Borussia Dortmund had celebrated the successful defence of its title in May 1996. The “championship of hearts” was followed by the “championship of nerves”. For the second time in the club’s history, it brought admission to the UEFA Champions League, which four years earlier had replaced the European Cup for Europe’s Champion clubs and in which, until then, only national league title holders had been admitted (and for the last time in 1996/97). There were hardly any changes to the squad during the summer break. Patrick Berger had moved to Liverpool, and two fighters in Günter Kutowski and Bodo Schmidt left the club, both of whom not only had (and still have) their hearts in the right place, but could always be relied on.
New signings included sweeper Wolfgang Feiersinger, defender René Schneider and midfield dynamo Paul Lambert. As a replacement for Steffen Freund, a European championship winner with Germany, who had undergone cruciate ligament surgery, manager Michael Meier lured a fifth player from Juventus to Borussia Dortmund after Stefan Reuter (1992), Andreas Möller, Julio César (both 1994) and Jürgen Kohler (1995): Paulo Sousa was considered the “soul” of the Juve game, the “soul” of the reigning Champions League winners. These figures document why he was let go for a rumoured seven million Deutschmarks (the equivalent of around €3.5 million): In his one and a half years at BVB (until December 1997), the Portuguese international could only manage a total of 42 games (out of a possible 80), of which he only played the full distance on 19 occasions. In the most important game, however, Sousa was at his best!
When the opening opponents in the European Cup competitions were drawn, most German clubs complained. For cup winners Kaiserslautern, Red Star Belgrade was too big a fish, Bayern failed in the first round of the UEFA Cup against Valencia, Gladbach had to deal with Arsenal (but prevailed). Only HSV (Glasgow Celtic), Schalke (Roda Kerkrade) and Karlsruhe (Rapid Bucharest) were happy with their draw – and BVB. For their second outing in the still young UEFA Champions League, the German champions had picked out the Spanish title holders Atlético Madrid, but Widzew Lodz (Poland) and Steaua Bucharest (Romania) were considered beatable. As in the previous year, the goal was the quarter-finals. “The collective experience of Borussia Dortmund will pay off,” predicted the then Gladbach manager Rolf Rüssmann, who had worn BVB colours during the 1980s.
Opener against Lodz
In their opening 2-1 win over Widzew Lodz however, there was little to suggest that the Black & Yellows would end up crowning their journey through Europe in the 1996/97 Champions League season with a triumph in Munich. It was a tough game, characterised by passing errors, cramp and inadequacies. Hitzfeld’s announcement – “everyone knows how strong the opponent is” – had obviously not found its way into every player’s ear. The crowd of 39,600 in the sold-out Westfalenstadion were not sparing with their whistles and expressions of displeasure. Even after taking a fortunate lead at the break, which Heiko Herrlich had scored with a header on the stroke of half time, did not calm the fans’ tempers. The visitors from Lodz played the better football for long stretches, while BVB mostly struggled and only profited from the opponent’s carelessness. Poland’s national team player Michalski played his part in both of BVB’s goals. He set up Borussia’s second, also by Herrlich, with an involuntary assist to the goal scorer in the 68th minute. Citko scored a consolation goal for Lodz in the 84th minute. Apart from Herrlich, who was back in the starting eleven for the first time in five months, only Andreas Möller, who was always striving for a cultured game, caught the eye for Dortmund. Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld concentrated primarily on the result in his analysis: “The three points are important. Everyone knows that we can do better.”
The first stop abroad was Bucharest, the opponent Romania’s record champion Steaua, for the then BVB president Gerd Niebaum “the Real Madrid of the East”. BVB’s self-confidence was clearly shaken after a previous 5-1 Bundesliga drubbing at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Hitzfeld had drawn consequences. Lars Ricken was back in the starting line-up for the first time after a slipped disc and a regular place on the bench. Borussia’s exceptional talent made the most of his opportunity and scored the opening goal in the seventh minute after the outstanding Möller had done the groundwork. With the early lead behind them, BVB began to dominate the game and their opponents. Jörg Heinrich increased the lead to 2-0 in the 37th minute, and substitute Stéphane Chapuisat applied the finishing touches with his goal to make it 3-0 in the 79th minute. Hitzfeld expressed his satisfaction with the performance and summed up: “After a hesitant opening phase, we played with pressure and had the opponent largely under control.”
