No-one played so many games for Borussia Dortmund, only Adi Preißler scored more goals. No-one wore the captain's armband for so long, no-one celebrated as many titles as Michael Zorc. 44 years at the club; 20 as a player, 24 as sporting director. The end of this season will mark the end of an era.
Germany, 1978. Helmut Schmidt is the Chancellor; the handball team are crowned world champions; the football team are in chaos after the "Disgrace of Córdoba'' and "safehouse" is the word of the year.
Dortmund in 1978: the first signs of change are beginning to show in the city of steel and beer. Many of the once 116 mines are now closed. But the chimneys are still smoking, a seemingly endless procession of goods trains loaded with coal rumble along the railway line to the iron and steel factories. Borussia - the city's biggest and most important football club - have been playing back in the top tier for two years, but are still recovering from a shock 12-0 humiliation at the hands of Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of the season.
Eving, 1978. The Minister Stein and Fürst Hardenberg coal mines are (still) the biggest employers in this area in the north of the Ruhr region's largest city. In the dry summer, the dusty ashes blow over the Eckey Stadium. The gravel pitch is the home of TuS Eving-Lindenhorst. From here, three youth players will make the step-up to join Borussia Dortmund. They will all win the UEFA Champions League with BVB in 1997. Before Stefan Klos and long before Lars Ricken, it is Michael Zorc who leaves his boyhood club in the summer of 1978. Little did he know that he would go on to shape the history of the first club from Germany to win a European trophy in a way that no other player before him had done.
No one has played as many competitive games for BVB as Zorc (572), only Adi Preißler scored more goals (159). No one wore the captain's armband longer (nine years, from 1988 to 1997), no one celebrated more important title wins. With Michael Zorc, BVB were crowned champions of Germany in 1995, 1996, 2002, 2011 and 2012, won the DFB-Pokal winners in 1989, 2012, 2017 and 2021 and lifted both the UEFA Champions League and the Club World Cup in 1997 - the all-important opening goal in the final in Tokyo was scored by fan-favourite Michael Zorc.
His CV shows only one change of club: from TuS Eving-Lindenhorst to Borussia Dortmund. You will struggle to find more loyalty and identification. Even in his amateur days, long before his transfer to BVB, the young Zorc stood in the south stand and cheered on the Black & Yellows. "I grew up in a suburb of Dortmund, in Eving. Every boy there dreamt of playing for BVB one day. I'm glad that I spent my whole career with BVB. Plus the titles came towards the end."
In 1981, Zorc was part of the West Germany squad that won both the UEFA U18 European Championship and the FIFA Youth World Cup. At the latter tournament, held in Australia, both he and Dortmund teammate Ralf Loose appeared in all six matches. Then, on 24 October 1981, BVB coach Branko Zebec handed him his Bundesliga debut. "I came on as a substitute for Heinz-Werner Eggeling and then started most games after the winter break. It wasn't an easy time, because I was doing my school exams on the side," says Zorc as he reflects on his route into professional football, which was a very different one for young players back then than it is today. There were no youth performance centres, no club residencies - and military service was still compulsory. But if you were in the sports regiment like Zorc, you were allowed time off for training and matches.
In his first season as a pro in 1981/82, Michael Zorc made a total of nine appearances. As in the preceding years, Borussia finished in the upper reaches of mid-table. Sixth place is good enough to secure BVB's first appearance in European competition since 1966. On the club's (brief) return to the European stage, on 15 September 1982, the 20-year-old was included in the starting XI as a matter of course for a goalless draw with Rangers.
But Zebec's days as head coach were numbered. After his departure, Zorc had nine coaches - Feldkamp, Witte, Maslo, Tippenhauer, Franz, Konietzka, Ribbeck, Csernai and Saftig - in the space of just four years. He was one of the few constants in these turbulent times. The defensive midfielder contributed 25 goals in these four seasons, but on Whit Monday of 1986, the club found themselves on the brink of the abyss. In the second leg of the relegation play-off against Fortuna Cologne, Borussia Dortmund, losing 3-0 on aggregate, were awarded a penalty in the 54th minute. This is probably their last chance to launch a comeback.
Was this the most important goal of your career?
Probably. If that one hadn't gone in, we most likely would have been relegated, and who knows how the history of Borussia Dortmund would have turned out. In the end, it was Jürgen Wegmann who made it 3-1 and levelled the aggregate scoreline. Fortunately the away goals rule didn't apply in the relegation play-offs back then. The deciding match in Düsseldorf was the beginning of the famous BVB convoy, as 30 or 40,000 people came along to support us.
Under the leadership of Reinhard Saftig, BVB experienced a renaissance, storming to fourth place the following season and thus qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Zorc scored 14 goals, the following year he got 13. At the start of preparations for the 1988/89 season, the coach wanted to make his talisman the club captain. The previous incumbent, Frank Mill, got wind of the story and decided to involve President Gerd Niebaum. A scandal ensued, resulting in Saftig's resignation.
