Going beyond the game in Dortmund ahead of Borussia v Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League…

We travelled to Dortmund on a VIP Enterprise Rent-A-Car Match Day Assist Experience to learn about the local fan culture ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s UEFA Europa League clash against Liverpool. This is what we found…

At first it’s subtle. Little things on the drive from the airport into town, like a flag here, a banner there, the offices of companies that, as with many football fans, you’re probably only aware of through being advertised on someone’s shirt.

Then, as you get further into the city, it’s more obvious, the bright yellow symbols of pageantry more and more frequent – outside shops, apartments, car showrooms – a welcome home to a returning hero daubed on a bridge, ‘Wir sind fussball’ emblazoned on another.

Dortmund, more than most other cities, is inextricably linked with football. The whole place seems to be geared around it, a city that lives for the game. And, with a little over 500,000 people following just one club, here football means Borussia Dortmund.

The locals are hanging out the flags in preparation for the big match #lfc #borussiadortmund

A photo posted by The Set Pieces (@thesetpieces) on

Any time when there’s a game on is special in Dortmund, but the week we arrive in town has a little extra to it. This is when Liverpool visit for a UEFA Europa League quarter-final, a Liverpool side led by that hero greeted on the bridge, Jurgen Klopp.

It’s difficult to underestimate in what sort of regard Klopp is still held in Dortmund, even a year after he left at the end of his worst season in charge, when for long spells it looked like they would be fighting relegation. Some of the fans we spoke to think he went at the right time, some reckon he should have left earlier, some would have been happy for him to stay. But all of them still regard him as a hero, the man who took them from relative struggles to double Bundesliga winners and the Champions League final.

And, perhaps more importantly, for a little while at least, he helped Dortmund get the better of hated rivals Bayern Munich.

“With Klopp, it’s more of an emotional thing than just the trophies,” explained Florian Linder, a member of the Revierfreunde fan club who celebrate their 30th anniversary next year, when we met up with them before the game. “Bayern are cold, but Kloppo isn’t.”

The idea that Klopp might one day manage Bayern Munich is greeted with horror and flat denial when suggested, but as is the idea that the fans might somehow be on Klopp’s side rather than Borussia Dortmund’s during the Liverpool game. “We will say ‘Welcome Kloppo, but we’ll win anyway’,” says Florian.

It was great to meet @BVB fan club Revierfreunde. Story on site next week #beyondthegame

A photo posted by The Set Pieces (@thesetpieces) on

Sometimes fan culture is almost defined more by who you don’t like than who you do. And boy, do the Dortmund fans not like Bayern, and Schalke too, who they held to a 2-2 draw between the two legs against Liverpool.

All five members of Revierfreunde could not have been more friendly to us, but when Bayern or Schalke are mentioned moods momentarily darken. “In 1966, Dortmund were the first German team to win a European trophy (the Cup Winners’ Cup), but in 1967 Bayern did it,” said Manfred Weiss, one of the founders of the fan club, in exasperation, before listing a number of other ways ‘FC Hollywood’, as Bayern are known, have stolen Dortmund’s glory, a theme continued in recent years through the transfers of Robert Lewandowski and Mario Goetze to Munich. No wonder the prospect of Klopp going to Bavaria is such a horrific one.

After giving us one of their fanclub pin badges, Revierfreunde direct us to another key site in Dortmund’s history. Just to the north of the city centre, about five or six U-bahn stops from the main train station, there’s a fairly unremarkable-looking takeaway restaurant called Pommes Rot Weiss, its primary trade chips and roast chicken, set out in a not dissimilar manner to an old English chip shop.

What sets this apart from most places of its sort is a small plaque just above the main window, announcing that this was the site of a restaurant called Zum Wildschutz, where Borussia Dortmund were formed back in 1909 by a group of young players from the local Catholic youth association unhappy with how the priest, Father Hubert Dewald, was running things. Father Dewald attempted to break up the meeting, which led to around half of those present backing down, but 18 remained and formed ‘Ballspiel-Verein Borussia 1909’ (BVB), the ‘Borussia’ taken from the name of a local brewery.

That rather quickly explains why the place isn’t so much decorated with a nod to BVB, but looks more like a small club museum. Old posters hang on the parts of the walls that aren’t covered by Borussia Dortmund flags, photographs of various eras sit on shelves, behind the counter there’s a Dortmund-themed elephant statuette, the tables are covered in bright yellow table cloths with the club logo, and the woman behind the counter is wearing a Dortmund shirt with ‘Wembley 13’ on the back. There’s even a mock-up of an old Klopp tactics board on the far wall.