Reuter takes on Simeone
Matthias Sammer’s health, on the other hand, was a cause for concern. The defensive leader had missed the first four league games, first because of back problems, then because of a meniscus operation. In Bucharest, he was absent due to a torn muscle and therefore also missed the two subsequent meetings with Spain’s champions. The next stop was the Estadio Vicente Calderon in Madrid. Besides Sammer, Hitzfeld also had to do without Möller and Riedle, among others, but the team, which had been brilliantly tactically adjusted by the coach, let their heart and passion do the talking against Atlético, putting their bodies on the line in defence and repeatedly carved out chances with quick counterattacks. Stefan Reuter, who marked present day Atlético coach Diego Simeone out of the game, scored the only goal of the evening to celebrate his 30th birthday in the 51st minute. This meant that BVB had nine points on their account after three group stage games, half the battle on the way to the quarter-finals. For the first time ever, a German team had won each of the first three matches in the continent’s most important club competition.
Hitzfeld could have justified the 2-1 defeat against the Spaniards in the second leg with a long list of injuries, but he took his disappointment out on his team. “Internationally, it’s not enough to just play well for 30 minutes. If they already have deficits, I can at least expect them to run and fight.” The match had started so promisingly and Herrlich crowned Dortmund’s strong opening phase with the opening goal in the 17th minute. But Atlético took control of the game more and more. Stefan Klos, the “hero of Madrid” in the first leg, made two mistakes in the goals by Roberto in the 32nd minute and Pantic just before half time. Ricken, who came on as a substitute in the 68th minute, brought new momentum into the game and almost scored the equaliser, but Santi saved on the line for the already beaten goalkeeper Molina with 20 minutes remaining.
Borussia Dortmund’s injury problems had thinned out considerably before the match in Lodz, but the supposedly strong team struggled to find its balance in the persistent rain. Paul Lambert scored the opening goal after fine work by Ricken and Möller, Poland’s champions answered with a double strike (Dembinski in the 15th and 20th minute). Jürgen Kohler saved a point in the 65th minute with the equaliser to make it 2-2. The draw proved enough for a place in the quarter-finals. Despite a rather modest performance, Ottmar Hitzfeld still promised great deeds: “We are stronger in this Champions League season than last year because we are accruing points, even though we have had personnel problems throughout the group stage.”
Exhibition game with entertainment value
The “exhibition game” against Steaua Bucharest was highly entertaining for the crowd of 37,000. In the 5-3 victory, they saw great goals, some of them splendidly carved out. Stéphane Chapuisat, who had been suffering a crisis of form for weeks, was outstanding and returned to his very best on this evening. The Swiss international marked the 1-0 with a free kick in the 13th minute and followed up Bucharest’s equaliser with the 2-1 in the 22nd – with a powerful shot from the left hand side of the box after a pass from Matthias Sammer. René Tretschok increased the lead to 3-1 two minutes before the break after a Chapuisat corner, and Kalle Riedle’s flying header made it 4-2 after Tretschok’s cross brought the fans to their feet once again. Substitute Ibrahim Tanko set up Michael Zorc to make it 5-2 in the 65th minute and Calin completed the scoring for the visitors in the 79th minute. The only sour note: Captain Zorc saw his second yellow card in the current competition and was thus suspended for the first leg of the quarter-final.
But it was not only Zorc who was missing in the first leg of the quarter-final against the French representatives AJ Auxerre, whom BVB had already successfully seen off in the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 1993. The entire defensive line with Kohler, Sammer and César were all ruled out through injury, and to make matters worse, substitute sweeper Wolfgang Feiersinger had to go off in the 38th minute with an injury. But Hitzfeld once again proved to have a happy hand with his personnel rotation and substitutions. Stefan Reuter took over in the middle of a three-man backline, and René Schneider, who was not actually intended for the squad after a long injury lay-off, played on the right side of defence.
One after the other: It took the newly formed team a while to get to grips with the opponent and the game, although Kalle Riedle made it 1-0 in the 12th minute with a flying header after Stéphane Chapuisat’s delicate cross. Auxerre then gradually took control of the game and argued with Spanish referee Garcia-Aranda, who disallowed what could have been Laslande’s 45th-minute side-footed equaliser for allegedly dangerous play against Martin Kree.
