Borussia Dortmund making the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League is, perhaps, the single most satisfying story in an otherwise predictable quarterfinal round.
While the likes of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich continue to dominate this competition, it is “newcomers” Borussia Dortmund who hold the title of underdog.
Dortmund’s silent but steady rise from the bottom of the Bundesliga in 2008 now sees them as a powerhouse in Germany, and this will be their first real international test. It’s why a strong performance in the semis could, at last, see the rise of Dortmund completed. No longer will Dortmund be regarded as a strong German outfit who trumped Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga – like Valencia before them, Borussia Dortmund’s strong Champions League run signals a true birth of a new “big” team, and that, in and of itself, is an exciting sight to see.
However, Valencia CF, who also enjoyed a very similar period of success back in 2004 and 2005, know full well the dangers of rising higher than expected. With an all-star cast consisting of David Silva, David Villa, Carlos Marchena, Raul Albiol, Joaquin, Vicente, later on, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba, it seemed that Valencia had the lion’s share of young, quality talent in Spain and the results followed suit.
It wouldn’t last. Eventually, the world’s elite clubs picked Valencia apart. FC Barcelona purchased David Villa and Jordi Alba; Real Madrid bought Raul Albiol; Manchester City paid up and signed David Silva; the rest faded away, unable to win games without the help of quality options, now long gone.
The threat of Borussia Dortmund falling to the same fate is very, very real. I like to call it the Valencia effect – teams find success only to find they cannot sustain it; players who were regarded as heroes for a club bordering on glory are soon ripped away and distributed among the European elite, either fed up by a lack of trophies or lured by the promise of money or fame. It’s happened with Valencia, Fiorentina, FC Metz, Newcastle United and, I suppose, Arsenal as well. Each club has their own reasons for selling players, and applying one fixed reason for why players leave a club does none of these teams any justice, but the overwhelming principle behind the dismantling of a side is unsustainable finances, sometimes caused by finding success and not keeping it.
Now, comparing the circumstances between Valencia and Dortmund isn’t entirely fair, either. Valencia fell into massive debts and needed to sell players to avoid bankruptcy. Dortmund once faced similar debt issues, but using a model of sustainability, avoided selling players.And there’s no denying it – Dortmund has been built with a model of sustainability. Players were purchased at younger ages for small fees and grew to become stars. Never Subotic and Mats Hummels, regarded as one of the finest centre-halve pairings, cost Dortmund less than 10 million euros. Dortmund is also the only club that operates in the German stock market. In these young players, Dortmund has found the formula for success.
Sven Bender, Robert Lewendowski, Lukasz Piszczek, Mario Götze and the rest of Dortmund’s cast are all competent, quality players. However, with so many attractive options available, it may only be a matter of time before Dortmund can no longer bat away suitors. Transfer windows seem to have cycles, with one particular year of heavy spending succeeded by three or four windows of low activity. As many European outfits round off the 2012/2013 season, fresh faces are needed, and in Borussia Dortmund lie the solution to many major club’s problems.
Now, since the club’s resurgence in 2008, a “mass exodus” has yet to occur, but the alluring power of mightier outfits is not something that Dortmund can ignore, either. Much of the core of Dortmund’s starting line up remains the same, sans Shinji Kagawa, who transferred over to Manchester United in the beginning of this season. However, he was quickly replaced with a young and talented German midfielder, Marco Reus, whose partnership with Götze has seen Dortmund succeed in the Champions League thus far. Yet Barcelona is knocking on the door for Hummels, and Manchester United is heavily interested in Lewendowski. Replacing talent with young players is a model that, when successful, yields tremendous rewards, but should it fail, can leave a club lacking severely in certain positions and are then forced to spend millions on purchasing another option.
Though German players often stay in Germany to play, this hasn’t been the case as of late. Some of Germany’s young stars are plying their trade abroad, too; Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, for example, are important figures in Real Madrid’s midfield; Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker are enjoying their time at Arsenal. Most of Dortmund’s players are individually talented, capable of performing whilst removed from familiar teammates.
With Pep Guardiola taking over at Bayern Munich, a strong centerback pairing is almost guaranteed to be on the agenda, and while Guardiola won’t be looking to link up with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol again, he will certainly be aiming to replicate that particular partnership. There lies the main issue with Borussia Dortmund; the team is made up of puzzle pieces that most teams need. Need an affordable, efficient centerback pairing? In Subotic and Hummels, there are no better.
Does your team suffer from a lack of options in central midfield? İlkay Gündoğan and Bender can slot in in any midfield.Need quality wingers? Dortmund has a pair in Kevin Großkreutz and Jakub Błaszczykowski – it seems inevitable that, the more and more success Dortmund finds, the more attractive these players will be to larger outfits that spend cash freely.
This is a legitimate concern for Dortmund and one that they will soon have to face, since this unique team will, for the first time, be demonstrating their talents and abilities on a much more testing stage. A spot in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals means that, for the first time, Dortmund will be competing for a grander prize than the Bundesliga trophy. If the likes of Mario Götze and Marco Reus and Robert Lewendowski actually impress (or, better yet, win the Champions League), they would have proved themselves capable of becoming champions.
It would instantly propel these players from high-quality stars to championship-winning components, thereby increasing their value tenfold, and, subsequently, attracting more teams with more resolve to see these players join their outfit. We’ve seen on numerous occasions players leaving clubs and joining the likes of Real Madrid or Manchester City for financial reasons; unfortunately, Borussia Dortmund simply cannot compete with other teams in Europe on a financial level. If they do so, the club would betray their model of sustainability and build debt. They would also walk a risky line – one missed Champions League and the financials behind Dortmund would no longer line up.
Then there’s alluring power and the yearning for a new challenge – happy players for successful teams sometimes leave because they are too content. Manchester United would have been a big enough club for Cristiano Ronaldo for the duration of his career, A.C. Milan the same for Kaká; the promise of a new challenge must be alluring to players like Götze or Hummels. So, Dortmund must make a choice; keep these players happy, most likely with financial compensation that cannot be guaranteed year to year, or sell players to suitors in Spain and England and keep a tidy profit to themselves. The problem with being a Champions League winning team is that it must be kept up, or the risk of the team being dismantled increases.
This, combined with a cyclical transfer window, means Dortmund must approach this summer with equal parts confidence, critical decision making and smart financial policy; it would be easy to cash in on talent now, and without a massive debt to pay down, Dortmund doesn’t have the same ailments as Valencia once did. The most important thing Dortmund must do is keep their players happy, avoid purchasing big name stars and, most importantly, keep being competitive. It’s easy to let success get to your head, just as it’s easy fade away in the game of football – the challenge is to breed success on the field with successful decisions off the field.
Luckily for Borussia Dortmund, success on – and off – the field has come in spades.