Standing innovation

Borussia Dortmund are a modern and corporate club but that hasn't stopped them constructing a huge new standing terrace. Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger reports

It started to rain a few minutes into the game. No drizzle, mind you. Real, heavy rain. Thick, grey clouds. Chilly gusts. The works. We had been promised the roof would be ready in time for this, the first home game of the season but, meticulous planning being what it is, there were gaping holes above our heads. I always wear my lucky baseball cap and my old leather jacket on match days, so the weather didn’t bother me, but those around me who were either less superstitious or too trustful when it comes to workmen’s promises got soaking wet within seconds. What was more, the roofers had left piles of tiles lying around. They dammed up the water until it periodically came crashing down on our heads like a torrent from a giant bucket.

I think the club tried to apologize via the tannoy. However, we couldn’t understand a single word because the PA wasn’t working. An excuse written on the scoreboard was out of the question, too, for the two video screens that should have been there were not. Meanwhile, on the pitch, our team – the reigning world club champions, lest we forget – were fighting against the playing surface. The newly laid turf, it later turned out, hadn’t had enough time to take root, and so lumps of grass were flying around whenever a player made a sudden turn. Not that this was their only problem. For the first 20 minutes they were also outplayed by the visitors from Berlin.

This set of circumstances made for sour faces in most parts of the stadium. In the North Stand, people fled their seats to seek cover; in the East and West the dignitaries and VIPs contemplated going back inside for more champagne and salmon sandwiches. But the South Stand… well, the South was an ocean of people merrily singing at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down. They were happy and proud. Happy that they were able to jump, proud that there were so many of them. Because the main feature of Borussia Dortmund’s rebuilt stadium is not the new capacity of 69,000, not the new PA, not the video screens and not the supposedly enhanced pitch. The most eagerly anticipated and most impressive aspect of the reconstructed Westfalenstadion is the enlarged South Stand, the only stand in the league deserving of the name, because nobody is meant to sit here.

Dortmund’s new South Stand is the largest terrace in the whole of Europe and some claim it’s the largest in the world. It holds – draw your breath – 24,000 supporters. And on this opening day every single one of them felt like a winner, a winner in the long fight for more terracing and against all-seater arenas. The people in the South Stand were the last men and women standing, and victory was theirs.

“Of course we could earn more money with seats,” Michael Zorc, once captain of the team and now the director of sports, tells me. “But that’s not what the people want. Our fans want terraces.” Wait a minute. Is this Twilight Zone? Isn’t this one of the clubs behind the European super league, a club which can’t wait to float shares, has an annual turnover of DM 130 million (£40 million), publishes its own glossy monthly magazine, has recently opened a megalomaniacal merchandising megastore and will soon get its own half-hour show on television?

And what about UEFA’s ban on terracing? “We can’t alter UEFA’s rules, even if we don’t always understand them,” says Zorc. “For future games in Europe, we will install removable seats in the South, reducing the capacity there to 10,500, and then go back to terracing for League and domestic cup matches.” Borussia Dortmund can do this because the German FA still hasn’t made all-seater stadia mandatory. One reason for this is that Germany hasn’t had a Hillsborough, possibly because most Bundesliga grounds are not as old as their English counterparts. The other reason could stem from the underpublicized but very vocal supporters’ movement whose slogan roughly translates as “Seats are for arseholes”. So it has been left to the clubs to decide how to treat their customers. Some, like Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen, play in all-seater stadia; some, like Stuttgart and Bremen, offer only a tiny bit of standing room; some, like Schalke and Kaiserslautern, have terracing for close to 20,000 people. But Dortmund are alone in having spent staggering sums on a ground for the next century that has all the hallmarks of state-of-the-art football while reserving a whole stand for what is effectively a relic from a bygone era.

This summer’s rebuilding process (the second in the three years) cost the club DM 40 million, and 400 labourers literally worked day and night for three months to add a second tier to both the North and the South Stand. They also put up 350 television screens and divided the edifice that houses the North Stand into six floors. These contain detention areas for people who don’t know how to behave at football games, a restaurant for 1,500 people who get hungry at football games, and a theatre for people for prefer the finer arts to football matches. Meanwhile, the South offers the “true fans” (as the club refers to them) what you could call the undiluted essentials: noise, beer and standing room. Borussia Dortmund are trying to have it both ways, making the past a part of the future and the ground a place for both the affluent and the average punter.

Too good to be true? Well, yes. The second home game of the season was the derby with Bochum. It was a horrible match, and we lost 0-1. Ten minutes from time you could hear a chant from the South Stand aimed at the players, that went: “We want to see you fight!” After the game, club president Dr Gerd Niebaum fumed: “The fans are no longer our 12th man!” Reading that, I had a nasty vision. What if, one day, they dangle those removable seats in front of our faces and say: “If you don’t behave, then this is what you’ll get!” Creepy.

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month