In modern football, it's extremely difficult for a smaller club to rise to prominence without some sort of artificial injection of money. Today's ultra-rich superpowers have essentially brought the pinnacle of club sport to a higher level, making it almost impossible for a team without a wealthy patron to make an impression on the international stage.
Borussia Dortmund have bucked that trend in recent years, winning the Bundesliga in back-to-back seasons before making an improbable run to the 2012-13 Champions League final. Led by the irresistibly charming Jurgen Klopp, BVB have developed a unique style of football emphasizing technical flare with a high-intensity pressing style that resonates with their city's industrial roots. Dortmund have no wealthy owner, and their team cost approximately €40 million. Their revenue, at €189.1 million in 2011-12, was just over half that of Bayern's.
Especially as they prepared for the Champions League final at Wembley, the club pushed its image as the darlings of European football with the Twitter hashtag #fairytale, and many have agreed that although they lost the final, BVB won the hearts of neutrals around the world.
Dortmund's small-club ethos has come at a hefty price, though, as their rather low wage structure has seen some of their best players leave the club. Nuri Sahin departed for Real Madrid in 2011, Shinji Kagawa for Manchester United in 2012, and this summer Mario Gotze is set to move to Bayern, with Robert Lewandowski heavily linked with a move to Munich as well.
With Gotze gone and Lewandowski having pledged to leave either this summer or the next (he already said he will not extend his contract, which expires in 2014) Dortmund's future is not entirely secure. But the club's executives are doing everything they can to minimize their losses and keep BVB on the rise. In order to do so, there are a few short-term goals that must be achieved.
The first priority for Dortmund, even ahead of replacing Gotze and Lewandowski, must be preventing history from repeating itself yet again in the form of a huge star leaving. BVB have done well to limit the rate of departures, but the only way they will ever be taken seriously is if they shed the image of being a "selling club." This began in 2012 when Mats Hummels penned a new deal that eliminated his €8 million buyout clause. And it continued on Monday with the extension of Jakub Blaszczykowsk's deal to 2018, an agreement that reportedly eliminated his €15 million buyout clause and extended his stay by two years.
The next step must be to extend the contract of Ilkay Gundogan, with no buyout clause. Gundogan is the only key BVB player with a contract set to expire in 2015, and he would be the next logical departure for the club after Lewandowski. The midfielder was recently said to be close to extending his contract until 2017, and if this can be done without an exit clause, it will be a huge coup for the Ruhr club.
After Gundogan, BVB must make their best effort to eliminate the exit clause in Marco Reus' contract. According to Bild, the attacker can leave for €35 million in 2015, although his deal runs until 2017. To ensure Reus' long-term future at Dortmund, the club must convince him to eliminate this clause in exchange for higher wages, regardless of whether it increases the duration of his stay.
Once the contracts of current players are settled, Dortmund must make moves to strengthen their squad in the transfer market. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke recently claimed his side would "invest considerably" this summer, and the signing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos—a player meant to serve as backup in the centre and right of defense—for the club's second-highest transfer fee in almost a decade (€9.5 million) backs up Watzke's words considerably.
Dortmund have already received €37 million from the sale of Mario Gotze to Bayern, and posted record revenue of €124.1 million for the second half of the 2012 calendar year, with €17.5 million profit. Although the club's financial figures for the first half of 2013 are yet to be released, their run to the Champions League final—with some €65 million from UEFA's distributions included—could well see BVB break into the top seven or eight richest clubs in the world. Suffice to say, they will have money to spend.
The first and most necessary signing for BVB is a player to take Gotze's place. Although the player's potential is irreplaceable and nothing can make up for his signing for a rival club, it is conceivable that BVB can sign a player who will perform at or near the level of a 20-year-old Gotze. Dortmund have agreed to a five-year contract with Kevin de Bruyne, according to Bild, and now only need to reach a deal with Chelsea for his release.
De Bruyne will, in all likelihood, cost less than half of Gotze's transfer fee, and BVB will want to add depth to ease the burden from the shoulders of Reus and others who otherwise would feel a heavy burden from playing 50 or more games in a season. Other options in the €10-17 million range include Christian Eriksen, Son-Heung Min and Bernard, all of whom have been linked with a move to the Ruhr area.
De Bruyne and Eriksen are currently the most likely candidates, and the versatility of both would make them ideal for a rotation. Son has an advantage in that he could play as a striker in addition to midfield, while Bernard is a less costly option and a bit of a wild card.
The next step for BVB is to find a replacement for Robert Lewandowski, who has vowed not to extend his contract past its current expiration date in 2014. The Lewandowski saga is a complicated one, but for now it appears that the player will be sold to Bayern this summer.
Lewandowski's sale will likely raise €25 million for BVB, adding further to their transfer budget. Edin Dzeko has been considered as an option, as have Jackson Martinez and reportedly Christian Benteke. Signing one of the aforementioned, plus a more prolific backup than current reserve Julian Schieber, would be the best option.
Especially with the additions in midfield will come congestion within the Dortmund squad. Moritz Leitner has already reached his limit at BVB, it seems, while Leonardo Bittencourt cannot expect to be given much playing time as a fourth- or fifth-choice attacking midfielder. Both must be loaned for the 2013-14 season. If they develop sufficiently, they can be trusted to return and play a bigger role at BVB in the following seasons. Otherwise, they can be sold next summer.
The final move Dortmund must make in the transfer market is to take something from Bayern. It may come off as vindictive, but this is what big clubs do. Before this season, Bayern lost two Bundesliga titles and the 2012 DFB-Pokal final to Dortmund, and saw Marco Reus snub them for Dortmund. They responded by winning the treble and signing Gotze. And now they stand in a position of having Lewandowski's commitment even if BVB decide not to sell the player this summer.
To lose two key players to a domestic rival is a devastating blow and cannot be taken without any attempt at retaliation. Even if it's a minor blow, BVB must let Bayern know they are not untouchable.
Sport Bild recently reported that BVB are willing to let Lewandowski go only if Bayern agree to sell Mario Mandzukic and/or Xherdan Shaqiri. And although Bayern are not a selling club, not all players in their now-massive squad can be happy. There are only 990 minutes to be shared by a maximum of 14 players in a football match, and there have already been complaints from within the Bayern squad. Mario Gomez's agent revealed in April his client's dissatisfaction with warming the bench, while Emre Can revealed he will not accept another year training with the professional team only to be sent to play in the regionalliga.
Shaqiri would be a great addition to the Dortmund squad and would regularly start on the wing, while Mandzukic—although less prolific that Lewandowski—would bring the kind of athleticism and intensity that Jurgen Klopp so greatly values in his tactical setup. Emre could be a long-term replacement for Sebastian Kehl and is extremely versatile. And although the 19-year-old still wants to make his mark at Bayern, his contract expires in 2014, making him perhaps the most accessible Bayern player. Even Luiz Gustavo could be an option.
If Dortmund are able to improve the contracts of key players, replace Gotze and Lewandowski, add depth and sign a player of some tangible value to Bayern, they will be on the right course for next season. Even without Gotze, this season they proved to be worthy opponents for the best team in the world.
BVB will need to at least reach the Champions League quarterfinals next season and provide a greater challenge in the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal if they are to maintain their growth, but with squad depth and maturity, these goals are very much achievable. Dortmund are still developing in many ways. In spite of some recent setbacks, it would be a mistake to assume they will simply fade away.