At the beginning of this millennium, Borussia Dortmund were an extremely ambitious club. Guided by former play Mathias Sammer, they invested heavily in players to facilitate success. They brought in Tomas Rosicky, Sebastian Kehl, Marcio Amoroso, Ewerthon and Jan Koller, breaking German transfer records and building the dream of Bundesliga domination. And, in 2002, the dream became reality.
That year, Dortmund not only bested a talented young Bayer Leverkusen side, but German giants Bayern Munich, to win the title for the first time in six years. However, the dream faded quickly; by 2004 the club were in debt to the tune of hundreds of millions of Euros. The state of affairs was so sorry that even Bayern, with tradition in mind, felt compelled to lend their struggling rivals €2 million.
Sammer moved on, players left and Dortmund became the sort of club that drifts between mid-table and the fringes of qualification for European competition. It was at this point of dull, post-traumatic stagnation that Jurgen Klopp arrived to rejuvenate Die Schwarzgelben.
Klopp had taken on the role of manager at Mainz following an 11-year playing career with the club and almost immediately established himself as one of the top up-and-coming young coaches in Germany. Portentously he won his first game in charge, before leading them into the Bundesliga for the first time in their history and, eventually, into the Europa League.
Dortmund finished 13th in 2008, their worst league finish in two decades. Months later, Klopp was appointed manager with the project of turning the ailing former champions around. However, there was much greater financial scrutiny at the club than there had been before; hence, Klopp would have to maximise the resources available to him if he were to succeed.
Gradually implementing his gegenpressing philosophy and with some astute signings in the transfer market, Klopp led Dortmund to sixth- and fifth-place finishes in 2009 and 2010. There was further improvement on the near horizon, however, and it would be dramatic.
Robert Lewandowski was born and raised in Warsaw, and it was in Poland’s capital that he would begin to play football. After eight years spent with local side Delta he joined Legia, one of the country’s most illustrious clubs. But he would fail to assert himself upon the first-team squad and, at the age of 18, left for third division side Znicz Pruszkow.
With 15 goals in his maiden campaign, Lewandowski helped Znicz into the second tier, where he would top score in 2007-08, hitting 21 goals in 34 appearances. Still a teenager, his scoring feats earned covetous glances from bigger clubs in Poland and, in the summer of 2008, he joined one of them – Lech Poznan – for 1.5 million zlotys.
Making an immediate impression with a stunning back-heeled goal on his debut against GKS Blechatow, he went on to settle quickly to life in the Ekstraklasa, seemingly completely unperturbed by the step up in divisions. His debut season with Lech ended with 14 league goals, which he bettered by four the following year whilst helping the club to their first championship in 17 years.
Champions League football lay in store for Lewandowski, but at 22 years of age this was an opportune moment for him to move abroad and test his skills in a league of greater renown. His desire to play at a higher level almost took him to Blackburn Rovers.
At the time a Premier League club managed by Sam Allardyce, Blackburn saw enough promise in the physically and technically gifted Lewandowski to suggest he could thrive within English football. But the move wouldn’t go through amid the strangest of circumstances.
Lewandowski had been due to travel to Blackburn for their clash with Everton at Ewood Park on 4 March, but his agent Cezary Kucharski advised against travelling following a volcanic eruption in Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull glacier which left an ash cloud that temporarily grounded all flights in and out of the UK. “He got the invitation [from Blackburn], but due to the cancellation of the flights he could not go, and it makes no sense to drive,” Kucharski stated at the time.
Consequently, Blackburn would miss out on Lewandowski. And the Lancashire side’s loss would be Dortmund’s gain.
In June 2010, Lewandowski became a Dortmund player with the German club agreeing to pay a fee of €4.5 million to Lech for his services. His first Bundesliga goal came in a 3-1 Ruhr derby win over Schalke, but unlike with previous moves the Polish finisher took time to adjust to his new surroundings.
Klopp led Dortmund to the league title that season, but Lewandowski spent much of the time behind Argentine-born Paraguayan international Lucas Barrios. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 2011-12 campaign that he established himself as a regular in the starting line-up, taking advantage of an injury to Barrios.
That term he spearheaded BVB’s attack with lithe Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa behind him, scoring 22 league goals as Dortmund won a second straight title. And the league became a league and cup double, with Lewandowski hitting a hat-trick in 5-2 DFB-Pokal final victory over Bayern Munich.
In his second full term as a first-team regular, Dortmund made it to the Champions League final courtesy of Lewandowski’s remarkable four-goal haul in a last-four clash with Real Madrid. In doing so, he became the first player in history to score four times in a Champions League semi-final. However, Bayern would get revenge for the previous year’s woes in the final, defeating Dortmund 2-1.
Midway through that campaign, Dortmund director Michael Zorc had publicly confirmed that Lewandowski would not be renewing his contract with the club. As such, he would leave that summer or the one following. The news was bad, but it would get worse. The player would stay and become the Bundesliga’s top scorer in 2013-14, but Dortmund failed to win a major trophy for a second consecutive season. And, having announced he would do so in November 2013, Lewandowski left for Bayern on a free transfer.
Lewandowski’s departure may have seemed like a failure at the time. After all, Dortmund had not only lost him to their main competitors, but they had also lost money on the player even having signed him for a relative bargain. But, in truth, his transfer had been an exceptional success. Not only had he top-scored for the club for three straight years, but he helped them to a double and a Champions League final.
For a player who joined at 22 having never played outside of Poland, his achievements with Dortmund only served to highlight the club’s change in approach from thoughtless high spenders to astute team-builders.