On 28 May 1997 – 25 years ago today – Borussia Dortmund achieved their greatest success in the club's history, winning the UEFA Champions League with a 3-1 victory over Juventus. BVB were clearly the underdogs, not only because the Italians were the best team in the world, admired by all the football-playing world at the time, but because the Black and Yellows were travelling to Munich plagued by problems ahead of the final.
By Boris Rupert
Borussia Dortmund had finally delivered the league title to their fans in 1995, before holding their nerve to defend their title in 1996, creating an incredible sense of euphoria around the Borsigplatz as they dominated German football. It was the result of a clear, but expensive transfer policy. The vision of BVB's leadership to make them a major European powerhouse was achieved through the signing of more than half a dozen legionnaires (Stefan Reuter, Matthias Sammer, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Andras Möller, Julio César, Jürgen Kohler and Paulo Sousa) for substantial fees.
Still, no one had really seen the 1996/97 Champions League run coming. BVB had been clearly beaten by Ajax in the quarter-finals the previous year. On the other hand, the poor finish in the league was unexpected. The aim for 1997 had been the "hat-trick" – the third German Bundesliga title in a row. Going into the winter break, Dortmund were still more or less on track, trailing Bayern Munich by only two points.
Only 29 points in the second half of the Bundesliga season
But the second half of the season descended into farce. The German champions suffered six defeats – against Düsseldorf (2-0), Stuttgart (4-1), Gladbach (3-1), Duisburg (3-2), Bielefeld (2-0) and Hamburg (2-1). Only seven clubs lost more games than BVB in the second half of the season, and in the penultimate game of the season away at Hamburger SV, they squandered their last chance to second place, which for the first time that season would also see them qualify for the Champions League.
Yet the main protagonists of the time strongly deny the suggestion that they had invested too much energy and focused solely on the Champions League. Andreas Möller blames terrible luck with injuries for the collapse. "We had to improvise constantly because someone was out injured," he says, "we lost starters every week." In the season in question, Julio César only managed ten league appearances, with Paulo Sousa making only eleven appearances following an operation to repair his patella tendon. Matthias Sammer played 16 games, while Karl-Heinz Riedle managed just 18. "With these serious injury issues, success in the league was out of the question," says Möller. In fact, injuries tore a massive hole in the BVB squad.
Before the final, half the team were doubtful
So ahead of the final of the 42nd edition of Europe's premier club football tournament, it was not only the financial situation that was tense as a result of missing out on at least second place in the league, but also the personnel situation. There was no chance that BVB's most important central defender, Julio César, would feature, and former winner Steffen Freund would also be missing in midfield. They also had to make do without René Schneider in defence.
When the team flew to Munich on Monday, 26 May 1997, Ottmar Hitzfeld did not yet know which of his stars he would be able to select. Andreas Möller (bruised thigh), Karl-Heinz Riedle (shin laceration), Paulo Sousa (knee issues) and Heiko Herrlich (bruised Achilles tendon) were all questionable, along with Matthias Sammer, Stefan Reuter and Jürgen Kohler, who all had muscle issues. Lars Ricken, meanwhile, had to deal with problems of an altogether different kind:
"Even for the quarters and semi-finals, I needed special leave from the Bundeswehr. They were not impressed. And my sergeant major was from Schalke. And I needed four days off to play the final. The weekend before, I forgot to lock my locker. My firearms card was in there. In theory, someone could have picked up my rifle and shot someone. They wanted to put me in a military prison for three days for that. Unfortunately, I had to tell them: I can't – we're playing Juve in the Champions League. So I had to do some night shifts afterwards to make up for it."
Why Hitzfeld decided not to play Feiersinger
Ricken was able to play. And when the players who had been listed as questionable are all declared fit to play, the relief was etched on Hitzfeld's face. "In the end, the result is all that matters, no one remembers which players were out injured. So I knew that evening: we could put out a strong side. Our medical department did an excellent job."
