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Dortmund plot Champions League final shock after adapting to thrive


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All week, and by small degrees, London has been turning yellow and black. Stickers on Tube escalators. Scarves tied to lampposts. A BVB-emblazoned padlock on the banks of the Thames at Westminster. Wide-eyed fans milling through the pubs of Soho, wincing at the beer prices. Trying to soak up every last available morsel of enjoyment from the experience before – you know – the actual football starts.

It’s a largely moot point whether Cheap Borussia Dortmund Football Shirt are the biggest final outsiders in the modern history of the Champions League. Perhaps Internazionale last season, perhaps Liverpool in 2005. Either way, given the opposition, their fifth-placed finish in the Bundesliga and the charmed passage they have enjoyed to the final, few give them a hope at Wembley on Saturday night.

“I believe we have a chance,” their chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, said at Dortmund airport on Friday morning, which as rousing battle cries go, is towards the milder end of the scale.

And if Real Madrid are here for business and business alone, for Dortmund the equation has always been slightly more complex. Since Jürgen Klopp led them to a league and cup double in 2012, they have finished second in the Bundesliga seven times, lost nine out of 14 cup finals. If Dortmund seem to enjoy the journey more than most other clubs, partly this is because the destination has so rarely been kind to them.

Their last Champions League final, also at Wembley in 2013, had a similar ambience. Even at the time their narrow 2-1 defeat by Bayern Munich felt like a high-water mark, the culmination of the project Klopp had so spectacularly set in motion, and so it proved.

One by one the jewels of that brilliant team were picked off. Mario Götze, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski by Bayern; Ilkay Gündogan by Manchester City; the rest by time and decline. Klopp himself hung on, until 2015, exhausted and beaten. Bayern were in the early stages of a run that would eventually end on 11 straight Bundesliga titles. And so, in the foothills of their rivals, Dortmund recognised the need to build something new.

Over the second half of the decade, Dortmund assembled a model that would become the envy of the continent. Teenage talents such as Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham, Erling Haaland and Christian Pulisic were identified, signed and moved on at an eye-watering profit. Dortmund were able to sell themselves to young players as a kind of finishing school: immediate minutes at an elite Champions League standard. It looked great on the balance sheet. Fans got to enjoy thrilling, high-energy football. Everybody won, as long as they were prepared to narrow their definition of “winning”.

15-1024x613.png Dortmund plot Champions League final shock after adapting to thrive

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In the longer term, the Dortmund model had two major flaws. The first was that it essentially reimagined the club as a kind of human clearing house, reimagined the footballer himself as cold asset. Perhaps this was a necessary coping strategy in the shadow of a financially dominant rival. But there is a fine line between adjusting to reality and acquiescing to it, and somewhere amid those seven second places came an internal acceptance that Dortmund had become a club preoccupied with cementing its position rather than challenging it.

The second issue is that much bigger clubs are now fishing in Dortmund’s water. Chelsea’s latest owners have tried to sign pretty much every promising young player in Europe. Manchester United’s new regime are rumoured to be pivoting hard towards a youth-oriented strategy, with a ban on signing players over 25. “Clubs that are financially stronger than us are now discovering our path for themselves,” Dortmund’s sporting director, Sebastian Kehl, said in an interview last year.

Few elite clubs, however, have deployed this strategy more successfully than Dortmund’s opponents at Wembley. Around 2017, the summer when Paris Saint-Germain transformed the transfer market for ever by signing Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, Real Madrid Kids Football Kits began a concerted strategy of focusing on the next generation. In the subsequent seasons Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo, Brahim Díaz, Andriy Lunin, Éder Militão and Eduardo Camavinga – the youthful core of their current squad – all arrived aged 21 or under, all for less than £50m.

Naturally, Dortmund have little chance of competing with the above clubs in terms of wages, fees or blandishments. They can still offer first-team opportunities, and thanks to an elaborate scouting network can still cast their net wider than most – the 16-year-old Ecuadorian midfielder Justin Lerma their latest acquisition. There is still plenty of promise in players such as Julien Duranville (18), Youssoufa Moukoko and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (both 19). But the likelihood is that when the next Bellingham or Haaland emerges, Dortmund will not have the means to attract them. And so they have been forced to adapt again.

The squad that has taken them to Wembley is relatively old by Dortmund standards. Hummels and Marco Reus are 35. The centre-forward Niclas Füllkrug, signed last summer, is 31, Marcel Sabitzer and Emre Can 30, Sébastien Haller 29. There is currently a concerted effort to sign Stuttgart’s prolific striker Serhou Guirassy, who is 28. Meanwhile their two biggest young stars – Sancho and Ian Maatsen – are on loan from the Premier League. They still play high-energy, vertical football. They still value pace on the counterattack. But this is not, by any stretch, the Dortmund of the popular imagination.

The new managing director, Lars Ricken, has an academy background, and yet in a recent interview outlined Dortmund’s transfer priorities in a more competitive market. “Young, hungry players who have market value potential” alongside “a framework of experienced players that young players can lean on”, he explained. “That has to be our way.”

Perhaps this is the curse of being a so-called “model club”: you have to keep innovating, keep shifting, keep striving for new edges. The high-energy pressing style pioneered by Klopp becomes standard practice, and so you find a new way. Your youth-oriented model gets shamelessly copied by bigger rivals, and so you need to move on. Perhaps the next undervalued growth area is the 25-30 range, players such as Sabitzer and Can who have already been through bigger clubs but still have plenty of miles left in the tank.

And there is naturally a certain irony in the fact that Dortmund have arrived on the brink of their greatest achievement largely by dismantling the model they spent a decade painstakingly assembling. This is a harder and more malleable team than their predecessors, better able to ride out the tough moments, more comfortable spending long periods of time without the ball, more explicitly oriented towards the result rather than the process.

Of course, none of this may be enough on Saturday night. Madrid’s annual revenue is about twice that of Dortmund’s, their experience and pedigree unmatchable, their sense of self-destiny unimpeachable. And yet out of this seemingly hopeless scenario springs a golden opportunity. Win this final, and never again will Dortmund be known as the perennial bridesmaids, the eternal seconds, the arch-bottlers. Under the Wembley arch, Dortmund have a chance not just to make history, but to write themselves a new future.

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