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Reading the Game

Information about the Book

The writers’ team – Autonoma for short – has created a written testament to their affinity and relationship with Borussia Dortmund. A different writer from the team was invited to each BVB home game in – as The Times describes it – the “best stadium in Europe”. Yet as the season began, no one could have predicted what was in store: memorable Champions League evenings, an inexplicable Götterdämmerung in the league, a bleak midwinter spent in the relegation zone, the shock against Augsburg, an exhilarating derby win, Jürgen Klopp’s resignation, the league comeback, the peculiar cup semi-final against Bayern Munich, and the dream of lifting the DFB-Cup and finishing off the season in style celebrating on Borsigplatz, the public space that is the team’s spiritual home. The Autonoma, who were crowned European champions in Dortmund in 2010 at the Rote Erde stadium, accompanied the black and yellows, die Schwarzgelben as German fans know them, on perhaps the oddest – certainly the most memorable – season in the club’s history: cheering them along, loving them, suffering with them, and in a sense playing every game with them as well.

“Juve were playing imperiously this evening, the Dortmund team in contrast in the same way I imagine the Greek democracies in their final twilight: tired, indecisive, and far too conscious of their own deficiencies. The melancholy way Sokratis lost possession …” — Simon Roloff

A Year in Black and Yellow

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READING
THE GAME

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Edited by Moritz Rinke

Illustrations by Tim Dinter

Translated from the German
by Bryn Roberts

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The wonderful actor Joachim Król once said: “After music, football is the second world language. Wherever I go, I can start a conversation instantly.” This is something I and many of my colleagues experience every day. Evonik will be celebrating only its eighth birthday this September. It is still a young company, in a rather lesser known branch of industry: specialty chemicals. Yet Borussia Dortmund bears our name across the world: to the pubs of London, the ruins of Machu Picchu, the jungles of Vietnam, and the office blocks of Singapore – wherever you go, you will find people wearing the Borussia Dortmund shirt with our logo emblazoned on it. And when the Argentinian minister for industry issued a press release about talks with the Evonik delegation, she didn’t neglect to mention that Evonik is BVB’s primary sponsor – so that not just economic experts, but also the man in the street would have a better idea who she was working with.

It is now undeniable that football has become a global force. And yet Borussia Dortmund seems to retain its peculiar magnetism for football fans the world over. Why do hundreds upon hundreds of British fans, from the “home of football”, fly in to Dortmund for every home game? Why is it that Brazilian football experts regard BVB, above other teams, as the model for the rejuvenation of Brazilian club football? Why do so many fans recognise themselves in BVB and Evonik’s unconventional joint marketing? In short: what is it about this club that inspires so much echte Liebe – true love – at home in Germany and abroad?

Each BVB supporter has their own very personal love story with this unique club, comprising unforgettable moments, highs, lows – all the stuff and drama of real life. This is what inspired us to the invite the Autonoma to attend each Borussia Dortmund home game of the 2014/15 season and to give literary form to their experiences. The results of this unusual meeting of literature and football have been gathered in this book: they represent an emotional and revealing attempt to understand football as a multi-faceted cultural artefact: “total football as total art”, if you will.

When this unique experiment began, no one foresaw that Borussia Dortmund was about to undergo a season of extremes – going from joint-favourites for the title to battling relegation, before recovering to achieve Europa League qualification and reach a cup final. It was white knuckle time for the fans, but the rollercoaster ride of a season was like manna from heaven for the writers. They have provided us with a history of that season from multiple perspectives. They allow us to experience for ourselves, almost as if we were there, what it is that makes a match played in front of die Gelbe Wand – the “Yellow Wall” of hardcore fans in the south stand – the most intense experience in world football for so many people.

This is perhaps why, after such a disappointing season, only at first glance does it seem paradoxical that as a brand, Borussia Dortmund has gained in allure. Or as Sebastian Kehl puts it in his beautifully written epilogue: “When you first read these stories, you wouldn’t believe that we were second bottom at Christmas, because almost all of them convey just how good the atmosphere in the stadium was. What you do understand straight away is just why more than 80 000 people came to every home game despite the crisis on the pitch.” If you had to ask what makes Borussia Dortmund so special, then it’s probably this: there’s no other place like it. It’s a place where you almost feel you could reach out and touch the very essence of football. And this is also the reason we support BVB.

