Field Report: A pilgrimage to Dortmund

The list of mythical football stadiums is a short one: Wembley, La Bombonera, the Santiago Bernabéu, Camp Nou, San Siro, Maracanã, Estadio Azteca, Old Trafford. These are the ones most fans would rattle off from the top of their head and, even if you can make a case for a few more, they all have something in common. The glittering location in some of the World’s biggest metropolis, where millions of visitors can appreciate their grandiosity, indulge in their splendorous history and, eventually, find a way inside to experience a match.

That definitely isn’t the case in Dortmund, a city of 600,000 people placated on the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, where 11M people live in an area of just over 7000 km2, smaller than Cyprus, the 162th biggest country in the world. For long, this part of Germany has been known for its heavy industry and therefore it’s a far cry from most touristic routes, with Dortmund further outshone by the likes of Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia’s state capital and a major business and financial centre, and Cologne (Köln), the fourth largest city in Germany and the main cultural hub in the province.

Nevertheless, despite lacking the charm and allure of other destinations, Dortmund is a place wholly familiar for football fans around the globe, and its Westfallenstadion an emblematic location for an outstanding, enduring sporting experience wrapped in black and yellow, the colours of the local deity, German football giants Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund or, simply, Borussia Dortmund.

With a sizeable season ticket waiting list and sell-out crowds in every match, securing an ingress by official channels to a Borussia Dortmund match is tremendously difficult for an outsider, so you might as well just pray your favourite team faces them off. As the whims of the 2016-17 Champions League draw pitted Borussia and my beloved SL Benfica in the last 16, I quickly set out to make the best of an exceptional opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list.

This post relays my experience in the city of Dortmund and the all-around feeling of being inside one of football’s most renowned cathedrals.

Getting to Dortmund

Situated in the middle of Western Europe and not far from Germany’s borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, you can say that it’s more difficult to decide how to reach Dortmund than to get there. Departing from my native Lisbon, the closest options included flying directly to Düsseldorf International Airport, some 60km away, or Cologne-Bonn Airport (100km), whereas Dortmund Airport, a minor infrastructure situated 10km east of the city, is connected a few times per week with Porto. However, forecasting muddy prospects of guaranteeing a ticket in timely fashion and backed off by a relative shortage of travel options, I opted to plan for the worst and try a different approach.

Europe’s dense railway network is a major asset for travellers and that means Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are, daily, just a few hours away from Dortmund without the need for multiple stopovers. As I had some unfinished history in Amsterdam to take care off, the dilemma sorted itself out and on the 6th of March, after two months of anticipation, I finally hopped on a plane towards the Dutch capital. An untimely strike by France’s aerial controllers delayed my departure for a few hours but, taking into account that more than a handful of flights were cancelled in the next 48 hours derailing the plans of many of my fellow Benfiquistas, I can’t really complain. Tuesday, the 7th, was spent threading the streets of Amsterdam, but the big day would soon arrive and I had to decide how to commute to my destination.

Amsterdam is linked to Dortmund by a daily bus connection (taking around 4 hours) operated by German company Flixbus, yet you should book your place in advance, online, for a reasonably price (as low as 15€) or pay significantly more as a walk-in, provided seats are still available. For this exact route, it’s definitely the most cost effective option, but the flexibility and magnetism of train travel swooped in and I foolishly (in purely economic terms) decided to take the ICE (Inter-City Express) train at around 10:30am. The convoy departing from Amsterdam Centraal Station heads to Frankfurt with multiple sojourns before and after the border, and consequently I had to make a rapid switch for another ICE at Duisburg, finally arriving at Dortmund Hauptbahnhof just short of three and a half hours after taking off from North Holland.

Pre-match ambiance and Dortmund City Center

Welcoming me and fellow Benfica fans to Dortmund was a somber day, with light rain dropping almost incessantly for most of the next 24h, the time span of my presence in town. After dropping the baggage at the accommodation, situated just a few hundred meters from the central train station, we headed to the city center via Brückstrasse, a nightlife thoroughfare occupied primarily by fast food restaurants and bars, and soon reached the main cluster of places of interest, if we can call it that.

I don’t want to slam too hard on Dortmund, especially because my stay was short, but it looked entirely insipid and dull. You’ll find the odd, bland-looking church or classical building but downtown is mostly a slab of office buildings, galleries, large banks and shopping malls, with modern, uninspiring constructions taking over premium estate. This can be partially explained by the severe bombings suffered by Dortmund during World War II, specifically in 1945, when, reportedly, 98% of the buildings in the inner city got destroyed.

