LONDON WEMBLEY- Italian journalist Alessandro Schiavone interviews Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke ahead of Tottenham Hotspur vs Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League
Dortmund’s CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke is wearing the club’s official tracksuit and Nike trainers as he arrives early for our meeting in the lobby of a five-star hotel that hosted Borussia Dortmund during their Champions League away game to Tottenham Hotspur.
The hotel was based a stone’s throw away from the iconic Wembley Stadium, where Dortmund lost their Champions League final to Bayern Munich in 2013.
Wearing an expensive-looking watch, Watzke is polite and smiles easily, though he offers glimpses of pain and anxiety everytime he throws a glance at the new Wembley Stadium.
Despite exuding an aura of greatness, Watzke looked tense during the interview conduced on the eve of the star-studded Champions League clash as his body language revealed the anxiety he felt at playing at Wembley yet again.
Back in 2013, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and former boy Mario Mandzukic condemned his club to a bitter 2-1 defeat in their then first European final in sixteen years.
Thus, making amends and getting off to a flying start was on his agenda but he was fully aware of the difficulities of the task ahead. That said, he is no stranger to complicated missions.
Before he was named the club’s new chief executive in 2005, Dortmund had found themselves in the middle of a dramatic financial meltdown and on the verge of bankruptcy but it was appointment that saved the club from forced relegation to the fourth tier of German football.
Not only were Dortmund suffering financial repercussions off the field, but the club also had to deal with managerial issues following Ottmar Hitzfeld’s departure for the mighty Bayern in 1997 only two weeks after beating Juventus in the Champions League final, their first and last to this day. From 2002 and 2005, Dortmund were a club in disarray both sportingly and financially.
Yet, Watzke’s importance for the club’s renaissance from the ashes is impossible to overstate. In twelve years he has taken a team marked for mediocrity for years to come to heights unimagined : Two Bundesliga titles, a Champions League final, several German cups and the emergence of a wealth of superstars.
Dortmund teams are famed for playing with their handbrake off. They go full throttle, entertain the crowds and regularly outscore the opponents by two or more goals. In the past, manager Jurgen Klopp gave his players the freedom to express themselves on the ball but demanded total commitment when they were in dispossession. And despite managerial changes over the years, this hasn’t changed. Dortmund will never play a conservative style of football.
Thomas Tuchel and Peter Bozs, the managers who succeeded Klopp at Dortmund, knew that they would not endear themselves to the public if they changed the football philosophy from attacking to defending and stuck to offensive-minded football.
However despite their miraculous rise, Dortmund still remains upmarket selling club. Players join for small fees and quit for high sums in the space of two or three years. Unlike in England, youth integration in German football is spot on and Dortmund must be credited for churning out Gotze, Schmelzer, Grosskreutz and transforming hype into worldclass substance.
Attacking players such as Robert Lewandowski and Dembele joined die Borussia amid whisper of the town and quit as talk of an entire city. Should Aubameyang and Marco Reus leave one day, it will be no different. More often than not, players do not get much attention before heading to the club but when they leave it often coincides with a heartache for Dortmund’s millions of faithful such has been their rise.
Historicaly, once Dortmund players feel that they have outgrown the club they hand in a transfer request with Bayern Munich being the likeliest destination.
It is rare that someone devotes his whole career to the the club. Sebastian Kehl, Dede and Roman Weidenfeller are exceptions to the norm. But they were no superstars. Had Bayern or Real Madrid expressed an interest in them during their heyday…yes you know the outcome.
With Aubameyang, however, it never looked as though he was on the brink of rejoining Serie A giants AC Milan. For the whole summer, the Gabonese superstar had been the subject of much transfer speculations with Milan leading the race and thus for the very fist time since the end of the high-spending transfer window, Watzke dismisses suggestions that his star striker was on his way.
‘To begin with, he was never close to leaving Dortmund’, Watzke said.
‘We are a club that has regularly been playing Champions League football for many many years.
‘Thus the sporting perspectives at Borussia Dortmund are clearly better than at AC Milan for Pierre’, Watzke laments with a proud smile on his face.
‘And as far as I know, Milan don’t play in the Champions League’, he hits out.
His assessment is far from wrong. Milan might have been taken over by a rich Chinese consortium in the summer and the finances are strong again but the club’s fall from grace in recent times has been devastating from a footballing point of view since Milan have vanished from the European map.
Instead of looking like a challenging team, Milan looked challenged between 2012 and 2017 under the old Berlusconi & Galliani hierarchy.
But courtesy of a newly-found strong financial muscle, Milan have gone on a huge squad overhaul in the summer led by Massimiliano Mirabelli and Marco Fassone, the new sporting directors. The pair have time and again spoken in glowing terms of Aubameyang who was the real number one target to strengthen Milan’s striking options in the summer. Neither Belotti and Morata as the press claimed, nor Kalinic and Andre Silva but Auba was singled out to fire Milan back to winning days on domestic and European shores.
The arrivals of Juventus centre-back Leonardo Bonucci, Porto’s jewel in the crown Silva and Bayer Leverkusen’s free-kick ace Hakan Calhanoglu this summer have sown the seeds for a glorious future. Yet, it will take time to blend twelve new players into a system that provides both defensive solidity and offensive potency.
These days, Milan’s reputation around Europe pales compared to the one Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, FC Chelsea or Bayern Munich enjoy. And the 59-year old insists that should a player ever leave his club it will only be for a world-class club. Players will only be allowed to wave farewell to Dortmund in search of bigger fortunes.
‘For us it never came into question that Auba leaves’, Watzke was quoted as saying.
‘We always wanted him to stay and managed to tie him down. And we’re happy about that’.
‘If someone really leaves us then it will only be for a big gun. Manchester United, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich for instance.
‘Those are teams that have what it takes to go all the way in the Champions League.’
Milan’s interest in Aubameyang irritated the club during a turbulent summer in which rising superstar Dembele already decided to turn his back on the club that nurtured him from Mister Nobody to one of old continent’s most sought-after attacking midfielders.
Thus, Watzke has sufficient swagger and is outspoken enough to put Milan back in its place. He looks at the bigger picture.
‘Milan don’t play in the Champions League, sportingly it would have been a step back for him, wouldn’t it?’
But is the door closed for good? Are there any margins that this could change in the future? Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that the striker was keen on rejoining the club he played for as a teenager. And he even took to social medias to make his feelings clear at the end of August’ I want to rejoin Milan but they (the Milan hierarchy) are sleeping’, Aubameyang responded to a Milan fan who asked him about a possible return.
‘He never said anything to us so directly that he wants to leave’, Watzke continued when pressed further.
‘But I will not rule out that it can happen in the future.
‘Milan’s offer this summer was huge but we will not reveal how much it was.
‘Aubameyang has a long contract and only we will decide the to do’s. The future is unpredictable.’
Aubameyang will turn 29 next summer and thus if Milan manage to get back into the Champions League, it would definitely help increase the likelihood for Watzke to eventually let him go.
Dortmund regularly sell their best players before they reach their sell-by date and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it happens yet again.
Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons