Ottmar Hitzfeld had conquered Germany but his next task was to conquer Europe. European glory had eluded Borussia Dortmund since their foundation in 1909.
In the 1950s, Helmut Schneider won back-to-back German Championships to guide them into two European Cup campaigns. However, a second round exit to Manchester United and quarter-final defeat to AC Milan signalled the end of their European aspirations until Hitzfeld’s era in 1995. The Swiss guided them to the UEFA Cup final in 1993 but Die Borussen had bigger fish to fry. The UEFA Champions League was the pinnacle and Hitzfeld had the ammunition to execute their plan to perfection.
Borussia Dortmund appointed Ottmar Hitzfeld in July 1991, after Horst Koppel could only guide them to 10th place. He made an immediate impact by rejuvenating the team to finish runners-up behind VfB Stuttgart in 1992.
Progression was halted in the two following seasons with successive fourth place finishes in 1993 and 1994. He’d gradually been assembling a strong squad by acquiring the services of Juventus trio Andreas Moller, Jurgen Kohler and Paulo Sousa.
Borussia Dortmund had never won the Bundesliga title since it was formed in 1963. Hitzfeld delivered back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996 to guide BVB into Europe’s most prestigious tournament for the first time since 1958.
At the beginning of the 1996/97 campaign, Paul Lambert arrived from Motherwell and would surprisingly play a key role in Borussia Dortmund’s European triumph. The players had their first taste of UEFA Champions League football in the previous season but could only reach the quarter-finals.
It was a valuable learning experience for the team, which had been improved over the summer. They were now fresh, more vibrant and more experienced in Europe. It was time for the German outfit to cause shockwaves around the world.
The Road to Munich
Ottmar Hitzfeld had knocked Bayern Munich off their perch in the German Bundesliga. The Bavarians had won five of the previous six titles before the Swiss’ arrival in Dortmund. Borussia Dortmund had followed their first ever Bundesliga title with another in 1996, albeit during a transitional period for Munich.
However, the road to Munich was set to be a significantly steeper challenge but one that was possible considering the quality of players at Hitzfeld’s disposal. BVB finished third place in the German Bundesliga at the end of the 1996/97 campaign, which suggests Hitzfeld ultimately subsidised domestic success for European glory.
Borussia Dortmund were drawn into a fairly unchallenging group, which contained Spanish champions Atletico Madrid and European minnows Widzew Lodz and Steaua Bucharest.
The two latter teams had qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stages via the play-off rounds. Whereas, Atletico Madrid were automatically admitted into the competition, after successfully fighting off usual suspects Valencia, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to clinch the Spanish La Liga title.
Analogies of Helmut Schneider’s golden generation in the 1950s would’ve been plastered over the papers if Borussia Dortmund had failed to progress from the group stages. In the 1950s, Dortmund won two league titles under Schneider, but were unable to replicate their domestic form in the European Cup.
European glory would’ve separated Hitzfeld from the pack and ensured he left the Westfalenstadion with a long lasting legacy. Here is how Hitzfeld defeated Europe’s very best to engrave Borussia Dortmund’s name on the famous UEFA Champions League trophy…
Passing the First Hurdle
We’ve seen many top teams fall at the first hurdle and crash out of the competition in the group stages. Manchester United boasted an incredible domestic record, but failed to transmit their glittering form onto the European stage in the early stages of Alex Ferguson’s reign.
Dortmund had reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the previous campaign but were hungry to enhance their reputation and seek glory in Europe. For most, Widzew Lodz and Steaua Bucharest created little anxiety amongst Borussia Dortmund supporters.
However, Atletico Madrid probed the biggest threat in Group B. They clinched the Spanish La Liga title in the previous season, ending the campaign with the best defensive record in Spain’s top division.
Managed by Radomir Antic, Atletico had assembled a very promising team, similar to Borussia Dortmund. They played with a traditional 4-4-2 formation with Lyuboslav Penev as the talisman and Milinko Pantic and Diego Simeone creating havoc on the flanks.
Fortunately, Borussia Dortmund had two matches to gain some momentum before meeting arguably their toughest test in the group phase. They narrowly defeated Polish outfit Widzew Lodz at the Westfalenstadion on Match Day 1 and recorded back-to-back wins in Bucharest.
