How Borussia Dortmund’s team of the 1990s put a city on the football map

How Borussia Dortmund’s team of the 1990s put a city on the football map

By the start of the 1990s, the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany, was in steep decline as the production of coal and steel practically ceased and unemployment soared. Just like Merseyside in the 1980s, never had a region been so desperately in need of a successful football team, but no side from the Ruhr had ever won the Bundesliga in its 30 years of existence. Then, in 1991, Borussia Dortmund appointed a new manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was about to transform the side and, in the process, make himself the most sought-after manager in the world.

Until the creation of the Bundesliga at the start of the 1963/64 season, there was no full-time professional football League in West Germany. Borussia Dortmund were one of the founding members and scored the first-ever goal in the new competition through Timo Konietzka in the opening minute. However, it would be more than 30 years before BVB claimed the title.

After winning the 1965 cup final, Dortmund qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup. At this stage, no team from West Germany had succeeded in winning a major European trophy, but by defeating Liverpool 2-1 in the final at Hampden Park in 1966, the club set the standard for their compatriots to follow. This victory is still heralded as a major landmark in the history of football in the country. It should’ve signalled the arrival of Dortmund as a major power but apart from a third-place finish in 1969, the trophy cabinet remained defiantly bare.

Der BVB were relegated from the Bundesliga in 1972 but returned in 1976. For the next decade, the team were marooned in a morass of mid-table mediocrity. During the 1985/86 season, they became embroiled in a relegation playoff with Fortuna Köln from the 2. Bundesliga. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, Dortmund were leading 2-1 in the return but as the clock counted down, they desperately sought a third goal. 

Relegation loomed when, with just seven seconds remaining, Jurgen Wegmann netted to level the tie on aggregate. If away goals had counted double, they would have been relegated. The decider was played in Düsseldorf and Dortmund crushed Fortuna 8-0. Fortuna never came as close to the Bundesliga again and by 2005 were out of business.

The relegation scare was a turning point for the club. Many fans that had stopped watching the team travelled to witness the decisive playoff in Düsseldorf. In 1976, the average attendance was 42,000; now it had slumped to 22,500. The following season, the numbers following the side swelled dramatically as their passion for the club appeared to be rekindled. It was at this time that the supporters launched a new type of fan culture which would reshape the matchday experience forever. 

In the boardroom, seismic changes took place to ensure the club could challenge the dominance of Bayern Munich. Realising that progress would be restricted without sufficient funds, new president Gerd Niebaum dedicated himself to attracting more financial support. He agreed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Die Continentale, an insurance company based in Dortmund and appointed a full–time business manager, an unheard-of position at a Bundesliga club. 

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Ottmar Hitzfeld was born in the southern German town of Lörrach in 1949. He trained as a teacher but carved out a modest playing career in the Swiss top-flight. He also appeared for VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga, playing 22 times over three seasons. In 1972, he appeared for West Germany in the 1972 Olympics, scoring in a 3-2 defeat to East Germany. In 1983, he decided to embark on a career in football management in Switzerland. 

Hitzfeld built a growing reputation as a manager in the Swiss Nationalliga with Aarau and Grasshopper Zürich, who he joined in 1988. Under his leadership, they won the Swiss Cup in 1989 and the league in 1990 and 1991. 

Michael Meier, the Dortmund business manager, was previously employed at Bayer Leverkusen. Whilst there, in 1988, he tried to persuade the board to offer the coach’s role to Hitzfeld but they chose to appoint the more experienced Rinus Michels. Now, during the summer of 1991, Meier convinced the BVB board to choose Hitzfeld as their next boss. Most Borussia fans were underwhelmed by the decision.

Their scepticism was reinforced by the dismal start that Dortmund made to the 1991/92 campaign. They lost the Revierderby 5-2 to Schalke, were dumped out of the DFB-Pokal by second-tier Hannover and slumped to tenth in the table. Hitzfeld knew drastic decisions were required. 