Saftig was followed by Köppel, and Mill was succeeded as captain by Zorc over the course of the season. When Borussia Dortmund lifted the DFB-Pokal on 24 June 1989 with a 4-1 victory over Werder Bremen to claim the club's first trophy since 1966, it was the Dortmund native who was the first to get his hands on the silverware. At the banquet afterwards, Herbert Sandmann, a defender for the championship-winning team of 1956 and 1957, handed Zorc his BVB ring of honour with the words: "You take it, it's in the best hands with you. You are Borussia's future." There can be few greater accolades for a Black & Yellow to receive. In Zorc's words: "That was a very special honour, the significance of which I've only been able to properly appreciate and understand over the years." The captain from Evingen would not only go down in club history as the longest-serving captain (1988 to 1997), but also as the most successful, after leading the team to two Bundesliga titles (1995 and 1996), a Champions League triumph (1997) and the aforementioned cup win in 1989.
Given illustrious predecessors such as Adi Preißler, Wolfgang Paul and Aki Schmidt, how proud does this make you?
Being captain for nine years, in such a successful era of club history, is something that filled me with pride. There were certainly better footballers than me. We had the Creme de la Creme of German football in the team, plus Julio César, Stéphane Chapuisat etc. All top players.
But you were nevertheless the team's leading goalscorer in both 1995 and 1996. And that was as a defensive midfielder.
In both our title-winning seasons we had the same issue, namely that our strikers were out with long-term injuries. Both Lars Ricken and Ibrahim Tanko helped us with their youthful energy, but they didn't score all that many goals. I moved up into a more offensive role and managed to score 15 goals each season. That was definitely the best phase of my career.
Nonetheless, in 1996 the club signed someone who played the same position as you in Paulo Sousa. How did you feel about that?
In my current role, I know that's how it goes. A team needs to be refreshed. Back then, however, I had little understanding, even though I was already relatively old at 34. There were one or two sources of friction with Ottmar Hitzfeld. But we've since worked through that.
Did you consider moving to a different club?
Even though I was in the twilight of my career - the sun was already setting - I was still extremely ambitious and I weighed up one or two offers from the Bundesliga and Japan. Fortunately, I decided to stay here and it meant I became a Champions League winner. That was the crowning glory of my career. Although I only played a few minutes in the final, I was still fully involved in the games up to that point.
Andreas Möller really wanted to be substituted in the closing stages to let you take the stage. Matthias Sammer, who wore the captain's armband in the final, had to insist that you lift the trophy at the presentation ceremony. Amongst all the egos that defined this team, was this a sign of the incredible character within the squad?
Today we would call them individuals, in the past we used to say egoists. We didn't always see eye to eye in that team, but we were extremely professional when it came to achieving success together. The fans chanted my name, but Ottmar kept me waiting. It's different when you're substituted on - even if only for a few minutes - than when you're not on the pitch at all.
Michael Zorc stuck around to play one last season. He fired BVB to Club World Cup victory in Tokyo, but he no longer wore the captain's armband. In 1998, after 572 appearances, he moved into management. ''I was an apprentice in the first few years. I didn't have the experience to really be successful in my work,'' he says, adding: ''Looking at it now, I would have been better off taking some time out and creating a bit of distance. It wasn't easy to deal with the players with whom - just two months previously - I had played, celebrated titles and gone out in the evenings.''
Once he had gained the experience, the money was all gone. "As soon as the club's financial crisis became noticeable, I had the task of halving the budget within a season and a half. Despite that, people still expected the same of us as any other Champions League club. The stadium was still full. A lot of things were glossed over so that we could stay sexy. We no longer had a good enough team to compete at the top level,'' says Zorc in reference to the years from 2003 onward. Looking at it now, and given the fate of many other clubs whose financial problems weren't nearly as severe as Borussia Dortmund's back then, the performance of the Dortmund stalwart, who has since occupied the role of sporting director, cannot be overstated. Yet in Zorc's words: "I did not have an easy time of it. In the beginning, I was only given one-year contracts. For me, 2004 to 2008 was the most difficult time at the club. I'm very grateful that Aki Watzke always had my back.''
However, as the longest-serving sports director in German football, with 24 years in the job, he must have got a lot of things right. One major coup, perhaps the major coup, was the appointment of Jürgen Klopp. Zorc met the Mainz coach for the first time at the "Sheraton" at Frankfurt Airport and openly admitted: "Jürgen, you're my last shot."
In the end, the shot hit the bull's-eye. "We have consistently put the focus on youth. And Jürgen breathed new life into our club," says Zorc as he evokes the "most successful decade in the club's history.'' Since 2010, Borussia Dortmund have been a constant fixture in Europe, meaning they've continuously finished near the top of the Bundesliga, even in the post-Klopp era. But after winning the title in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the Champions League final in 2013, the club hasn't quite been able to hit the very highest heights. "It's already hard to get to the top; but staying up there is even harder," says Zorc. After all, BVB will finish the current season as runners-up, for the sixth time in the past ten years. That, too, is one of Michael Zorc's achievements.