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KLAUS ENGEL

Chairman of the Executive Board, Evonik Industries AG

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We are football lovers all. That’s why it felt like a marriage proposal. No one from my team, the Autonoma, had ever received a proper marriage proposal, but that’s what this bolt from the blue felt like. Borussia Dortmund, one of the most glamorous teams in Europe, was serious, reaching out to us and prepared to go to any lengths: constant companionship match after match, even inviting us to stay the night. For a whole season. And there was even a best man, Markus Langer, the corporate marketing director at Borussia Dortmund’s club sponsor, Evonik. Without him, this heady liaison would never have happened, for he was the matchmaker who brought footballing writers and football institution together.

The Autonoma, or DFB-Autorennationalmannschaft, to give it its full name, rank, and syllable count, was founded in 2005. Sponsored by the German FA’s cultural foundation as a team of writers representing Germany on the football pitch, we'd enjoyed our finest moment to date in 2010 at Dortmund's Kampfbahn Rote Erde – the Red Earth Stadium – where we were crowned European champions. What could be more fitting then, than to institutionalise a pilgrimage to Dortmund, the scene of our greatest triumph. After all, Red Earth Stadium is literally next-door to Signal Iduna Park, which for several years now has been playing host to a BVB generation playing some jaw-dropping football and winning fans and admirers across the football world.

Good, goal-filled days were on the cards. But by Christmas, it was clear that something wasn’t right, with BVB totalling just 15 points and registering ten defeats (mostly one-nils at home) – even Hamburg, Hertha Berlin and Freiburg had lost fewer games. We had taken a princess as our bride, but with half the season gone she had turned out to be a frog. Only at night, during the Champions League campaign, did she retain her old beauty.

Relationship drama wasn’t long in coming. At first, her behavioural patterns seemed to be repeating themselves: a one-nil defeat at home to Augsburg, and an anti-climactic round of sixteen departure from the Champions League. Then, a day after Günter Grass passed away, manager Jürgen Klopp announced that he would be leaving Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season (and doubled the sense of national gloom). In the league, however, “Miss Home Defeat”, as we had dubbed our bride, was enjoying a makeover that transformed her back into the tasty number we led up the aisle before the season started. Dortmund leapt ten places up the table and played their way to the cup final in Berlin, even tripping up the Bavarian giant in the process.

It was quite possibly the most curious and crazy season that any Bundesliga team has ever been through – and we were there with them every step of the way with our Evonik Wortsport (“word sport”) column on the BVB website. It was a season of football that had more in common with the writer’s craft than you might imagine, dominated as it was by one central leitmotif: the mental block. Typing and cross-field balls are one thing, but what happens when you just can’t get your head straight? Writer’s block and a footballer’s incapacity to get his head in the right place are afflictions closely allied when metaphors and the high press suddenly lose all potency. (After all, the “BVB as a bride” metaphor doesn’t really work either).

All this only made BVB more loveable. Of course, it wasn’t just a case of the yips: their ongoing injury crisis also played its part, though that’s hardly unfamiliar territory either, given that from a squad of 35 player-writers, only 13 at the most seem to be fit at any one time.

Permacrocked both physically and mentally! Of course, the suspicion started to creep up on us that we might be the albatross around the team’s neck, that our presence on the touchline was cursed. One of our players, a passionate BVB fan, suggested that enough was enough and that we should call a halt to the project immediately, Dortmund having started to play like we did.

At the end of the day, we managed to stick out all the crises. Many of our writers are actually Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Eintracht Frankfurt or Cologne fans. While the sports pages might have started piling on the schadenfreude – certainly after the one-nil loss to Augsburg – you won’t find anything of that nature in this book. On the contrary: we start off with astonishment, disbelief, black magic (one of our writers was convinced that black algae’s Triffid-like invasion of the Signal Iduna turf lay at the heart of the problem, the algae being considered a harbinger of disease and destruction back home on the shores of the Baltic). This gradually developed into a state of unceasing vicarious suffering, and finally, raw panic.

