“If we win, we will not be the best team in the world – we will have beaten the best team in the world.” So said Jurgen Klopp, manager of Borussia Dortmund, ahead of his squad’s Saturday showdown against rivals Bayern Munich in the final of the European Champions League, the world’s preeminent club soccer competition. The game’s global TV audience is bigger than the Super Bowl‘s. Klopp is being justifiably humble—his team are rank underdogs for the game, which will be played at London‘s Wembley Stadium. Bayern, who conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the final last year against English side Chelsea, are the New York Yankees of German soccer, an evil empire buttressed by unmatched finances, a peerless pedigree and a superpower’s sense of entitlement; they dominated the German domestic league this year, finishing 25 points ahead of Klopp’s Dortmund.
A massive club with a vociferous fanbase, Dortmund are hardly minnows—before this year, they pipped Bayern to the Bundesliga title two years in a row. In 1997, Dortmund won the Champions League, claiming a trophy a lot of other top European clubs don’t have in their cabinets.
But the dichotomies are easy to sketch: Bayern is the moneyed side from stodgy, conservative Bavaria; Dortmund is the people’s club from Germany’s industrial heartland. Bayern’s home stadium is a space-age bubble; Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is one of the more venerable grounds in Europe, with a vast standing room-only terrace known as the “Yellow Wall.” Bayern splashes the cash, buying up swaggering superstars and the top talent from rival teams; Dortmund, in recent years, has found success in nurturing youth, staying away from debt and building a team ethic. Unsurprisingly, if there’s one thing in Klopp’s favor, it’ll be the overwhelming support of neutrals around the world.
Both teams are terrific to watch, though, and taught global juggernauts like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid footballing lessons on the road to Wembley. Their joint success this year in European competition marks a particularly triumphant moment for German soccer and its top soccer league. Bayern boasts the terrifying winger duo of France’s Franck Ribery and Holland’s Arjen Robben and a midfield spine of Bastian Schweinsteiger, an elite player for the better part of a decade, and the classy Spaniard Javi Martinez. This year, when in their pomp, they seem unbeatable. The final will hinge on how Dortmund’s 22-year-old Ilkay Gundogan, a talented central midfielder of Turkish origin, matches up against Schweinsteiger, the man some say he’s bound to replace in the German national team. Among the strikers on show, Dortmund’s Polish beanpole Robert Lewandoski is the attacker most in form, but Bayern’s powerful Croat center forward Mario Mandzukic has been a devastating success in his debut year with the Bavarian giants.
The one player on everyone’s mind, though, won’t be on the pitch. Mario Gotze, 20, is a twinkle-toed attacking phenomenon. He has been on Dortmund’s books since the age of eight. Klopp brought Gotze into the side as a teen and has been slowly sculpting the squad around him; Gotze is expected to play a talismanic role for Germany’s national team in the coming years. But next season, Gotze will line up for Bayern Munich, not Borussia Dortmund.
In April, just a day after Dortmund beat Malaga in an epic Champions League quarterfinal, Bayern activated a release clause in Gotze’s contract by paying Dortmund 37 million euros. Gotze didn’t have to accept the lucrative new contract then dangled by Bayern, but he did. Klopp had raised Gotze like a son since joining Dortmund in 2008. He was shattered. “It was like a heart attack,” Klopp told reporters. “I couldn’t sleep.” Dortmund’s faithful made their feelings of betrayal clear with a banner telling Gotze to “F— off.” Gotze is injured, but it’s hard not to believe that this is an awkward encounter with his soon-to-be employers he would rather avoid.
Klopp, who turned Dortmund back into an elite club after half a decade of obscurity and financial crisis, has been able to cope with departures in the past. His is a team bursting with energy and charisma, which plays a frenetic, pressing game with silky-smooth passing and electrifying counter attacks. If one player leaves, chasing riches elsewhere, another usually slots in. Everyone seems to buy into the game plan engineered by the mop-haired, bespectacled Klopp, a man likened by one British journalist to a “shambling English literature teacher.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Klopp articulated his vision for the game, linking it to the supposed values of the Ruhr Valley working-class:
Here people demand that the team should play with the attributes that are closest to my heart: with a lot of feeling and with intensity until the very last minute. We want to play the kind of football people remember.
It’s likely Klopp’s boys will put on a courageous, memorable show on Saturday. But tens of millions tuning in will hope it’s a victorious one.