He dropped goalkeeper and fan favourite Teddy de Beer and replaced him with 20-year-old, Dortmund-born Stefan Klos. It was a masterstroke: defensive solidity returned to the side as they lost only two games in the next eight months. In addition, the signing of the Swiss striker Stéphane Chapuisat from Bayer Uerdigen during the summer transformed the campaign as he netted 20 goals in his first season. 

Chapuisat was an integral figure during the club’s success during this period, scoring 106 goals in 228 games over seven years and becoming the top foreign goalscorer in the Bundesliga. Dortmund fans revered him for refusing several lucrative offers to leave the club. The Hitzfeld-Chapuisat axis was fundamental to Dortmund’s future.

Surpassing all expectations, Hitzfeld’s Dortmund mounted an unlikely challenge for the title. After the reunification of Germany, two former East German sides, Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, were admitted into the Bundesliga, which expanded to 20 teams for the only time in its history. Undoubtedly, the increased number of fixtures provided an opportunity for Dortmund to recover from their poor start – and they grabbed it with both hands. 

Eintracht Frankfurt led the table, with Dortmund and Stuttgart in pursuit, but they lost their penultimate game of the season to Werder Bremen which meant that only goal difference separated the top three teams. All three faced difficult away clashes in their final fixture. Over 30,000 Dortmund fans, gathered in the city’s main square, the Friedensplatz, to watch events unfold on the big screen. A goal after ten minutes from Chapuisat gave them the lead at Duisburg, while Frankfurt and Stuttgart were drawing their fixtures in Rostock and Leverkusen respectively. 

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With just four minutes remaining, the title was seemingly heading to Dortmund. Then, to the dismay of the crowd, Guido Buchwald headed the decisive winner for Stuttgart to seal the glory. It remains the tightest ever finale to a Bundesliga campaign. A late winner for Rostock ensured that Dortmund finished second above Frankfurt. 

Stuttgart’s superior goal difference proved decisive, but Dortmund fans could celebrate their highest ever league finish. A more pertinent indication that the scenario in German football was changing was that the all-conquering behemoth, Bayern Munich, failed to qualify for Europe.

Finishing second ensured entry to the UEFA Cup, at a time when German television companies were prepared to pay enormous amounts of money to cover European football. For the UEFA ties involving German sides, all the TV income went into a pool from which clubs were to be paid depending on how far they progressed. Stuttgart crashed out to Leeds in the Champions League which meant at the quarter-final stage, there was only one German side standing in any European contest: Borussia Dortmund. They became the sole beneficiaries, pocketing the equivalent of £10m, a colossal sum at the time. 

They dispatched Roma and Auxerre to reach their first European final since 1966. Their opponents were Juventus, who featured German internationals Jürgen Kohler and Andreas Möller in their ranks. It was a bridge too far for Hitzfeld and his team as Juve triumphed 3-1 in Dortmund. The second leg was a formality, with Juve scoring three to win the tie 6-1 on aggregate. It was time for Hitzfeld to utilise the club’s windfall to establish Dortmund as Germany’s top side. The wait for a first Bundesliga trophy could no longer be delayed.

Throughout the life of the Bundesliga, the best German players were regularly sold to the giants of Serie A. Dortmund were about to take the unprecedented step of reversing that exodus as they could now match the salaries that were offered in Italy. Between 1992 and 1995, established German internationals such as Stefan Reuter, Kohler and Möller were signed from Juventus alongside the Brazilian Júlio César. Matthias Sammer arrived from Inter for a German club-record fee, which they then smashed again in acquiring Karl-Heinz Riedle from Lazio. Dortmund’s coup in purchasing them showed that the balance of power in the Bundesliga had now shifted from Bavaria to the Ruhr. 

The partnership of Niebaum, Meier and Hitzfeld was now at the zenith of its power. The signing of Sammer proved crucial as Dortmund sought their maiden Bundesliga title. Initially operating in midfield, it appeared that every move the team undertook went through him. Then, during the 1993/94 season, Australian sweeper Ned Zelic suffered an injury and Hitzfeld asked Sammer to execute that role for a game or two. It proved to be another masterstroke as Sammer blossomed in his new position, becoming the best libero in Europe.