BVB upped the tempo at the start of the second half and Schneider, of all people, who had been labelled a “bad buy”, made the whole of Dortmund cheer after his header in the 54th minute. Auxerre, meanwhile, continued to come boldly forward and looked to be in a great position when Lamouchi scored the all-important away goal in the 75th minute. Hitzfeld reacted by bringing on Ibrahim Tanko for Chapuisat in what was a rousing game for long periods, and the young striker set up the 3-1 through Andreas Möller with a splendid solo run in the 84th minute. Reuter, who had started the game with a rib injury, was shown his second yellow card for repeated foul play in the 89th minute, but that did not dampen the joy. “It’s great how the team overcomes all setbacks,” said Hitzfeld about his decimated team, in which the offensive triangle of Möller, Chapuisat and Riedle set the highlights. Möller’s pre-match hope – “A 2-0 win would be a dream” – had thus almost come true; the end result was a victory with a two-goal difference, albeit with an away goal for the French team.
Leaders despite poor start
In the Bundesliga, the defending champions had slowly worked their way back up from fifth place on matchday nine after a poor start and took top spot in the table for the first time with a 2-1 win at Freiburg just three days after a 3-1 first leg win over Auxerre. BVB also travelled to the second leg as leaders, but the 4-1 defeat in Stuttgart four days before the quarter-final second leg in Burgundy showed which competition the team had now put their focus on: the Champions League.
At the Stade Abbé Deschamps, coach Hitzfeld opted for a rather cautious strategy. In front of sweeper Matthias Sammer, a three-man defence with Jörg Heinrich, Jürgen Kohler and Martin Kree. Ricken occupied the unfamiliar position of right midfield, Paulo Sousa and Paul Lambert provided central protection, and Möller, Chapuisat and Riedle were supposed to provide pinpricks in Auxerre’s defensive line. Stefan Klos played in goal with a cuff on his injured left thumb. Auxerre’s announced attacking game plan failed to materialise because his front men worked in a concentrated manner and took the upper hand from the home side with their strong tackling. “We have to perform as if we had lost the first leg 3-1,” president Niebaum had demanded. After 60 minutes, the game was done and dusted: Lars Ricken scored the only goal of the evening, which was frenetically celebrated by 2,000 travelling supporters, after Heinrich and Riedle had done the groundwork. “That’s a real Dortmund lad who rolls up his sleeves when it counts,” said Hitzfeld, giving extra praise to the 20-year-old, who himself was more reserved after the game: “It was very lucky. My shot was deflected.”
Despite personnel problems proving a recurring theme throughout the season, a semi-final spot had been secured. This was also the case in the first leg against Manchester United, when Hitzfeld had to replace not only Sammer (suspension), Kohler and César, but also his top attackers Riedle and Chapuisat. The coach spent several hours in front of the television at home, feeding the Video Recorder with VHS tapes showing recordings of the opponent’s matches. Nowadays, analysts dissect the opponent down to the last fibre. 25 years ago, this was still a matter for the boss, and the tools were rather primitive. And then there was a “spy” (Gerd Löwel) whom Hitzfeld had sent to Manchester to make enquiries.
Even more than with the (many) strengths and the (few) weaknesses at Manchester United, where a certain David Beckham was hailed as the “discovery of the season”, Hitzfeld had to deal with the personnel situation in his own camp. Herrlich was not expected to play because of a torn ligament in his shoulder, but he made himself available because Chapuisat and Riedle were already absent. Hitzfeld ordered all-rounder Tretschok to play alongside him in attack.
“Everyone was fully focussed”
“It was eerily quiet. Before a Bundesliga match, there was always a joke or two. This time it was different. You could tell everything was at stake,” Tretschok recalled the minutes before kick-off. “Every player – no matter what they’ve been through – was fully focused.”
