The quiet suburb of Brackel is reflective of the city of Dortmund – traditionally a hub of industries and working-class neighbourhoods interspersed by green trees.
For the curious eyes of the footballing world, this is no ordinary suburb, though; one of modern sport’s greatest development institutions lies here. The black building with the yellow circle appears to be your run-of-the-mill football training complex; Brackel is anything but.
One may even argue that Germany’s 2014 World Cup win was sculpted here. Mario Gotze may have missed out on the squad for Russia 2018, but the swivel and shot past Sergio Romero was practised on these grounds a thousand times before it hit the back of the net at the Maracana.
An ‘authentic’ football factory
Gotze is hardly the first high-profile footballer to hone his craft at the hallowed Borussia Dortmund fields, Nuri Sahin, Marco Reus, Julian Weigl, Marcel Schmelzer, Lars Ricken and countless other internationals can attribute their development to the 18,000 square metres here.
Carsten Cramer, Dortmund’s Chief Marketing Officer refers to the club as “authentic” and the facilities seem to reflect those values – modest and un-pompous. The open training fields next to each other, with their neatly trimmed grass covers allow senior and junior Borussen to toil side by side. Further inculcating the Dortmund value system into the juniors is the presence of Ricken, a club man through and through, and now head of all youth systems.
Our guide for the day is Tim Kirk, Dortmund’s Under-12 coach, an Englishman recently hired by the German club. Kirk, earlier an employee of the English FA, caught the coaching world’s attention as his free programme for school children back home in Bath churned out a high number of products for professional club academies.
Kirk’s Under-12s are just one of the 15 age-group sides that turn out in black and yellow. They start at [age] eight, says Kirk, and the best 22 of every batch can start residing at 15. According to Kirk, the great thing about “being a good Dortmund player at 16 or 17 is that you get to train exclusively in the first team.”
The journey to the first team hasn’t always been this defined, though.
Bankruptcy and subsequent lessons
The five-time Bundesliga-winning club has become the world’s best finishing school and Cramer insists that this is the Dortmund way. Plunged into bankruptcy in 2005 due to overzealous spending on ageing stars, lessons have been well and truly learnt, says the Dortmund CMO.
“Our aim is not to catch Bayern in the spending spree; we know we can’t do that,” says Cramer. Dortmund are in an unique position due to their array of young talent. The club is financially not strong enough to hold onto these players but football-wise mixing it up with the big boys on the pitch.
In 2005, Dortmund were bankrupt and were saved by an impromptu meeting of officials and shareholders at the last minute. Dortmund, the first publicly traded German football club saw its share prices plunge by 80% as financial mismanagement had put the club onto the path of oblivion.
Having tasted Bundesliga success in 1995, 1997 and 2002, Dortmund had made heavy bets in the transfer market, but were unable to recoup their outlay on the pitch. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia had refused to bail out the 1997 Champions League winners, stating that public funds would not be used to pay the hefty salaries of the players.
Klopp and the Dortmund youth
Jolted, Dortmund would revamp their youth production line and it would pay handsome dividends under Jurgen Klopp, culminating in a Champions League final appearance in 2013. It was the same year in which the current Liverpool manager handed debuts to six academy products.
The German manager’s notorious heavy-metal football, famous for its Gegenpressing style, had its foundations in Dortmund youth, who continue to be poached by Europe’s big spenders to this day.
Kirk observes that the same intensity is present at all levels. “A Revierderby (Dortmund vs Schalke) for the Under-9s is played with the same tenacity as the senior level. The effect of organised and sustained competition is not lost on them.”
For his own side, Kirk has them travel to four international competitions but, more importantly, he notes that the focus is not on winning. The focus is on putting in a performance that they’re satisfied with. “At the end of each game and training week, I give them a sheet to fill out in which I ask them to rate their performances and what they thought of the game,” he says.
The team put in almost half the hours on the training pitch as their English counterparts every week, but the development doesn’t stop there. A cultural activity as a group has to be orchestrated every quarter. Kirk draws up an example: “I once made them act out a play in English. Twenty kids in front of 300 people, you’d think they’d be nervous, but they weren’t. They did great.”
It is the kind of pressure that they will have to overcome one day in order to play in front of 80,000 at the Westfalenstadion.
There is one part of the centre that stands apart, though. As we pass Jadon Sancho, transferred from Manchester City at 17, getting a rub-down, we head to the Footbonaut. This unique piece of equipment sets Dortmund apart from other German clubs, with the exception of Hoffenheim, who also have one.
An Under-19 player at this moment is having footballs hurled at him at speeds in excess of 75 kph, and his job is to sense which of the four walls is launching the ball, trap it and send it into a lit panel, which will be one of the 64 present, 16 on each wall. All this must be done in a second or lesser, depending on the set speed.
The contraption is ominous, and even lets out a warning signal before firing footballs at you but the real test is the one against time. Kirk says that this is an excellent way not just to train, but also recuperate from serious injuries.
One can imagine Gotze here, taking one on the chest, turning swiftly and slamming the ball against the opposite wall. With thousands of hours of taking on this machine, you’d expect Germany’s golden boy to pull off that piece of skill with ease.
Acceptance of economic reality
It is obvious that of all the apprentices, only a handful will make it to the top level but, of late, a surge in teenage sensations arriving at the club to realise their potential has seen Dortmund develop a reputation of being master craftsmen.
The Dortmund way has its financial benefits, as seen by the 100-million Euro sale of Ousmane Dembele to Barcelona after just a year. Dortmund are caught in a weird position of attracting Europe’s elite talent but developing and selling them to the financially powerful.
Through sales, Dortmund are the smallest at Europe’s big-fish table but continued re-building has adapted to inevitable departures, Cramer says. When quizzed about the departure of chief scout Sven Mislintat to Arsenal, he states, “We as a club have to be creative, have to be prepared for this type of situation.”
It is this acceptance of an economic reality that has placed extra emphasis on the club’s role in the European ecosystem. Talented batches of youngsters will come and go, but the purpose in practice will always be to unlock a player’s strengths early and unleash them on crucial match-days, testing their mental reserves at a nascent stage of their careers.
Football’s ultimate hipsters
It is difficult to place the attractiveness of this setup down to any one aspect. Perhaps it’s a willingness to try, to simply swim against the tide. When Klopp won his Bundesliga title in 2011, the average age of his squad was a little more than 23.
Alexander Isak, who rejected Real Madrid, and Sergio Gomez, the 2017 Under-17 World Cup’s Silver Ball winner, left Barcelona, both at the age of 17. They could have been playing an age-group Classico but why do that when Dortmund comes calling.
Christian Pulisic, Mahmoud Dahoud, Dan Axel-Zagadou, Manuel Akanji, Felix Passlack and Maximillian Philipp are some of the other hot properties from all around Europe. These are the new kids, they reject the ceremonial spots on the bench to shine in black and yellow.
Instead of being back-up band members, these hipsters would rather rock and roll at football’s heavy-metal factory.
The writer was in Germany as part of the Bundesliga Experience with Star Sports Select.