Borussia Dortmund visited the Vincente Calderon Stadium, a ground which Atletico had scored 41 goals during the 1995/96 Spanish La Liga campaign. The narrow and intense encounter was decided by Stefan Reuter’s strike six minutes after the half-time interval.
The Germans moved three points clear at the top of Group B, although Atletico remained superior in terms of their goal difference. This meant defeat at the Westfalenstadion against Atletico would force them to surrender top spot.
Unfortunately, this was the case. BVB broke the deadlock via Herrlich after just 17 minutes but Pantic successfully confirmed the comeback on 42 minutes to seal all three points for the Spaniards. Now, Dortmund would be hoping for their group rivals to slip up in their final two games.
Again, this was the case. Atletico frustratingly drew against Steaua Bucharest but Dortmund were unable to capitalize on Atletico’s shortcomings after slumping to a draw in Poland. It was all left to the final set of fixtures to decide top spot in Group B.
Borussia Dortmund hosted Steaua Bucharest and Atletico Madrid faced Widzew Lodz in Madrid. Atletico boasted a goal difference of +7, meaning Borussia Dortmund required a victory margin of three or more goals to claim top spot.
Steaua Bucharest offered little threat in the first half and Borussia Dortmund swept into a 3-1 lead at half-time. Atletico were struggling in Madrid and the score remained goal less against Widzew Lodz, advantage Dortmund.
In the second half, the Romanians reduced the deficit on 52 minutes, hindering Dortmund’s chances of winning the group. BVB regained their three-goal advantage but Steaua replied yet again with only 11 minutes remaining.
In Madrid, Milinko Pantic dealt the last blow, scoring a decisive winner with only seven minutes remaining to ultimately secure the Spaniards’ place at the top of Group B. Regardless of this, Dortmund had taken a step closer to Munich.
Some Things Happen For a Reason
Yes, Atletico may have won Group B but it did them very little favours, as they were drawn against 1996 finalists Ajax. The Dutch giants boasted a squad full of world renowned talents, such as Patrick Kluivert, Danny Blind, Edwin Van Der Sar and Marc Overmaars.
Manager Louis Van Gaal had guided them to three successive Dutch Eredivisie titles and the UEFA Champions League in 1995. He almost clinched the UEFA Champions League in successive seasons but lost to Juventus on penalties.
So it seemed BVB had dodged a bullet. Atletico were eliminated and Dortmund reached the semi-finals, after defeating French side AJ Auxerre. They shocked the nation by winning the domestic double and scoring the most goals in the French Ligue 1.
However, they failed to transmit their domestic form into the UEFA Champions League and were beaten comfortably. A 3-1 victory in Dortmund practically confirmed their spot in the semi-finals but they also bolstered their reputation with a psychologically beneficial 1-0 win in France.
Finally, Borussia Dortmund were set to be tested to the core with a difficult test against Alex Ferguson’s promising Manchester United. The red devils had struggled to establish themselves in the UEFA Champions League in the early stages of Ferguson’s famous reign at Old Trafford.
The 1997 UEFA Champions League campaign marked their most progressive season in Europe since reaching the semi-finals against AC Milan in 1969. They’d been competing in the less prestigious UEFA Cup in the previous season and were surprisingly eliminated by Russian side Rotor Volgograd in the First Round.
Manchester United scraped through the group stages, finishing second place behind eventual finalists Juventus. Fenerbahce were within two points of the English giants but Ferguson’s men boasted a much more superior goal difference.
They progressed to the quarter-finals and hosted Portuguese champions FC Porto at Old Trafford in the first leg. Similar to Dortmund, United won comfortably on home turf, winning by a comprehensive 4-0 score line. FC Porto salvaged some pride with a goal less draw in Portugal but the semi-final tie between Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund was practically confirmed once both first legs had concluded.
The first leg commenced in Germany at the fascinating Westfalenstadion on 9 April 1997. Both teams played cautiously in the first half with Borussia Dortmund’s Herrlich enjoying the best opportunity when his close range strike was smothered by Raymond Van Der Gouw.
Manchester United upped the pressure in the final third in the second half, triggering various counter-attacking moves. Nicky Butt had an effort palmed onto the post by Stefan Klos and David Beckham was denied by a goal line clearance from Martin Kree.
It seemed inevitable that Manchester United would find a late goal, as they were famously renowned for doing so during this era. Eric Cantona was plying his artistic and imaginative trade to perfection by playing a creative role in the visitors’ attacking moves but Dortmund’s sturdy defence remained resilient and defiant to Manchester United’s storm of attacks.
Suddenly, Rene Tretschok launched a speculative effort from range towards Van Der Gouw’s goal. A heavy deflection off Manchester United defender Gary Pallister helped divert his effort into the top corner and give Dortmund a valuable advantage with 14 minutes remaining.
Dortmund had a one-goal advantage for an even more difficult task at the Theatre of Dreams. Lars Ricken settled the nerves with a low finish into the left bottom corner inside eight minutes. A storm of Manchester United attacks failed to break Borussia Dortmund’s defensive resistance. Pallister, Cole and Giggs spurned chances as Manchester United edged towards a semi-final exit.
The next question, who would Borussia Dortmund meet in the UEFA Champions League final in Munich. In a repeat of the 1996 UEFA Champions League final, Juventus comfortably beat Ajax over two legs with a 6-2 aggregate score line.
Now the stage was set…
One Night in Munich
The stage was set in Munich for one of the most memorable Champions League finals to date. Juventus, defending European champions, hosted the outsiders Borussia Dortmund, who’d never won the competition in their history.
Glancing at the Juventus team sheet, it was clear that they were brimming with talent and Dortmund were widely considered as underdogs. Many expected the Italians to clinch back-to-back Champions League titles and the odds mounted against Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men.
Surely, the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Christian Vieri were going to wreak havoc on BVB’s defence? Of course, in the opening exchanges of the first half, this was the case.
Juventus had an early penalty claim and Vieri struck the side netting with a ferocious effort from the edge of the penalty area. The Italians streamed forward with force and the Germans struggled to combat the intense attacking pressure created by Lippi’s side.
However, suddenly, the tide changed completely when a stroke of genius from Karl-Heinz Riedle provided Borussia Dortmund with a surprise lead on 29 minutes. Juventus goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi emerged from his goal line and had his weak punch headed towards the edge of the penalty area. Paul Lambert kept the attack alive with a looping chip towards the back post, Riedle controlled the ball expertly on his chest and steered his finish into the far bottom corner.
The Germans had the advantage and capitalized on the momentum with a second goal moments later. From yet another set piece, Riedle doubled his tally with a bullet header to send Moller’s delivery beyond Peruzzi.
Ottmar Hitzfeld contained his excitement, portraying a composed figure in his domineering trench coat on the touchline. Two late scares nearly reduced the deficit with Zinedine Zidane striking the post and Vieri having a goal disallowed in the dying stages of the first half.
Although Dortmund were ahead, Juventus were still very much in the tie. They made an attacking change at the half-time interval, replacing right-back Sergio Porrini for forward Alessandro Del Piero.
This had a dramatic effect and an inevitable Juventus goal was set to rumble the net in Munich. Firstly, Jugovic forced BVB goalkeeper Klos into action and Zidane rattled the crossbar moments later.
Del Piero, the super sub, reduced the deficit with a classy flicked finish past Klos. Alen Boksic darted to the by-line and pulled his delivery across the face of goal, the Italian genius swooped into divert the ball into the net.
Juventus relentlessly searched for an equaliser as Dortmund fans rigorously bit their nails and prayed for a saviour to calm their nerves. Fortunately, a god in the shape of Lars Ricken emerged from the bench to seal victory for Borussia Dortmund.
After just seconds of entering the field of play, Moller slotted an inviting ball into the path of Lars Ricken. The 20-year-old noticed Peruzzi emerging from his line and sent a classy and immaculate chipped finish over the head of the Juventus shot stopper.
Now Hitzfeld could celebrate his first ever Champions League title, which would be extended to two titles with Bayern Munich in 2001. He’d built an empire at Dortmund, forming one of the greatest teams in the club’s history. They failed to disappoint, winning two Bundesliga titles and placing the cherry on top of the cake with a famous Champions League triumph.