Dortmund

The Markt, the most lacklustre central plaza I’ve seen, contains an official Borussia Dortmund store to cater to the desires of football fans and is also the essential point around which are located most of the establishments that were invaded by the visiting fans. With beer flowing freely, a lively atmosphere was brimming around here as the afternoon advanced but, as soon as you strolled around, it quickly dissipated into the gloomy spectre that mirrored the weather. Truth be told, we didn’t stagger more than a few avenues in the inner city, and the eighth largest urban center in Germany certainly has much more to see, but, unless you’re looking for a shopping spree or have a lot of time in your hands, the city probably won’t justify the visit. I guess there’s a reason Dortmund is home to such football fandom: there’s not a lot else to focus on.

Anyway, when the cacophony of Portuguese increased as match time drew closer and civilians left their work, Dortmund fans joined in on the fun and I was pleased to notice the friendly coexistence amongst the sides, with no locus of tension as far as I could see. This wasn’t exactly a surprise though, since Dortmund is a town used to greet football fans, happy to showcase tremendous hospitality, and respectful of people keen to celebrate the game and their passion. Hooligans notwithstanding, obviously. It would be great if international football could be always like this.

Benfica and Dortmund fans mingling at the Markt

Taking in the city vibe on Champions League day was something I was looking forward to, but with some 2:30h to go until kick off, it was time to head to the Stadium. A crucial task was awaiting me there, so I took the metro at Stadgarten towards the Westafallenstadion, planted 3.5 km south of downtown Dortmund

On game day, you can ride the subway by free possessing a match ticket and in 10-15 min the U45 line takes you to the “Stadion” station. When that isn’t the case, an adult ticket costs 2.70€ and the closest stop is at the Westfallenpark.

The Westfallenstadion

If there’s something I wish I could change about the trip was the match’s starting time. I would have liked to be able to distinguish the surroundings of the stadium, particularly the neighbouring Westfallenpark, but it was already pitch dark when I arrived. Nevertheless, just as you leave the station, you immediately notice a Biergarten and the locals enjoying their pre-game drink before traversing the short walk to the glitzy venue in sight, where the letters forming “Signal Iduna Park” beam on the night. By the way, I’ll keep ignoring the official designation here, since I don’t get payed to make publicity and grew up with the traditional WestfallenStadion moniker.

The intimidating venue lit up on the night

The yellow is omnipresent on the way to the stadium as the passageways are riffed with stalls serving bratwursts, pretzels and beer or selling merchandising, but my mind was somewhere else by this time. After ditching my backpack in the proper cabin (0.5€), I glimpsed the entrance for visiting fans just in time to see Benfica’s bus arrive to the rousing applause of their mantle of supporters. Once again, without as much as a cringe from the locals.

Less than two hours were left until the opening whistle, so I proceeded to frantically pace up and down the street trying to luck out. A whisper. A fortunate encounter. Some back and forth. I was finally clutching my magical paper.  Time to approach the gates, get patted down, scan the ticket at the turnstiles. Three months of uncertainty ending right there. What a marvellous feeling to hike the stairs of the biggest stadium in Germany and one of the most iconic in World football.

Opened in 1974 right beside Dortmund’s former home, the Stadion Rote Erde (which still stands under the watchful eye of its successor), the Westfallenstadiom is far from worn down, having suffered renovations on multiple occasions over the last 30 years, yet doesn’t possess the same comforts of the stadiums purposely built for the 2006 World Cup. The cement of the stands isn’t disguised, there are no glossy details, the concourses, especially on the second level, are a bit cramped due to the supporting pillars, and the food lanes difficult circulation.

The concourses. Plus a famous Benfica fan on the background.

However, there’s no shortage of toilets or food stalls, with the latter dispatching customers fast because they don’t handle cash. That’s right. You’ll have to approach the ladies carrying a banner to obtain the stadium card, which will be loaded with the amount you want and swiped when you order something. At the end of the game, you can keep it as a souvenir and/or head to the corresponding huts, located outside of the stadium, looking to be reimbursed of the remaining funds. Simple and efficient.

Six euros lighter and carrying a drink and a pretzel (Bretzel in German), I meandered for a bit before searching for my seat in sector 54 of the Osttribüne (East Stand), on the far right, top-level section of one of the central stands. The view from the sector’s entrance looked promising but I still had to hurdle up the stairs… all the way to the last row of the steep stand. From there, the design of the roof obstructs a panorama of the whole stadium, with the top of the farthest stands out of sight, yet I was still delighted. Just a dozen of seats separated my spot from the mesh enclosing more than 3,000 Benfica fans. I couldn’t have wished for better at the day’s beginning.

Benfica warms up

The stadium slowly filled up in the following minutes and the raucous visiting section dominated the noise battle until the eternal “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started blasting from the speakers and the throats of the locals. Scarfs stretched atop, teams on the ground, the spine-tingling Champions League anthem, a splendid tifo elevated from the vaunted  SüdTribüne remembering the outcome of the tie contested 53 years ago, and 65,849 fans – sold out but short of the 81,000 allowed for domestic matches – oozing the fervent enthusiasm before a decisive match in the most beautiful football competition ever. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The 90 minutes and the epic 12 in the middle

Guess I can’t just skip this part, right?

Benfica held a 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg, courtesy of Kostas Mitroglou goal in Lisbon, but the Portuguese Champions were severely outplayed at home and it wasn’t difficult to anticipate Dortmund would put the pedal down at the start to erase the deficit as quickly as possible.

To counter that, Benfica’s coach added muscle to his midfield in André Almeida, hoping that his three-man inverted midfield could close down on Dortmund’s build-up from the back three, while Thomas Tuchel opted for the aggressive 3-4-3 that controlled the proceedings in Portugal, with irreverent youngsters Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulišić roaming behind prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

First Half

Surprise, surprise, the hosts came out roaring and it took a whole three minutes to get on the board. After Benfica’s captain, Luisão, panicked on Dortmund’s first approach and conceded a corner kick, Pulišić’s deflection on the first post encountered Aubameyang unmarked on the far side, with the Gabonese nodding the ball past the outstretched Ederson. It was a terrible start yet, as my mind wandered to a similar beginning at the QF of last year’s Champions League against Bayern Munich, Dortmund kept creating havoc in Benfica’s area, threatening a second and galvanizing the home fans.

Fortunately, the visitors didn’t fold and after the 20-minute mark finally settled down, with Nélson Semedo’s bold escapades up the right flank persuading his teammates forward. Benfica’s newfound ability to retain possession calmed down Dortmund’s electric pace and the game gradually fell into a standstill, despite a couple of openings that allowed the Portuguese to target Roman Bürki’s net and the omnipresent danger of Aubameyang and Dembélé’s darting runs on the other half.

The atmosphere and a sensational halftime

During the first 45 min, I kept glancing at the other stands to appreciate the spectacle and there’s no doubt the Yellow Wall at the SüdTribune is a sight to behold, even with the mass of people curtailed by UEFA’s stance against standing-only terraces. They may fall short of the usual 25,000 fanatical voices, but still made a whole lot of noise after ramping up efforts following kick-off. However, for all the vibrancy inside a venue whose architecture enhances sound retention, I couldn’t help to feel a tinge of disappointment regarding the support coming out from the rest of Dortmund’s faithful.

The Yellow Wall

It may not be discernible on television, but the vast majority was simply following the match as most football fans do everywhere: wheezing, gasping, heckling and, eventually, bursting when Dortmund scored. They followed the SüdTribüne’s lead on a couple of “BVB! BVB!” chants, and came to life for a few minutes after the third goal, when the home crowd exhaled, leaped from the seats and jumped in unison, shaking the building’s foundations, but not much more. Nonetheless, if you still believe in amphitheatres where 80,000 raging spectators impel their team forward over 90 minutes in a maniacal frenzy, you’re in for a letdown.

As for Benfica fans, modesty aside, we were more than up for the task, rebounding quickly from the early sucker-punch and the two quick knockout blows that would later follow, and keeping the faith until the very end. In normal circumstances, I would have already been proud of our top-notch performance during the 90 minutes of playing time (except for an unfortunate incident in the second half that was quickly dissipated), yet we far exceeded whatever expectations I could have had while the world of football looked away at the interval.

Words cannot describe what happened in those twelve minutes at halftime, with the players out of sight, television cameras shut down, few journalists on duty and many German fans away from their seats. It wasn’t a simple serenade, it wasn’t exhibitionism, it wasn’t a show of strength directed at the opposing ultras. It will go down as an utterly spontaneous, vocal love letter by 3500 devotees on a cold night in Dortmund.

I’ll forever be grateful for having been at that sacred temple in those minutes, able to assimilate every second of it. Able to experience whatever coursed through my body while I closed my eyes and belted out “Benfica, O Amor da Minha Vida” (Benfica, the love of my life) in loop until my voice started trailing off, undone by raw passion. Those twelve epic, magical minutes will live forever in the hearts of all of us, and, pardon the exaggeration, inhabit that place for a long time, attached to the cement and steel of the Westfallenstadion.

However, that riveting display couldn’t have been possible without the solemn deference by our opponents on the night and its fans. There wasn’t any intention to halt the show in those minutes where we took their house from them. No deafening tune drowning our chants. No booing. No recriminations of any sort. Just a bunch of smiling faces in awe, capturing the moment, admiring a truly special rendition and, finally, applauding the foreigners as their heroes came back into the pitch for the play to resume. Those thousands on the stands certainly headed home with vivid memoirs and increased appreciation for Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

Benfica fans put on a show during 90…105 minutes

Second half and post-match

At the break, the tie was up for grabs and the Portuguese appeared to come back from the room more determined to collect a crucial away goal that would alter the complexion of the matchup. On the 48th minute, a failed clear off a cross awarded Franco Cervi a golden chance to do just that, but his shot couldn’t puncture the yellow wall of Dortmund players that dived in desperation for a goal-saving block. Up in the stands, with a scream still stuck in my larynx, I wondered whether our ticket to the quarter-finals had just flown out of the stadium and, regrettably, time would prove I was right.

A series of corners and free kicks kept the ball around Dortmund’s box for the next five minutes as our confidence was soaring, yet it all vanished in a hurry. The hosts regained composure, encircled Benfica’s area, forged two point-blank chances where Aubameyang (in offside position) was brilliantly rebuffed by Ederson, and then dropped the hammer just before the hour mark. With the defence still reeling from another period of incessant pressure, Łukasz Piszczek solicited Christian Pulišić with a superb through ball that caught centre-back Victor Lindelöf napping, and the American teenager niftily chipped the ball over the onrushing Brazilian goalkeeper.

The visitors now needed to score to keep their hopes alive, yet Dortmund fans were barely back on their seats when the hill got even steeper. A brilliant diagonal ball by Julian Weigl met left back Marcel Schmelzer on the edge of the box, and he drilled it perfectly towards Aubameyang, who only had to tuck the ball in to secure a brace on the night.

Aubameyang was at his best on the night of Dortmund ((Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Just like that, in a couple of minutes, the sky had come crashing down on us, but 30 minutes were left on the clock and we could only escalate the vocal support to try to inspire an improbable revival. However, Dortmund soon smothered any semblance of response from the visitors, who proved incapable of knifing past the suffocating German pressure and engineer a clear-cut chance for the rest of the match.

When Aubameyang completed his hat trick five minutes from time, after a Benfica turnover in the midfield turned into a textbook counter-attack, the gap in play between the teams over the two games was expressed in the final 4-1 scoreline. The best team over the majority of the 180 minutes was, undoubtedly, Borussia Dortmund and when that happens you accept the outcome, congratulate the other side and pick up the pieces wishing to return stronger the next time around.

In the end, after the German players executed a customary routine of celebration with the Yellow Wall, both sets of fans cheered their own and applauded the performance of their opponents, both on the field and in the stands, with the utmost respect that ruled the encounter extending until the very end.

I delayed my exit from the stadium for a few minutes to avoid the masses, take it all in a bit more, check the highlights of the mindboggling happenings in the Barcelona-PSG match, and wait for the release of the rest of the Benfica faithful. Due to the swift and competent work by the German police, that didn’t take long – contrary to what happens so many times in other countries – and soon the away fans were allowed to leave the premises, free to chase a way to drown their sorrows.

With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the Westfallenstadion and strutted, alongside my people, in the direction of the metro station and, eventually, the city centre. A change of scenery loomed the following day as my journey continued, but I still wanted to take advantage of the morning in Dortmund, so I bunked up in short order with a bittersweet pot of memories flashing ceaselessly.

This post is already way…way…way too long, but if you wish to read about my whereabouts in Dortmund the following morning, click here.

If not, I can tell you that soon after exiting the museum (spoiler alert!), I left Dortmund towards Cologne, which ended up as an inspired decision, and would later return to Amsterdam – after a 24 hour detour in Utrecht – to fly home. Unfortunately, no further sport adventures were on the cards as scheduling issues derailed my prospects of attending an ice hockey match at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena, and the Amsterdam Arena sold out for Ajax’s weekend appointment.

And that’s it for this field report. Cross your fingers for another one, hopefully sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading and making it this far!

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