But the coach was struggling with another problem. He was only allowed to pick 16 players – not the 23 that are allowed today. He decided not to select Wolfgang Feiersinger, who had played in all the knockout games and had kept the defence together against Manchester United in the semi-final. "That was one of the hardest decisions in my life. On the one hand, there is the sporting element, on the other, the human element. And, on a human level, it was awful to have to say to him: you're not going to play. Because we had a lot to thank him for. But a final is all about winning, and for that you need the right options on the bench. I chose more attacking players because we were expected to go behind against Juventus. And then more attacking players are more valuable."
Against the best team and with the past against them
Juventus had won the title the previous year, beating Ajax 4-2 on penalties, and were heading into the fifth final of the newly branded UEFA Champions League (or the 42nd European Cup final) as heavy favourites. It was the seventh meeting of the two clubs since 1993 May – that is seven in the space of four years. And the Black and Yellows had managed only one win – in a match that Juventus had nothing to play for. They also had a 2-2 draw in the 1995 UEFA Cup semi-final and four defeats.
The game started as expected: Borussia found themselves largely on the defensive, working frantically and under pressure, but, cheered on by more than 30,000 of their own fans at the Munich Olympic Stadium (there were 59,000 spectators in total), they tried to take the strain off their defence at least sporadically.
In the early stages, Paul Lambert struggled to get to grips with Zinedine Zidane, and the Frenchman began starting attack after attack. After a cross from Christian Vieri, Vladimir Jugovic goes down in a challenge with Stefan Reuter around the penalty spot, but referee Sandor Puhl waves play on. In the fourth minute, it is a set piece situation that poses the greatest danger: Juliano heads a Zidane corner just wide. A little later, Vieri hits the outside netting.
It takes a good quarter of an hour for the Black and Yellows to force Juve's foot off the gas and calm things down a little. The attacks are not as fluid as usual, but the quick counter-attacks are already providing a hint of where there might be a chance this evening. The fact that the players are covering every blade of grass and throwing themselves into every challenge as if it were their last goes without saying.
Riedle scores a brace, Juventus ramp up the pressure
Then came the 29th minute. The Italians fend off one of those counter-attacks at the expense of a corner. Andreas Möller fires the ball into the penalty area. Goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi gets a fist to it, and another Juventus player flicks it further out wide. It is out wide on the right, outside the penalty area, but finds a Dortmund player in acres of space: Lambert floats in a delicate cross, Riedle cushions the ball on his chest and fires in a left footed strike from the edge of the six-yard box – it's 1-0! Riedle had beaten two Italians to the ball, and he gave the goalkeeper no chance. In their eleventh game of the 1996/97 Champions League season, Borussia had once again scored the first goal of the match. Juve were behind for the first time – and shortly afterwards they were facing another corner: Chapuisat had forced the corner after a one-two with Möller, and again it is Möller who crosses it in, again from the left side. Riedle meets the ball, this time with a powerful header from eight yards out that again finds the back of the net. After 34 minutes, Borussia Dortmund are leading 2-0 against the heavy favourites.
Juventus respond with a flurry of attacks. Zidane hits the post with a shot from 17 yards, and Vieri has a goal disallowed for handball. With luck, skill and a lot of desire, BVB hang on to the lead as the half-time whistle sounds. Hitzfeld is still nervous: "Juventus had an outstanding team that boasted the best player on the pitch in Zidane. It was clear that we had to continue to defend and wait for a counter."
Riedle heads just over from Möller's free-kick cross. At the other end, Stefan Klos parries a violent shot by Alen Boksic brilliantly, then tips a deflected and therefore immensely tricky shot from Vieri on to the crossbar. On 64 minutes, however, the Black and Yellows can do nothing to stop Juventus pulling one back. Boksic beats Jörg Heinrich down the left. His cross seems like a poor one, behind the run of young star Alessandro Del Piero, who had just come on at the break, but Del Piero flicks the ball with his back heel into the BVB goal in a show of incredible technique and flair.