Despite the influx of expensive purchases, Dortmund still fielded a core of local players, including ‘keeper Stefan Klos, captain Michael Zorc and an 18-year-old Lars Ricken. Throughout the 1994/95 campaign, they challenged for top spot with Werder Bremen but their aspirations stuttered due to a crippling run of injuries which saw Chapuisat and Riedle suffer cruciate ligament blows. 

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With four games remaining, Bremen were three points clear (the Bundesliga still operated two points for a win) but then lost away at Dortmund’s rivals Schalke to reduce the deficit to a point. Another nail-biting conclusion to the season was on the cards. Dortmund’s superior goal difference meant that Bremen travelled to Bayern Munich on the final day needing a win if Dortmund defeated Hamburg at home. In addition to the 42,000 crammed into the Westfalenstadion, 50,000 savoured the decisive game on the big screen in the Friedensplatz. 

Möller curled in a free-kick after just eight minutes, which meant that the fans, in the days before the ubiquity of the mobile phone, were now glued to their transistor radios following Bremen’s game in Bayern. Suddenly, a minute before half-time, the stadium erupted as news of a Bayern goal spread.  

A decisive second goal from Ricken sealed the victory as Bremen crashed to a 3-1 loss in Munich. Dortmund had won their first-ever Bundesliga title. After the game, captain Zorc proclaimed: “This season was the crowning glory of my career,” and then paused before stating “For now!” Die Schwarzgelben wanted more.

Bayern responded by appointing Werder Bremen boss Otto Rehhagel as their new coach and purchased German Internationals Jürgen Klinsmann and Thomas Strunz. Dortmund returned to Juventus to obtain German defender Kohler. Once again, the 1995/96 season was a closely fought contest, only this time with Bayern. 

With three games remaining Dortmund led Bayern by three points, but then Rehhagel was sensationally sacked by Bayern. The Ruhr outfit lost their next match 5-0 to Karlsruhe and Hitzfeld found himself the subject of highly critical media attention. In the next game, Bayern took a 2-0 lead at Werder Bremen and were momentarily top but collapsed to a 3-2 defeat, while a goalless draw at 1860 Munich ensured the title remained in Dortmund for another season.  

Sammer was hugely influential in the club’s success, awarded the Bundesliga Player of the Season for the second year running, becoming only the third footballer to do so alongside Günter Netzer and Sepp Maier.

However, Bayern’s financial power was starting to threaten Dortmund. Niebaum made it clear that Dortmund needed to continue winning titles to compete at this level. Fortunately, European success was about to provide a temporary respite to these concerns. During the summer, Dortmund swooped to sign Portuguese midfielder Paolo Sousa from Juventus, yet it was to be another unheralded signing who was to make the bigger impact that season.

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During the 1994/95 UEFA Cup campaign, Dortmund dispatched Motherwell 3-0 on aggregate. The performance of Scottish midfielder Paul Lambert caught Hitzfeld’s eye. Aged 28, he was available on a Bosman and his agent secured him a trial with Dortmund, who needed a cheap and reliable addition to the squad. Later, Hitzfeld reflected: “Our most important transfer that year was Paul Lambert.” Sousa missed the first few games of the 1996/97 season through injury; Lambert grabbed his chance and would prove impossible to dislodge.

As the 1996/97 campaign commenced, Dortmund possessed a squad capable of challenging the best teams in Europe. Klos was an outstanding keeper while Sammer was the European Footballer of the Year. Kohler, Jörg Heinrich and Stefan Reuter formed a formidable partnership in defence. Möller was the creative spark in midfield in combination with Lambert, who nullified the opposition threat. Upfront, Riedle and Chapuisat were a prolific strikeforce. In addition, the likes of the Ricken, Zorc and Heiko Herrlich added considerable depth to the ensemble. Hitzfeld now focussed his energies on winning the Champions League.

The importance of this strength-in-depth was emphasised during the European campaign. Sammer struggled with a knee injury for most of the season, Júlio César didn’t play another game after injury in October, and Sousa failed to return to the side until February. Despite that, Dortmund overcame Atlético Madrid and Auxerre to set up a meeting with favourites Manchester United in the semi-final. 