When BVB win the league, Pommes Rot Weiss changes its sign from red and white to yellow and black. If you wanted to see somewhere that sums up what football means to the people in this city, this is it.

With all of this in mind, it was probably a shrewd decision to house the new German football museum, opened in October last year, in Dortmund. An angular building that’s more or less the first thing you see when emerging from the main train station, it’s a celebration of German football success that obviously has plenty of material to work with.

From a selection of shirts (which, as an aside, confirm that Germany have had the most consistently cool kits in international history), to a section of a bench from the dressing room in Bern where the Germans won their first World Cup in 1954, as well as documents, recordings, a scale model of the Olympic Stadium from 1974, and even a commemorative lampshade, there’s almost too much to take in.

The national team section ends with a couple of films about their most recent World Cup win, one in 3D with enjoyably corny and awkward narration from Thomas Muller, Phillip Lahm and pals, the other projected onto a giant Brazuca ball. You can’t fault them for style points.

And so to the game. We were picked up from our hotel by our Enterprise Rent-A-Car driver – the chirpy Torsten – and host for the day Jana, and taken straight to the stadium, which looms on the edge of town, the centre point to the fizzing hub of football that the whole city is. Torsten drove us right up to the door, a little bemused as to why we wanted a photo of him but chipper nonetheless, and from there we were taken through the labyrinthine tunnels and corridors of the Signal Iduna Park, down to pitchside.

It’s pretty obvious that Dortmund’s home is big. But you probably don’t appreciate just how enormous it is until you’re stood at the bottom, looking up at the steepling stands that seem to rise up forever. When you’re sitting high up in the rafters at stadiums like this it’s sometimes difficult to get a real idea of the sheer size, but looking up from pitch level gives you an entirely different perspective.

We were there before most of the fans had filtered into the ground but the atmosphere was already building, supporters of both teams mixing outside with a sort of camaraderie that almost feels out of place in such a big game, but would culminate in a pretty special moment a while later.

But first, obviously, we needed some sustenance, so we were taken to the VIP dining area, in this case a traditional German beer hall in which the waiting staff wore traditional costumes. As much beer and bratwurst as you wanted was on offer and a duo playing enjoyably eccentric oompah covers of popular hits – Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon was a highlight – soundtracked the pre-match grub.

Extensively fed and healthily watered, it was time for the game, and we were taken to our seats, sharing the lift with Jurgen Klopp’s son and on the way walking past Franz Beckenbauer; the latter brief encounter was only pointed out to us after ‘Der Kaiser’ was making his way to his seat, which is probably for the best as we’d only have made fools of ourselves trying to talk to him.

Our seats, rather than being in a box and behind some glass like you might expect at a VIP experience, were in the middle of the stands, in with the Dortmund fans so we could properly experience the atmosphere of such a huge UEFA Europa League game. Being in the comfort of the hospitality lounges is fine, but to really experience a game you have to be outside and with the supporters, something that paid off perfectly in the run-up to kick-off.

As you will probably know, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ isn’t just a song adopted and sung by Liverpool fans, but Dortmund fans too, so when it was played over the Signal Iduna Park speakers just before the game started, and both home and away fans began belting it out, it was impossible not to feel a thrill. It’s played so often and is so ubiquitous at Anfield it might sound a little corny to English fans, but to be in the stadium while 70,000 people sung it at the top of their lungs was special.

The game itself was a cracker too, Liverpool taking the lead in the first half before Dortmund equalised after the break, setting things up perfectly for the return leg at Anfield. Then at full time we were whisked down into the post-game press conference to hear what the managers made of it all, a room a little more packed than usual to greet the return of Klopp.

The former Borussia Dortmund boss sat down in a familiar chair and answered questions, then on his way out greeted a few members of staff like long-lost friends – presumably because that’s what most of them are. Moments like that aren’t the sort of thing you can see in most other circumstances.

And then it was back to the car and Torsten, still grinning after waiting for us way after the game had ended, to be driven back to our hotel, tired but happy after a wonderful experience at one of the biggest games European club football has to offer. On balance, thinking about the pitchside visit, the pre-match food, the brilliant seats and going behind the scenes at a huge club like Dortmund, we reasoned we’d probably do it again.

Going beyond the game in Dortmund ahead of Borussia v Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League…
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