Can Borussia Dortmund defy the odds and sustain its form?
"Everything that's modern is also ephemeral," Matthias Sammer said Tuesday. It's a pretty strange world view -- easily rebutted by anyone who's ever been to a museum of modern art or used electricity -- but does the former Borussia Dortmund player and manager have a point when it comes to the more narrow confines of Bundesliga football?
Sammer wasn't explicitly referring to Borussia Dortmund, but Jürgen Klopp's team is certainly a very modern side, in the sense that it's young, innovative, trained scientifically and all about collective patterns of play. Dortmund has great players, too, to be sure, although few of them would automatically get into a top European team. The team's true quality lies in the way the individual parts relate to and enhance each other. Klopp has hit upon a magic formula that's constantly evolving, in line with the ingredients.
There's every chance that Klopp's methods, if not Borussia's high-octane pressing, will become the new orthodoxy in due course. Plenty of young coaches, including Maniz 05's Thomas Tuchel, already work in a similar manner. Sammer, a man who often seems still stuck in the late 1980s, is patently wrong to dismiss this progressive approach as some modish fad, and his reactionary statement might well have diminished his chances to take over a big club in the future.
Barring some unthinkable collapse, Dortmund is only a few more wins away from writing history. It will win the championship, in a manner that's been unexpected, thrilling and unforgettable. Supporters and neutrals alike will remember this team with fond memories. If you look at the core of the squad -- defenders Mats Hummels, 22, Neven Subotic, 22; midfielders Sven Bender, 21, Nuri Sahin, 22, Shinji Kagawa, 21 and Mario Götze, 18 -- each player has more than a decade of football in front of him. Every sign suggests they'll be anything but a flash in the pan. After flirting with insolvency a few years ago, Dortmund can feasibly look forward to another golden era.
But there's also a potential problem, and in a way, Sammer has unwittingly hit upon it. In German football, too much quality can often be detrimental for a team, a curse in disguise. Apart from Bayern Munich, which has finished atop the table every other season for the last 40 years, no one's been able to successfully negotiate the trappings of success on a consistent basis.
The reasons for this inconsistency are varied and plentiful but the pattern is set. Take Stuttgart, the 2007 champion, a great, youthful team. Today it's languishing in 17th place, in acute danger of going down to the Second Division. Ditto Wolfsburg, the 2009 champion. Bremen, the 2004 winner, looked like a team that could become the second force in the Bundesliga behind Bayern a while back, but now it, too, is in danger of going down. Leverkusen, a 2002 Champions League finalist, hasn't qualified for the competition in seven years. Schalke is on a constant roller coaster, and even Dortmund itself is a good example: It's been an also-ran since winning the championship in 2002.
There's a chance the fluctuation is a by-product of the league's tight financial regulations. Put crudely, clubs can only spend the money they generate and are thus very sensitive to the inflationary pressures (on wages and transfer fees) that come with sporting progress. Dortmund, too, will have to adjust its budget to reflect the new star status of most of its players. Getting the numbers just right -- they need to be high enough to ward off other suitors but low enough to ensure that you're not suddenly dependent on continued Champions League qualification -- will be difficult balancing act.
Borussia will have its work cut out to deal with the aftermath of this barnstorming season. As the first German champion-elect of the Twitter age, worldwide attention has been instant and frenzied. Every player on the team has been linked with countless European clubs. The rumors and discussions in fan forums often betray a sense of entitlement: There's an assumption that all these young, relative unknowns will instantly jump at the opportunity to play in England or Italy.
Götze, widely seen as the biggest prospect of the bunch, is reportedly on Manchester United's shopping list. Subotic and Hummels were subject of offers from Chelsea in January, and the latter is wanted back by Bayern, which sold him to Dortmund for $6 million in 2008. "I don't want to go there," Hummels insisted in January. But that won't be the end of it. A release clause of $10.8 million makes him a very attractive proposition.
Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios will be tempted most easily, because as a slightly older and foreign player, he doesn't quite share the strong bond of friendship and togetherness that runs through the dressing room.
The biggest worry of all, however, is the possibility of Klopp's defecting. The former Mainz coach was once again linked with the Bayern job on Wednesday, this time by Franz Beckenbauer.
"He's without question one of the best managers we have in Germany today," said Munich's honorary president. "I can imagine him making the next step and looking for a new challenge in the future."
That future might be upon us quite soon. In 2012, both Bayern's Louis van Gaal and Germany manager Jogi Löw will probably depart. Klopp will be the favorite to follow.
It seems odd if not downright cynical to speculate about the breakup of a team that's barely had a chance to live. But the globalization of football that began with the Bosman ruling in 1995 has dramatically shortened gestation periods. Only a handful of financially powerful clubs are still able to develop teams over two, three years. The rest live in constant fear that their best players will be snatched up. Bayern, for example, would routinely buy its domestic rivals' key personnel to hit two birds with one stone.
For Dortmund, the true test is yet to come. To a season fit for the history books, it must add durability and staying power. Other ambitious Bundesliga teams will see their ascent with apprehension, but German football as a whole has a vested interest in the Black-Yellow's continued welfare. It's best placed to become a genuine challenger to Bayern yet again and create the duopoly that every serious league needs to thrive.