The writer who attended the said Augsburg game just so happens to be an FC Augsburg supporter. Did he enjoy the win? In fact, he turned up to training with tears in his eyes, telling us how much he and BVB had suffered. In his play Torquato Tasso, Goethe had the eponymous Italian poet say something very much along the lines of “When a club was silenced in its agony, there came a god to tell us how it suffers.” Truly, we were turning into the Borussian Torquato Tasso.

One passage in this book is particularly revealing. One of the authors, a Stuttgarter Kickers fan, took his daughter with him to Signal Iduna Park after she came home from kindergarten one day and made a shock announcement that she supported Borussia Dortmund. In the 80th minute of the match against Hamburg (of course, the score was one-nil to Hamburg) she said: “They’ve got to score a goal now too!” In injury time (90+6), the follow up: “We lost.”

Somehow, we all went through the same evolution as that little girl. At first, we were only observers, but at some point, we all became part of events. “We lost,” I would often say to my wife. “What? Bremen have lost again?” she would say. “No, no, Dortmund,” would be my reply. Suddenly, I had two teams that always lost.

Of course, there were magic moments as well: the home game against Schalke, Sebastian Kehl’s magnificent half-volleyed winner in the cup quarter-final against Hoffenheim, and Marco Reus’ sensational assist – struck with the outside of his right boot from almost the left touchline – for Aubameyang against Mainz 05. It was one of those passes that makes you fall in love with the game all over again. It was a pass like one of those passages that sometimes just work, when the pass(age), written seemingly by foot rather than by hand, springs up high and powerful and whips directly to the reader. Our correspondent, a gifted midfielder, recorded his admiration: “We mere mortals can only dream about playing a pass like that.”

We grew very close to the squad. We cheered them on, we shared in the euphoria, and yes, the pain too, like Tasso, and in a way we shared the pitch with them as well: most of our training consisted of analysing and re-enacting BVB’s goals against. And – and I think it’s safe for Kloppo to hear this now – we (and they) had our fair share to drink as well. BVB legend SK5 drank us under the table at his leaving do, the ravishing Mrs Weidenfeller handed out cigarettes, and Mr Schmelzer was ever ready with a light. We also raced through the Ruhr in players’ sports cars. I even went to the Ruhrfestspiele festival with one of the players, Oliver Kirch. We saw Antigone performed on stage – and afterwards flirted with Juliette Binoche, who had played the title role.

To be fair, it seems that with a team like Borussia Dortmund, anything is possible. Let’s face it, this is a club that turns you on.

Admittedly, it wasn’t all rum and skittles. When one of our writers declared in an interview that BVB was a “sect”, since in his opinion it had let itself become far too reliant on its manager, this went decidedly too far for the chief executive. That’s the way it is though; a marriage has to be able to survive tiffs like these. And it did.

Though this book might conclude with defeat in the cup final, it begins with a triumph: and if that triumphant day persists as living folklore, like a dream that never faded away, if people still talk about the 1989 cup final like our acclaimed black and yellow guest writer does – imagine what stories people will one day tell about this crazy season.

Football has a memory like an elephant. The games, wins, decisive goals and defeats all live in that memory. That is the beautiful thing about football. Those who love football retain something of childhood, they remain ever young at heart, ever at play. And no one knows when or where this love might strike. Our acclaimed guest poet from Berlin took her grandson to see the cup semi-final in Dortmund in 2014. BVB played Wolfsburg and won 2–0, and that was it for her grandson. One year later, in Berlin, with Wolfsburg again the opponents, he remained fixed to his seat after the cup final, bawling his eyes out; his grandmother could hardly get him out of the stadium.

Love, tears, the inability to tear yourself away from the pitch – maybe this is the reason we write books about football.