By J Hutcherson (May 26, 2020) US Soccer Players – In 1996-97 Borussia Dortmund became the unlikely champions of Europe. At the time, the Champions League was still a new format to answer an old question. Who was the best team in Europe? That now required a group stage. Dortmund took full advantage, shining the light on a club that wasn’t as well known outside of Germany and becoming the first Bundesliga team to win the trophy since the Bayern Munich dynasty of the mid-1970s. Still, it’s worth asking how good that Borussia Dortmund team really was.
Germany last factored in the European Cup turned Champions League when Bayern Munich lost the 1986-87 title to Porto. The early era of the Champions League belonged to clubs from other leagues, with Ligue 1, Serie A, and the Eredivisie producing winners. Though Bayern Munich dominated the Bundesliga, the best German players headed to bigger paychecks in other leagues. Mostly Serie A, that draining of talent impacted play at European level. Borussia Dortmund was the surprise German champion in 1994-95 and repeated the following season. Dortmund won their group in the 1995-96 Champions League, exiting in the quarterfinals to defending champions and eventual finalists Ajax. That turned out to be a lesson in the work needed to navigate the knockout stage.
For years, reminding people that Jovan Kirovski played for a Champions League winner was almost a cliche of American soccer fandom. He did and they did in an era where Americans at top level clubs were just beginning to take hold. Since no one has yet to match Kirovski at Dortmund in 1996-97, that season remains the best for any American player in European soccer. Kirovski was one of a handful of foreign players in that squad. Only Swiss international Stephane Chapuisat would start the Champions League final. Lars Ricken and Karl-Heinz Riedle were the major offensive contributors in the Champions League that season with four goals apiece, but no Dortmund player was near the top of the Bundesliga scoring table. That wasn’t a new situation. During the 1995-96 title run, Michael Zorc scored 15 times for Dortmund with four players ahead of him. The previous season, it was Zorc again with 15 goals with six players in front of him. What Dortmund lacked in offense they made up for with the same type of balance that wins titles then and now. They didn’t have to lead the league in scoring when they were letting in so few goals. Goalkeeper Stefan Klos played with Matthias Sammer as a sweeper and Carsten Wolters as a defensive midfielder locking down the obvious connections. With Jurgen Kohler at center back and Stefan Reuter on the wing, the Dortmund defense was the key to their success. Kohler, Reuter, and midfielder Steffen Freund would make Germany’s World Cup squad in 1998.
Champions League Group B
Ottmar Hitzfeld’s squad succeeded on that balance. Drawn into Group B with Atletico Madrid, Widzew Lodz, and Steaua Bucharest, it became clear that Atletico and Dortmund would decide who finished top. They didn’t face each other until the third matchday, both on six points and with Dortmund the surprise 1-0 winner at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. Atletico returned the favor with a 2-1 win at the Westfalenstadion. Both teams drew in matchday five, finishing with 13 points and Atletico winning the group with a better goal difference. Dortmund had played Steaua the season before in Group C, drawn along with a powerhouse Juventus and a disappointing Rangers. Dortmund had lost to Juventus at home before beating them 2-1 away on matchday five. Over their 1995-96 Champions League run, Dortmund lost three out of four games to the eventual finalists.
The knockout stage
It’s no knock against Auxerre that Borussia Dortmund liked what they saw in their group stage draw. Atletico as Group C champions would take defending champions Ajax to extra time before eventually falling. Dortmund beat Auxerre 3-1 at home and 1-0 away to move to the semifinals. Manchester United waited, having no trouble knocking out Porto with a 4-0 home win. This was the United of Eric Cantona with the rest of the roster already familiar names. Cantona would make way for the David Beckham generation, but Beckham, Giggs, Solskjaer, and the Neville brothers were already key parts of Alex Ferguson’s squad. Dortmund took a 1-0 lead with a goal from Rene Tretschok. Lars Ricken made it 1-0 in the 8th minute at Old Trafford, with the score holding and Dortmund advancing 2-0 on aggregate. On the other side of the bracket, Juventus saw off Ajax 4-1 on aggregate in a rematch of the previous season’s final. Dortmund would face the defending champions.
Meanwhile, in the Bundesliga
The 2006-07 Bundesliga season wasn’t going Dortmund’s way. After finishing 6th in 1994-95 and 2nd the previous season Bayern Munich reemerged as the team to beat in the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund was well back of 2nd-place Bayer Leverkusen but with an important caveat. The Champions League would now take two teams from the Bundesliga, but the Champions League winner defended their title regardless of the table. If Dortmund won the Champions League, their Bundesliga finish went from a significant problem to a slight disappointment.
Borussia Dortmund vs Juventus
The 1996-97 Champions League final was a mismatch, pitting experience versus what may or may not have been an emerging power in European soccer. Juventus would end up playing in three consecutive Champions League finals, winning only the first. Their defense of that 1995-06 title seemed likely in advance of the May 28, 1997 finale at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. A German city hosting the final was good news for Borussia Dortmund and their legion of supporters, but this was still Juventus’s stage. Instead, it was Karl-Heinz Riedle putting on the show. Riedle scored in the 29th and 34th minutes, ultimately putting the game away before halftime. Alessandro Deo Piero pulled a goal back for Juventus in the 65th, with Lars Ricken scoring Dortmund’s third in the 71st minute. Borussia Dortmund was the first Bundesliga club since 1976 to life the trophy.
So how good was Borussia Dortmund in 1996-97?
The best version of the club during the mid-90s but one also showing why it couldn’t compete for multiple titles. Dortmund would try a technical staff change and partial offensive rebuild to defend its Champions League trophy. It didn’t work. With the balance off, the best team in Europe the previous season would finish in 10th-place tied on points with the 11th-place club in the Bundesliga. Things went better in the Champions League, advancing as Group A winners and knocking out Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. Dortmund lost to eventual champions Real Madrid in the semifinals, bringing an end to its first ambitious era. That might be the most important takeaway. Dortmund showed that it was possible to put the Champions League first and succeed. The safety net of extra Champions League places made that a hallmark of the major leagues moving into the current era. With four group stage spots in Europe’s biggest domestic leagues, winning the title is now secondary. That started with Borussia Dortmund going all in on the Champions League in 1996-97.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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