Last December, Borussia Dortmund hosted its annual general meeting where the club’s hierarchy presented its success to the club’s roughly 150,000 shareholding members. The centerpiece of the meeting revolved around the team’s stunning 2021 DFB Pokal success. Dortmund CEO Hanz-Joachim Watzke also made sure to stand by the famed cup during his speech, further hammering home the triumph of Dortmund’s team amidst a pandemic.
However, Watzke also made a point of celebrating the first half of last season where an injury-ridden Dortmund team valiantly chased a dominant Bayern Munich. When it came time to praise the players Watzke took a moment to say, “with the exception of Roman Bürki, who was the only one from the professional squad who has not played, we could not have done without a player so far”. By this point in his Dortmund career, Bürki was deemed surplus to requirements, offered out to other clubs across the world, and informed he would never play another minute for Dortmund despite signing a contract extension two years earlier. Still, Watzke made a point to single out the now-exiled Bürki, standing three feet away from a trophy Roman helped Dortmund win not once, but twice, in a seven-year-long career for the club in an industry where loyalty is praised above all. It felt weird.
Fast forward seven months. Roman Bürki has arrived in St. Louis with much fanfare as the MLS club’s first high-profile signing despite some Dortmund fans’ best attempts to label him as a greedy, incompetent, mercenary looking to ride the bench in Germany. Now, instead of Bürki, a new Dortmund squad member has been deemed surplus to requirements and faces a similar position. Reports have come out that Nico Schulz has been informed he will no longer be in any match-day squad for the coming season and may even sit out from the club’s traditional preseason practice in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland. Many fans have been quick to villainize Schulz, designating him as an incompetent player holding the club back due to his wages and transfer fee. Within two years, Borussia Dortmund has had two scenarios where two different players on sizable contracts have been frozen out of the squad and publicly humiliated by Dortmund staff and supporters alike. So, the question is why?
The answer: poor sporting decisions in an industry that is quick to forgive clubs and even quicker to turn their backs on unproductive players. A year before Bürki was frozen out of the Dortmund squad Watzke and Zorc handed the in-form keeper a contract extension that saw his deal extend until 2023. Three years before Schulz was frozen out of the Dortmund squad Watzke and Zorc signed the star left-back for 27 million dollars and a 6-million-dollar salary. Both moves were hailed by club officials and fans alike. Both moves turned out to be mistakes that began with Watzke and Zorc. These mistakes are common in sports, sometimes players do not work out and, much of the time, it is not their fault. In a career path that demands the highest competitive and physical abilities, it is hard to be consistently successful on the field. The problem in Dortmund is not that these poor business deals happened, that is another discussion, the problem is how the club has handled them.
There is no problem with Dortmund’s hierarchy refusing to play Bürki or Schulz. In fact, they should not play if other players in the squad are better. The true problem is how Dortmund’s hierarchy has handled removing the players from the squad. The players are not at fault for wanting to make money or see out a contract. Nor are they evil if they refuse to move to a club that will pay them less. Most of us would make that same decision in our own workplaces. Yet, Watzke and his staff have sought to chase the players out of the squad using public humiliation aimed at turning Dortmund fans against them. If the Dortmund staff decide players are not good enough to be on the team, then the only solution should be to inform them and leave them out of the matchday squad. When it devolves into petty name-dropping and barring them from even having the chance to prove they can do better in training, however, then it reveals a toxic practice aimed at undermining the relationships players have established with the fans. The Dortmund hierarchy seeks to turn the fans on underperforming players, who have no incentive to leave, and bully them out of the club to fix the mistakes the management themselves made. And for a club whose entire motto of “Echte Liebe” means “true love”, we are pretty quick to turn our backs on the players.
So, what should you, as a fan, take out of this? Well first things first, we should not vilify players who were signed to unfortunate contracts, especially when the same people who created those contracts seek to vilify them. Sure, we can all agree that Schulz is not the player we wanted. We can all fault him for the mistakes he made while on the pitch. We cannot, however, hold his contract against him because it was not his fault that he was offered that much. We cannot hold his transfer fee against him because he had no say in what Dortmund paid Hoffenheim. The blame for those mistakes falls solely on Dortmund’s management. Second, we should not expect players to act in the interest of their clubs rather than their own. Players should seek to get paid; they have a ten-to-fifteen-year career and should look to make as much money as they want. The expectation that athletes should have a higher loyalty to a club when compared to a regular person at a regular job is simply illogical. If Schulz wants to ride out the rest of his contract at Dortmund so he can buy a nice house and guarantee the next ten generations of his family live comfortably, who are we to judge him.
Schulz might not be a Dortmund-caliber player. In fact, I would be one of the first to argue that he is not. He is, however, a twenty-nine-year-old trying to make the most of a fleeting career in a ruthless industry and there is something utterly human about that. As supporters, let us make sure we remember who we are supporting. It is not just the badge, but every human that wears it too.