Dortmund fans are often referred to as the best fans in the world, but what makes them so special, and why do they follow their club with such passion? Matt Horsman went undercover to find out.
On Wednesday night, I was fortunate enough to tick off two sizeable items on my footballing bucket list. One was to see a game live at the home of football and the other was to engulf myself in a section of Borussia Dortmund fans to put their unofficial status as the ‘best fans in the world’ to the test.
I was left surprised, but not disappointed.
I was not shocked by the outrageous noise levels, the constant bouncing and the recognisable pop songs that the Dortmund fans have worked into their repertoire – Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ was a personal favourite. I had read and watched video clips of these phenomena before and so, while impressive, they did not surprise me.
What did, however, was that the noise levels, bouncing and pop covers weren’t conditional on an inspirational – or even a winning – performance.
So often British sides can have an electric atmosphere when it suits them. It is easy to sing when you are flying at the top of the league, or when you are hammering a rival 4-0. The fickle nature of the British supporter means a manager can never be more than a few games away from either a standing ovation or a plane being hired to fly over the stadium asking for them to be sacked.
As I walked up row 51 of the away section on Wednesday trying to find my seat I was immediately presented with an example of how this wonderful fanbase differs from those around it. I arrived at my seat only to find someone standing by it, a gentleman by the name of Marcel. I showed him my ticket to prove that I was in the right place, hoping that he had misread his own and was mistakenly sat there. Instead he stared at me before smiling, clapping me on the shoulder and insisting that “in Dortmund we stand.”
And stand we did, rocking and bouncing for the first half before being allowed a fifteen-minute break to rest my weary legs before the second act begun.
This to me was football fandom at its absolute finest. Only once have I been to an away match that came close to this level of partisan support – a Europa League qualifier for my local club Heart of Midlothian away at Anfield. One memory stands out from that night of delirium. The head steward tasked with keeping the Hearts fans in check turned to us at the final whistle and applauded the way we supported our side, as did many of the Liverpool fans in attendance. That night the 800-strong contingent in maroon sang and shouted themselves hoarse and did their club proud as our little engine that could played out a 1-1 draw against one of Europe’s elite.
These two matches are not a fair comparison, however. At Anfield we were (as our songs suggested) ‘on holiday’. This was our Champions League and World Cup final all rolled into one. On such occasions a vociferous support is much easier to produce. We were never expected to get anything from the game and so players and fans alike were freed from the stresses and pressures of expectation. Wednesday night, on the other hand, was a game that Dortmund will have identified as winnable. It was a Champions League group stage match for a club that has become accustomed to these sorts of occasions and the added intimidation of Wembley will have been diluted somewhat by their visit there for the final of the competition in 2013, as well as Tottenham’s previously dismal record at their new home. It was also a night when the Dortmund fans were on the wrong end of a clinical Spurs performance, not to mention the frustrations of two disallowed goals and their own keeper’s apparent inability to defend his near post.
In short, there was no apparent reason why the support from the fans should have been maintained at fever pitch for so long.
No reason other than “Echte Liebe”.
The club’s slogan translates as “true love” and that is the only way to describe the relationship between the club and its fans.
Never before had I witnessed such a symbiotic relationship between players and fans. Their relationship had such a feel of reciprocity to it, as though for Dortmund fans to not be constantly creating this intoxicating atmosphere would be letting their team down just as much as their goalkeeper did for the first two Spurs goals.
There was a professionalism to the fanbase that astounded me and, watching them on Wednesday night, it finally hit home what the famous cliché of the ‘12th man’ looked like. I was absolutely exhausted at the final whistle but the entire section looked as though they could have done it all over again had it been required. Much like a tireless box-to-box midfielder, this twelfth member of the starting line-up was match fit and ready to go above and beyond for its team. At the front of the legion were enormous flagbearers, who rotated throughout the game to ensure that there was no loss of vigour through fatigue. These flags largely obscured the view of the pitch but no one even contemplated complaining or asking them to take a break – the constant support of the team comes before such superficial outcomes as actually seeing the game. Underneath the flagbearers were the chant-leaders with their megaphones. The song list is extensive, the job involves having your back to the action for most of the game and voices must surely be lost. Again not one eyelid is batted at this, the only focus is on supporting the team as effectively as possible.
This selflessness and realisation of the greater importance was refreshing beyond belief. Dortmund have empowered their supporters into feeling like they have a direct influence on the outcome of the game and, from having witnessed it first-hand, it would be difficult to argue against them. No professional footballer could look up at the Yellow Wall and not be inspired to give everything for this club.
At the final whistle, the chanting ceased a little and made way for a hearty round of applause as the players made their way over to the fans to thank them for a stunning performance. Dortmund fans were understandably disappointed and frustrated at the result, but the sense of perspective remained in check. The response was of an experienced veteran choosing to let slide the indiscretions of a young up-and-comer; the veteran fanbase knew that no good would come from giving Peter Bosz’s young side (in footballing terms) unnecessary criticism.
Marcel turned to me after 85 minutes with a look of incredulity on his face at the thousands of Spurs fans heading for the exits. “Why are they leaving?”, he asked me. “What is the point of supporting a team if you do not stay and celebrate a victory?”. Despite my attempt to attribute the exodus to a desire to beat the post-match rush, Marcel looked nonplussed. He simply could not fathom walking away from his beloved Dortmund at any stage of the match.
Despite the relatively dismal defensive performance on show by their side on Wednesday evening, there was never once a sense that the Dortmund fans would stop making a racket. As the slogan suggests, their relationship is true love. True love survives poor performances and mistakes. True love means supporting your partner when they need it the most, being there for the bad times and enjoying the good. There is no better way to summarise the sense of obligation, duty and pride that the Dortmund fans have for their club than with true love. Just like the loyal couple that you root for at the end of a rom-com, the club is invariably rooted for by football fans from all over the world who would love to see this romance succeed and their faith in the romance of football restored.
Dortmund fans may not have classed Wednesday night as a particularly enjoyable occasion, but for me – as a footballing romantic pining for a return to the days when atmospheres were more important to clubs than profits – it was nothing short of spectacular.