Borussia Dortmund's recent success in the Bundesliga is a throwback to the days when their region dominated German football, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger explains

Just over a month into the New Year and Borussia Dortmund are exactly where they were twelve months ago: at the top of the Bundesliga and in the quarter finals of a European cup. In 1995 they beat Lazio to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. This year their Champions League run seems likely to end at the hands of Ajax. If you had predicted this scenario a decade ago, you would have been taken to a place where the rooms have no windows.

Ten years ago, when Dortmund avoided relegation by the narrowest of margins – an injury time goal in a play-off – they appeared to embody the sorry state of football in their region, the Ruhr. It had once been the pulsating heart of German football but larger-than-life heroes had given way to comic no-hopers. Dortmund’s story, then, is more than that of an individual club – it’s the story of a part of Germany with its own distinct football culture.
The images from the early days stick in the mind: rugged men with esoteric, Slavic names are hoofing a heavy ball across a bumpy pitch; above them, winding towers penetrate a grey, grumpy sky. Next, morning, at dawn, the men will go to work again, sent deep beneath the field they are now playing on to mine coal.
Matthäus, Klinsmann, Voller... they all come from here, the Ruhr, the place where German football was spawned. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the area between the natural boundaries of the rivers Rhine, Ruhr and Lippe was an almost idyllic landscape. There was coal, but it was deemed useless for industrial processes. English coal was imported in huge quantities until, finally, a procedure was discovered that put this native hard coal to use; and before long it carried the whole of the steel and iron industry. The region did not just grow – it exploded.
Suddenly human labour was in great demand. Families came from impoverished rural parts of East Prussia, Silesia and Poland to ruin their health for the new class of steel barons. Far away from home, isolated through language and ancestry, subjected to hazardous work – it was only natural that the immigrants would stick to themselves. They gathered in workers’ housing estates, which would evolve into small villages, and set up social clubs to help foster their cultural traditions and to play sport. Every city, every suburb and every street needed to have one; and the game that proved to possess the strongest lure was of English origin – just like the coal the men had come to rival.
The national football association, a largely middle-class body, which at first had deemed the renegade teams in the Ruhr beneath its dignity, slowly allowed the coal miners and steel workers into the regional leagues that made up German football. (Still, as late as 1925, when Schalke had already become the club in the city, an article about the history of football in Gelsenkirchen didn’t even mention them.)
The top of the heap were the five Oberligen (South, West, North, Southwest and Berlin), whose respective winners determined the national champion through knock-out rounds and a final. The Oberliga West soon became the domain of teams from the core area; most of the sides came straight out of the mines – some of them from tiny boroughs such as Schalke, Horst-Emscher (parts of Gelsenkirchen),Katernberg (Essen) or Sodingen (Herne). The area came to dominate German football from the start of the 1930s and it became harder to win the Oberliga West than the national title: Between 1933 and 1942, Schalke 04 made it into ten national finals, winning six.
After the war, the Ruhr teams went through a period of transition. They recuperated soon, though, with Rot-Weiss Essen, Dortmund (twice) and Schalke grabbing the national title in four successive years from 1955. But right then, the powerful engine that drove the Ruhrgebiet on stuttered and came to a halt: the coal-crisis struck Germany and the country moved on – to new technologies and greener grass. The Ruhr was left behind.
The Oberliga system was abandoned (the last play-off final was fittingly won by Dortmund), and the Bundesliga saw the light of day in 1963. With it came professionalism and a competitive drive that made the big cities the new centres of football life. The 1970s and 1980s were bleak decades. Schalke won the cup in 1972, but it was to be the core area’s last trophy for almost twenty years: two years later the great steel-crisis shattered what hopes of resurrection might have been left. The clubs hung in – at times as many as five of them graced the Bundesliga – but they couldn’t compete any longer. Dortmund went down, then Essen, then Oberhausen, then even Schalke.
They fought back into the big time, but the champagne was fizzing elsewhere. In Munich and Hamburg huge stadia lacking colour and warmth beckoned customers with promises of European campaigns and flashy stars; in Bochum or Dortmund, atmospheric football-only facilities offered fans desperate battles against relegation and simple but honest players living on the long ball and in the hope of rain.
To kids like me, who grew up in the Dark Ages of the late Seventies, no more fascinating environment could have been imagined. Football was a part of your life, just like the house you lived in and the school you went to. The club you followed was not there to entertain you, because this would imply you could draw a line between those two entities: the club was an integral part of the community, supplying the countless suburbs and cities bordering on each other with distinct identities – and intense rivalries.
And that is what unmistakably set Ruhr football apart from the game played in Hamburg or Munich. A car-drive of any usable length would instantly set off endless trains of references: Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, Herne, Dortmund – the street signs flashed by in a matter of minutes, and each could conjure up memories of goals and cheers and the reek of beer. This concentration or tradition-laden teams did not only mean that the true fanatic could see league football whenever he chose to, it also ensured that about once per month his team’s honour would be on the line in a local derby.
Of all the rivalries, the most intensely felt, and bitterly fought, was that between Schalke and Dortmund; clichéd as it sounds, winning such a clash meant more than cups or championships. In Munich and Hamburg derbies carry a connotation of class war, and much of the tension lies in the hope (or dread) of blue collars (St Pauli and Munich 1860) prevailing over white ones (SV Hamburg and Bayern). In the Ruhr, though, all larger clubs have their roots in the lives of the working class; and this made the games more dramatic: competition is nowhere as heated as within your own peer group – if you lose, you have no excuse.
As the 80s drew to an end, the Ruhr finally found ways of catching up with modern life, attracting new technologies and creating more jobs in the service sector. (Today coal and steel survives on subventions – and the writing is on the wall.) Concurrently, Borussia Dortmund slowly assembled a great team. Its players no longer carried baffling names full of ‘z’s and ‘y’s, they did not pray for rain and had never heard of the long ball. Still, they knew who they were playing for, so showing-off never entered their minds.
Then, in 1995, the nightmare set-up Ruhr fans had been discussing in jest for years came true: Bremen lead Dortmund with three games left to play as they travelled to Schalke for a game that meant nothing to the home team. Would Schalke lose on purpose, as Dortmund supporters had sworn their club would do in a comparable situation? Or, and this was even worse, would they win – thereby rendering the title virtually worthless to the rivals?
Ninety minutes later, football in the Ruhr had changed. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. The only thing certain was that it would never be the same again: Dortmund’s unloved neighbours had risen to the occasion and practically dismantled a stunned Bremen side, racing to a 4-0 lead in an hour and winning 4-2. Dortmund falls went as far as officially thanking Schalke, and the consensus appeared to be that rivalry was okay, hostility not. The next time the clubs met the atmosphere was more relaxed than it had been since anyone could remember. Not friendly, mind you, since derbies still make good copy in today’s dayglo football wonderland, and even the loiterers in the VIP-lounge feel compelled to express dislike for their neighbours, even if two hours later they will be watching the replays on high-tech screens, saying it was a fine game.
But up in the stands there are still some people in faded scarfs who still hark back to the days of rain and long balls. They are happy about the newfound glory, happy that their team will share the spotlight with Ajax – but still wish it could have been done without help from the guys fifteen minutes down the road.

From WSC 110 April 1996. What was happening this month

Related articles

Klopp: Bring the noise by Raphael Honigstein
Yellow Jersey Press, £12.99Reviewed by Huw RichardsFrom WSC 375, April 2018Buy the book...
“There won’t be Nazis at Eintracht Frankfurt” – German club ban far-right voters
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'ObYKS5qNQqZUEXmcI4fzig',sig...
How You’ll Never Walk Alone became football’s most famous song
Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||[]).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'DTmudJ2TTIFfy5soZuVrDw',sig...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday