bayern buy success, or cheat their rivals out of it, an idea harking back to the FC Hollywood days of Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and co.
Meanwhile, Dortmund are well set to take on the role of brave warriors fighting against the Bayern machine. Their exciting brand of football played by unlikely heroes from the Ruhr like Kevin Großkreutz and Roman Weidenfeller ignites the imagination of the neutral observer, while the charismatic Klopp charms all comers with his quips and exaggerated facial expressions.
That BVB hail from a working-class city – while Bayern have always been cast as representatives of the wealthier districts of the Bavarian capital – further aids Dortmund’s cause in charming the neutral observer, and adds to Bayern’s aura of evil. Football is still fundamentally – in Germany at least – a working-class game.
In historical terms, German football has seen the roots of this rivalry before. Between 1968 and 1977, the ever-present Bayern would claim four titles, while a club from a working-class city in the north-west of the country with a charismatic coach would win five. This club was Borussia Mönchengladbach. They played exciting football inspired by the great Günter Netzer, inflicting extraordinary defeats on great clubs including an 11-0 thrashing of Schalke in 1969.
Such was the popularity of the team amongst neutral observers that they were branded the Foals, such was their willingness to charge forward with gay abandon. Meanwhile, the perception of Die Roten was the same as it always was and always has been, defined by drab 1-0 wins and Bayern-Dusel. The perception of the two sides who would dominate German football for a decade is perhaps best summed up by football essayist Helmut Böttiger: “If need be, Bayern won 1-0. Bayern never played themselves into a rapture, they won in a calculating manner … the young foals played free of all restraints, irresistibly moving forward.”
But as in the recent escalation of the Bayern-Dortmund rivalry, this perception was founded more on an odd fundamental hatred of Bayern than facts. For Bayern, inspired by youngsters who would form the spine of West Germany’s great teams of the 1970s, played an equally exciting brand of football, scoring an average of 3.65 goals per game (compared to Gladbach’s 3.4 per game) and in fact, rarely winning 1-0. But while Gladbach’s free-scoring nature was greeted with praise, Bayern’s was only met with more hatred, for under the guise of charismatic coach Hennes Weisweiler, Gladbach’s Foals were the rebels, while a Bayern side whose crown jewel was Der Kaiser himself, Franz Beckenbauer, came to represent authority.
According to Böttiger, Gladbach versus Bayern had become a battle between Gladbach’s radicalism and reform, and Bayern’s rationality and pragmatism. The similarities between this rivalry and the Bayern-Dortmund rivalry of today are uncanny: Bayern the rational, the pragmatic; BVB the radical reformists.
Regardless of who comes out on top in seasons to come, it seems the battle between these two great clubs is set to become another in a series of era-defining Bundesliga rivalries. What’s not in doubt are the roles to be played by the two teams on the pitches of Signal Iduna Park and the Allianz Arena. For whatever happens on and off the pitch, Dortmund will always be the brave rebels, the Foals of the 21st Century. Bayern, however, are forever the bad guys.
By Simon Cripps. Follow @AI_Football