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09 Countdown #7: Who is Sebastian Kehl?

Today we take a deep dive on Sebastian Kehl’s playing career and what it means for our new sporting director.

TSV 1860 München v Borussia Dortmund - DFB Cup: First Round Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

The last day of the 2021/22 season was one of goodbyes for everyone at the Westfalenstadion. Borussia Dortmund took the time to thank several players who were leaving the club including star striker Erling Haaland and longtime left-back Marcel Schmelzer. One goodbye, however, stood above the rest. It was the last day in a forty-four-year long BVB career for Michael Zorc, the club’s sporting director. Zorc established himself as a legend for his hometown club. He racked up 463 games for the team in a seventeen-year playing career where Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga twice, DFB Pokal, and Champions League. His playing career was followed by a twenty-four-year-long stint as director of football and sporting director between 1998 and 2022. During this period, Zorc helped propel Dortmund to mainstay status amongst European football’s elite clubs as they again won the Bundesliga twice, the DFB cup three times, and reached the final of the 2013 Champions League. Michael Zorc undoubtedly leaves a legacy as one of Dortmund’s greatest legends and is hailed as one of football’s greatest ever sporting directors. His retirement marks a leap into uncertainty for the Ruhr Pott club and for the first time in twenty-four years, Dortmund needed a new sporting director. How do you replace the most legendary man in club history? Well, the answer is surprisingly unsurprising. You replace him with another club legend: Sebastian Kehl.

Kehl The Player

Considering we have a new generation of Dortmund fans on our hands, it is important we take time to look at Sebastian Kehl’s playing career. Sebastian Kehl was born in Fulda in 1980, a small town in central Germany where the only notable export over the past century has been fear of a Soviet invasion. Unlike Zorc, who he will always be compared to, Kehl was never a “one club man” for his boyhood club and instead came through the youth academy at Hannover 96 as a defensive midfielder. Kehl began his career as an 18-year-old in 1998, the same year Zorc retired as a player for Borussia Dortmund. Between 1998 and 2000, Kehl plied his trade in the 2. Bundesliga before making the jump to the first division following a move to Freiburg. Much like today, Freiburg was enjoying a purple patch when Kehl joined for the 2000/2001 season and the club finished sixth in the Bundesliga, qualifying for the UEFA cup in the process. It was during this period that Kehl began to garner interest from Germany’s top teams including Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund’s director of football, Michael Zorc. Freiburg’s European adventures were both short-lived and disastrous for the club during Kehl’s second season in the top-flight. Eventual winners Feyenoord knocked Kehl, who scored in the home fixture, and Freiburg out of the UEFA Cup while the club’s Bundesliga form began to falter.

Like most talented players on soon-to-be relegated teams, Sebastian Kehl took the first opportunity to jump ship. When Bayern Munich and Borusia Dortmund made offers for the player, Kehl opted to join Matthias Sammer’s Dortmund team in the January window. He would later come out and say that he chose BVB and Sammer’s project over Bayern Munich despite the Bavarians offering more money. At Dortmund, Kehl immediately became a starter and played all but one league match in a BVB team that included legends such as Jens Lehmann, Tomas Rosicky, Dede, Lars Ricken, and Marcio Amoroso. Poetically for Kehl, at the end of 2001-2002 his former team were relegated, Dortmund won the league by just one point, and he once again lost to Feyenoord in the UEFA Cup, this time in the final.

Fussball: 1. BL 04/05, FC Hansa Rostock-Borussia Dortmund Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

It would be a long road for both club and Kehl until Dortmund enjoyed that success again. The following season, Dortmund finished third in the Bundesliga and were knocked out of the Champions League by eventual winners AC Milan. The 2003-2004 season saw injuries and departures derail the team’s success as head coach Matthias Sammer was sacked following a sixth-place finish. The next two seasons saw Kehl enjoy some of his most consistent time at Dortmund as he played 5,400 minutes across sixty-one league games. The club, equally consistent, finished seventh both seasons.

The start of the 2006 season saw Dortmund begin the season with a trip to the Allianz Arena, long before the ‘der Klassiker’ matchup was a battle between two Bundesliga heavy weights. The game did not just mark the beginning of a new Bundesliga season, it also marked the beginning of Kehl’s injury woes. Less than 20 minutes into the game, Bayern’s Hasan ‘Brazzo’ Salihamidžić slid studs up into Kehl and tore into his knee. What was first believed to be a month-long absence soon turned into months. Kehl ended that season with only 250 minutes played as he battled infections and setbacks. It would mark the beginning of a long string of injuries that Kehl would sustain throughout his playing career and he only surpassed two thousand league minutes once more in his playing career. Both Dortmund and Kehl struggled until the summer of 2008 when Dortmund made one of the greatest coaching changes in history; the club hired Jürgen Klopp.

Klopp’s first decision as coach was to appoint Kehl, at that point a 28-year-old veteran, as the club’s captain. Kehl repaid Klopp’s trust by providing a career year for Dortmund. He played over two thousand league minutes and solidified himself as the league’s best defensive midfielder while a resurgent Dortmund finished in sixth place. A vast improvement on the thirteenth place finish from the season prior. In unsurprising Dortmund fashion, however, injuries began to remerge. Kehl only would only play 12 Bundesliga games across the next two seasons. Despite this, he was the club captain that lifted the Bundesliga trophy in 2011. It marked triumph at last for Dortmund, but not Kehl. He wanted to play a larger role as Dortmund won the league instead of watching from the sidelines. He got his chance the following year.

