The Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund, and the Art of Winning Responsibly

Andrew LongworthCorrespondent IApril 1, 2011

Bundesliga Leaders Borussia Dortmund
Bundesliga Leaders Borussia DortmundMichael Steele/Getty Images

Only late last month did the unthinkable finally happen in European soccer: the German Bundesliga ousted Italy from the long reigning triumvirate that also included the Premiership in England and La Liga in Spain. This translates to an extra Bundesliga team being admitted to the prestigious and lucrative Champions League.

You have to wonder just what went wrong with a league featuring Serie A powerhouses like Milan, Inter, Juventus, AS Roma, and Lazio. Maybe the more relevant question should be what the German league is doing right.

Whereas Germany boasts only one club of world stature, Bayern Munich, the Reals and Manchesters and Milans of the world still can’t help but wonder how Bayern Munich remains competitive. According to the latest figures, Bayern has remained a constant among the world’s top five world clubs when it comes to value and profitability. Of course, 22 league titles, 15 cups, and four Champions League Cups are nothing to sneeze at.

What makes them truly unique is that while Real, Manchester, and Milan break the bank to win hardware, Bayern Munich owes nothing. Ziltsch. Or null, as they would say in Germany. Granted, the Bundesliga is fixed so that clubs aren’t permitted to run large deficits, otherwise their license can be revoked at the discretion of the DFB, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, the governing body of German soccer. 

The one team to deviate from the German modus operandi was Borussia Dortmund, who went public in 2000. Time eventually confirmed that the Manchester or Real way did not equate to success or profitability, prompting teams to re-think the way they did business. The shares of Borussia Dortmund have lost 90 percent of their value, 90 good reasons for the remaining Bundesliga clubs to stick to the tried and true method of fiscal responsibility and investing money in your youth clubs.

True, this will not land you the Ronaldinho's and Ronaldo's of the world, but it will give you an inherent better chance of maintaining a club’s identity without having to be owned by a foreign billionaire who didn’t know a thing about the football club he owned until it was tossed into his lap as another one of his corporate toys.

German Bundesliga clubs build their rosters the old fashioned way: recruit from the ranks of their youth clubs, invest in scouting and even football schools, and add foreign (usually European) veterans as they see fit.

Re-enter Borussia Dortmund, Champions League winner of 1997 and a six-time national champion. Dortmund currently holds the top spot in the Bundesliga, seven points clear of runners up Leverkusen. The fact that Dortmund is dominating the league is not half as impressive as how they’ve achieved it.

Gone are the days when you would dole out the equivalent of an island nation’s budget to secure premier talent, either from abroad or anywhere else in Germany but Dortmund.

Led by an inspiring young coach in Jürgen Klopp, the club has quietly welded together a roster consisting of young homegrown players, plus several imports to complement the roster. Less than a month ago, in a crucial away game at defending champs Bayern Munich, Dortmund convincingly won 3-1 and fielded a team with an average age of 22. Only two players were older than 22: Australian goalie Mitchell Langerak and attacker Lucan Barrios, both 26. You will have to invent a better adjective than "impressive" to describe their inspiring performance against a Bayern Club that included world class players like Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Robben, and Ribery. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean every German club is in the black, nor that they have learned the lessons of always picking the right players at the right price. Take Dortmund’s arch rival, Schalke.

Mired in no man’s land at No. 11 with seven matches left in the season, this is a club that spent heavily for former Real Madrid world stars Raul and Huntelaar. While their abilities are beyond disputable, their credibility has been questionable from the moment they have first worn the Schalke jersey. That Schalke is average this year is not just their fault, but fans can’t help but wonder whether they have purchased hired guns, players with little interest in the club’s fortunes itself. They have yet to convince fans that they are Schalker, players their fans can identify with. 

Spending money you don’t have should be a given. So should avoiding (especially superstar) players and owners who don’t fit into the grand scheme of things when it comes to your football club and its future. This is not German by any means. It is, however, common sense, and the British, Italian, and Spanish clubs will be better off in the long run to practice financial prudence if they are to remain both competitive and not risk the alienation of their fans.