Ricken comes on with a plan
Borussia Dortmund, however, find the perfect response. Ottmar Hitzfeld turns to his first super-sub: on 70 minutes, he sends Lars Ricken on to the field for Chapuisat, who had run himself into the ground. "I feel sorry for Lars Ricken, because he was the best super-sub! He was the biggest trump card I could play. He deserved to play from the start, but I chose the more tactical option. And I knew from experience that when he comes off the bench, he's even better than when he plays from the start."
"Of course, I was a little disappointed because I had scored the first goal against both Manchester United and Auxerre. But I wasn't grumpy or annoyed that he put me on the bench. That was simply the great strength of Ottmar Hitzfeld. He explained to me why I wasn’t playing, but that he would definitely need me at some point in the course of the game. After all, we would need a goal at any point in time – either because we are narrowly leading, or because we have to make up a deficit. At that level, a lot of games are decided on what you can bring on from the bench. I tried to make the others feel really good and knew that I would come in at some point. And I wanted to be as prepared as possible for that moment. From the bench, I saw that Peruzzi was standing really far out of his goal all the time and I came on, thinking: if you get the ball, shoot it at the goal straight away. It is crazy that the situation then developed exactly as it did and that was actually the best chance to do it. And it only came about because the guy marking me left me and tried to pressure Andy instead. If he doesn't do that, that goal doesn't go in!"
Eight seconds between coming on and scoring
Juventus restart the game with a throw-in, but before Boksic gets to the ball, Paulo Sousa has already robbed him of it. He instantly plays it on to Möller, who sees the hole in the Juventus defence, playing the ball perfectly through the gap. Ricken runs on to it, looks up at Peruzzi, who is well off his line. He takes aim from the inside-right, about 28 yards out, and curls it into the top right corner – a dream goal after a perfect counter-attack! Ricken had only been on the pitch for eight seconds. Eight seconds! RTL commentator Marcel Reif, who, a split-second before Ricken's shot, had called for him to "lob him, now!", says: "These are fairy tales, this can't be real life. The Brothers Grimm are turning in their grave."
For Juventus, however, there were no more fairy-tale comebacks in this game. The scoreboard still reads 3-1 as the final whistle blows. Italy's most dominant side cannot recover from the second two-goal deficit – even if Hitzfeld is worried to the end. "Right down to the last second, I was nervous. You can never ease up as a head coach. History has shown us what can happen in the last few minutes. And you are playing Juventus, who can score two goals in two minutes. Injury time seems to go so slowly when you are in the lead. If you're behind, it goes by in a flash."
There are only brief problems to resolve before the trophy is presented. As the long-serving captain Michael Zorc was only subbed on in the 89th minute, Matthias Sammer, his deputy, continues to wear the armband. The team urges Zorc up to the podium to be the first to hold the trophy aloft. But Zorc protests, before Sammer speaks up: "Just get up there!"
The final whistle as BVB coach
"It was a very, very difficult decision to keep such a deserving player as Michael Zorc on the bench in this final," said Ottmar Hitzfeld 25 years later: "And I was always going to bring him on. When you are given the trophy, the captain has to get it."
It would be a long night in Munich. "When you have achieved something major with the fans, with the team, with the people in charge, it is something special. Then you have to enjoy the moment. And that's what I did," said Ottmar Hitzfeld. "The celebrations were a real experience. The fact that I had a cigar in my mouth, even though I'm a non-smoker, and a spiked helmet on my head, shows that I enjoyed the moment. Very much so."
The 3-1 win against Juventus would be Hitzfeld's last of 273 matches as head coach of Borussia Dortmund. A few days later, he moved to the newly created position of sporting manager. The following season, he would return to the coaching bench – this time at Bayern Munich.
But 28 May 1997 remains the greatest sporting achievement in the life of the most successful German coach (alongside Udo Lattek). "Winning the Champions League with a club that has been waiting so long to win a European final is for me the highest and most significant success of my career. The journey to the final with Borussia Dortmund was epic. And to beat Juventus, the best team of that time, with Zinedine Zidane, was like a fairy tale."