Leading up to the 2011/2012 season, Kehl was fit once again and more determined than ever to prove his status among Dortmund’s elite players. The club captain played thirty-two games in midfield alongside Shinji Kagawa, Gündogan, and 19-year-old Mario Götze. That year, Dortmund completed the double. They won the league by eight points and Kehl lifted the Meisterschale in the Westfalenstadion for the third time in his career. The team then went on to collect their second trophy, beating league runners-up Bayern Munich 5-2 in the DFB Pokal final. Despite being the third of his career, this Bundesliga victory was different for Kehl. He had won it not only as a mainstay on the field but also as the club’s captain who had stayed with them through a decade of ups and down. The 32-year-old Kehl had elevated himself to the status of a club legend.

Borussia Dortmund v SC Freiburg - Bundesliga Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images

The following year Kehl helped Dortmund challenge for both the Bundesliga and Champions league, this time coming up short in both. Going into the 2014-2015 season, Kehl announced that it would be his last. He withdrew himself from the club captaincy and Mats Hummels replaced him. His final match was once again another final, the ninth of his playing career, as Dortmund were defeated in the DFB Pokal by Wolfsburg. Much like Zorc, he received a sendoff from the Yellow Wall and was given a position on Dortmund’s backroom staff. Kehl’s retirement from playing, much like Zorc’s retirement as sporting director, marked the end of an era for Dortmund.

Kehl The Sporting Director

So why all of that? Why a lengthy, yet still criminally shortened, synopsis of Kehl’s playing career? Well, several reasons. The first is because this article started off with a brief description of who Zorc was, what he did for the club, and why his retirement means so much not just for the club’s sporting qualities, but also for the club’s identity. One of the club’s greatest sources of history and a standard-bearer for the club’s traditional values has moved on. Despite this, his replacement is equally qualified to carry on values that Dortmund fans pride themselves on. Throughout his playing career, Kehl showed a commitment to Dortmund through both lows and highs. With him as sporting director, the expectation should be a continued commitment to both sporting excellence and a Dortmund identity that is the culmination of 113 years of history. He is a Borusse.

The second and, to many, more important reason is that by looking at Kehl’s career we can gain insight into how he will operate as a sporting director. He came to Dortmund in 2002 not because the team promised him the greatest wage, Bayern offered that, but because Michael Zorc and Mathias Sammer offered him a better project. Kehl understands that to win players over you must promise them a successful project that is in line with their personal goals. He also understands what success requires because he experienced different iterations of success. As a player, Kehl worked under serial winners like Mathias Sammer, Jürgen Klopp, Michael Zorc, and players ranging from Lars Ricken to Marco Reus. He is one of the few people who worked for the club across every low and high point in the last twenty years. Kehl has seen three different iterations of Bundesliga-winning teams, what it takes to reach a Champions League final, and what is required to lift the Pokal. These qualities are extremely rare, but Kehl provides all of them due to his time at the club. And as sporting director, he wasted no time putting them to use.

Immediately, Sebastian Kehl has proven how these qualities lead to success in his new role. His first acquisition as he began to take the reins was Niklas Süle. Much like Kehl, Süle was offered more money to play at Bayern but Kehl promised something Bayern could not; an opportunity to be a leader and win the Bundesliga at a club where it will mean more. The Nico Schlotterbeck signing was, again, Kehl luring a player to Dortmund despite more money being offered elsewhere. This time not only did Kehl offer a place where Schlotterbeck could grow as a part of a project, but he also was willing to throw money behind it. Adeyemi, and his fee from Redbull Salzburg, show how Kehl understands to challenge Bayern, Dortmund sometimes have to spend like them. Within a week of Kehl’s ascendency to sporting director, he had three high-profile signings undergoing medicals in club colors. The ongoing summer transfer window is a testament to what we can expect from Kehl; a ‘win at every opportunity’ mentality that aims to challenge a hegemonic Bayern Munich.

Now the final, and perhaps most superfluous, reason that this article detailed Kehl’s playing career is because it makes his new role so much more entertaining for us fans. By contextualizing Kehl in this manner, we can begin to see the plethora of storylines that are beginning to unfold. In 2002, then-coach Mathias Sammer and then-sporting director Michael Zorc gambled to sign a promising Sebastian Kehl to Borussia Dortmund. Twenty years later, sporting consultant Mathias Sammer and Michael Zorc once again put their faith in Kehl to challenge for the Bundesliga. This time as sporting director. Hasan ‘Brazzo’ Salihamidžić, the man who tore Kehl’s knee open with an egregious challenge in 2006 is now the sporting director at the very club Kehl seeks to supplant at the top of the Bundesliga. Despite losing two European finals during his career at Dortmund, Kehl now seeks to build a BVB team that will not just qualify for the Champions League, but potentially win it as well. Will Kehl repay the trust put into him by his old colleagues? Will he get his revenge on Brazzo and Bayern? Can he finally lift a continental competition with Dortmund? These are the reasons why you should be excited to see what Kehl does as sporting director despite the cloud of uncertainty.

The passing of Zorc’s crown might be the end of an era for Borussia Dortmund, but it is the start of a new one that promises so much. It marks the continuation of tradition while pushing a new man to the forefront of the club. To steal an apt phrase from medieval monarchists: “The king is dead, long live the king.”

Let me know if you made it this far and if you like these deep dives into people at the club. I know it’s a bit different than the usual stuff so please feel free to give any input because it’s all welcome. Thanks for reading!