The game was a tough battle. Goalless going into the final quarter of an hour, also thanks to Martin Kree, who prevented a goal with an acrobatic block after a Beckham shot in the 67th minute. England’s star team remained way below its possibilities in this tactical game, as Paulo Sousa wrestles the ball from Manchester’ United’s Eric Cantona deep in the visitors’ half and initiates a counter-attack. Sousa was about to control the ball when ball “thief” Tretschok struck. The theft is an insult to his majesty – and a fraction later becomes the highlight: while Sousa is still turning away, Tretschok puts the ball in front of him with his left, once, twice – there are still 22, 23 metres to goal – and strikes it firmly with his left foot towards goal. Substitute keeper Raimond van der Gouw reacts far too late and lets the not too well-placed ball pass. In the next moment, the emotion bursts out of René Tretschok. “It was a performance of will,” he says later. Immediately after the goal, he tears off his shirt. He is the hero, at least on this one evening. And Paulo Sousa is the first to congratulate him.
In the second leg, BVB made history – and Jürgen Kohler the story of a defensive battle that the legendary Old Trafford, hailed as the “Theatre of Dreams”, had never seen before. Borussia qualified for a Champions League final for the first time with a 1-0 victory. And once again it was Lars Ricken who scored the decisive goal. The 20-year-old gave United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel the slip in the eighth minute with a well-placed left-footed shot after an assist from Andreas Möller. With this goal, the power play of the English champions began, a furious assault: Attack after attack rolled towards the Dortmund goal. But on the other side there was a Stefan Klos, a Wolfgang Feiersinger, a Martin Kree, a Jörg Heinrich, who had to play on the right side of defence again after Stefan Reuter’s substitution – and there was a Jürgen Kohler, who played the game of his life in this footballing cauldron.
When the team flew to England on 22 April 1997, Jürgen Kohler was missing. Officially because of a stomach bug. But in fact he is at the clinic with his wife Silke. “That was the day we lost our child,” reveals the now 56-year-old. An exceptional emotional situation. “If my wife hadn’t said: ‘Go there and play’, I would never have been in Manchester.”
Jürgen Kohler becomes a Football God
Kohler travels to – and takes to the pitch in – one of the most legendary European Cup battles on 23 April. Borussia will start the second leg at Old Trafford with a razor-thin 1-0 lead. Manchester United will field the who’s who of European attacking football: Beckham, Butt, Cole, Solskjaer – and Cantona. The Frenchman can practically decide the game on his own, but Kohler and goalkeeper Stefan Klos form an insurmountable barricade on this evening. “The shirt with the number 15 shone like a red light in traffic,” writes the newspaper Die Welt. “Without Kohler, I don’t think we would have been able to hold our own here,” Ottmar Hitzfeld comments after the match, which Borussia Dortmund actually wins 1-0. Because Jürgen Kohler saves three times on or just before his own goal line. “That was pure luck. Cantona actually makes that one in a deep sleep, but at that moment he shoots exactly where I lift my foot,” says the hero of the evening about that scene when, sitting on the ground, he somehow still stretches out his leg and blocks the ball on its way to what should have been a certain goal.
That evening, the BVB fans elevate him to the status of a “football god”, while the Manchester United supporters make plans to stop the plane with Kohler on its way back to Dortmund. He should never be allowed to leave England again and should sign a contract with the Red Devils instead.
Jürgen Kohler is still in defensive mode 25 years on. “Football god. That’s quite a feat,” he says: “There were a few others who put in just as much effort as I did, or who scored the decisive goals.” Borussia Dortmund’s greatest success in the club’s history, the Champions League victory in 1997, was the success of the entire team and its coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, “not of a single individual,” Kohler emphasises: “I was in the right position three times in Manchester; everything fell into place.”
The entire team had fought with heart and passion against the big-name hosts and in the end was rewarded for a fantastic fight. “This is crazy, simply unbelievable. The whole of Germany can be proud of us,” Andreas Möller gushed.
The fans at Old Trafford bid farewell to the German champions with a standing ovation. And at Münster/Osnabrück airport, well over a thousand fans celebrated the Manchester heroes after they landed deep into the night. “We have clearly exceeded expectations. A huge compliment especially to those players who are not always part of the squad, but who have risen above themselves in the course of this competition. Without them we wouldn’t have made it,” said a beaming Ottmar Hitzfeld. A dream that began in the opening match against Widzew Lodz and ended at Old Trafford had come true: Borussia Dortmund was in the final of Europe’s top club competition. In Munich, at the Olympic Stadium.
Wilfried Wittke, Boris Rupert