For the first leg at home, Hitzfeld was missing the services of Sammer, Kohler, Riedle, César and Chapuisat. In a tight encounter, United missed a number of chances. Then, with 15 minutes remaining, René Tretschok took the ball away from teammate Sousa, who looked on in frustration just long enough to see him unleash a howitzer from 25 yards to seal the first leg. In the return at Old Trafford, a deflected shot from Ricken after just seven minutes meant Dortmund had reached the Champions League final.

They would face the reigning holders Juventus in Munich, which wasn’t the advantage it may have seemed. The Italians were managed by the brilliant Marcello Lippi and featured a squad containing Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Didier Deschamps and Alen Bokšić. Five of the team featured in the previous year’s final victory so Juve were overwhelming favourites to win. However, a week earlier, Schalke achieved a sensational UEFA Cup victory against Internazionale, which offered hope to their Ruhr counterparts. 

Hitzfeld delegated Lambert to mark Zidane, an inspired choice as the Frenchman struggled to make an impact. Juve dominated the early stages but on 28 minutes, Lambert delivered a cross into the area which Riedle controlled on his chest and guided past Angelo Peruzzi. Five minutes later, another cross from Möller was met by a ferocious header by Riedle to put the Germans two up. It had been nearly 25 years since any team had recovered from a 2-0 deficit in a European Cup final, but this was Juventus and, before the break, Zidane hit the post and Vieri had a goal disallowed for handball.

Lippi brought Del Piero on for the second period and he reduced the deficit on 65 minutes. Hitzfeld didn’t panic, though, and four minutes later he introduced Ricken, who had scored in both the semi and quarter-finals. With his first touch of the ball, moments after he came on, he chipped Peruzzi from 30 yards to score one of the best goals seen in a European final. 

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It was appropriate that a local lad from Dortmund, who displayed a knack of scoring vital goals, had the final say as they held out to comfortably to claim the glory. Ricken’s goal was the quickest scored by a substitute in a Champions League final, coming just 16 seconds after his introduction. Lambert became the first British player to win a Champions League medal and Sousa the first to win consecutive finals with two different teams. 

Only 11 years after being seconds away from relegation, Dortmund were now the best team in Europe. A mere seven months later, by defeating Copa Libertadores champions Cruzeiro in Tokyo, they were officially the best team in the world. It couldn’t get any better. It didn’t.

Hitzfeld inherited a mid-table side which had lived in the shadow of Bayern Munich and transformed them into a team blessed with youth, energy, vigour and talent. In addition to bringing recognised talents such as Chapuisat and Möller to the club, he convinced the board to devote more money to developing their youth set up, which paid spectacular dividends when the 20-year-old Ricken scored the decisive goal in the final.

Hitzfeld was named World Coach of the Year in 1997, but the dressing room ethos was starting to disintegrate as deep fissures developed between himself and the more megalomaniac members of the team. The board appeared to be divided and his health started to deteriorate. He was moved upstairs to become director of football when Nevio Scala was recruited from Parma, but Hitzfeld was soon lured away to become the manager of Bayern Munich. 

Without him at the helm, Dortmund finished fourth as Sousa and Lambert departed and Sammer and Zorc retired. Scala‘s reign lasted just a year. By 1999/2000, they avoided relegation by five points. Hitzfeld’s legacy had been squandered.

In desperately seeking to keep up with Bayern, the club spent ridiculous sums of money on underperforming players that the supporters struggled to identify with. Failure to qualify for the Champions League meant that at the start of the 2003/04 season, Dortmund were over £125m in debt and their very survival was in doubt. Bankruptcy was narrowly averted by selling their ground to the insurance company Signal Iduna. Seven years after being crowned European and world champions, the ambition to rival Bayern Munich lay in ruins.

However, a new dawn was on the horizon as Dortmund were to extricate themselves from the financial miasma to re-emerge as one of the top teams in Europe. Yet, no matter what the future brings, the legacy that was created by der General, Ottmar Hitzfeld, and his all-conquering side of the mid-1990s stands at the heart of the club. Together, they put the city of Dortmund on the football map.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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