International Soccer

Borussia Dortmund defy the odds in 1997

Borussia Dortmund’s own website dubbed it a “triumph of the ages” on the 25th anniversary of the club’s greatest hour, triumphing over Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final.

As reigning European champions, Juventus were considered overwhelming favourites.

Marcello Lippi’s side had done in the previous year’s final what the great AC Milan of mid-1990s could not and bested Louis van Gaal’s generational Ajax team.

They had lost captain Gianluca Vialli and prolific strike partner Fabrizio Ravanelli since then, but Christian Vieri and Alen Boksic weren’t exactly shabby replacements. Paolo Montero was the perfect uncompromising foil for Ciro Ferrara at the back, while there was also the small matter of bringing in a 24-year-old Frenchman by the name of Zinedine Zidane.

Juventus would shortly win Serie A again for the second time in three seasons as they wrestled domestic power away from Milan, conceding only 24 times in 34 games. Only one goal in six Champions League group games went past starting Italy goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi, also beating Manchester United home and away in the opening phase, before thrashing Ajax in the semi-finals.

They were, in short, a team who struck fear into the heart of everyone across Europe.

Juventus were reigning European champions from 1996

Juventus were reigning European champions from 1996 / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

Dortmund and Juventus had previously met in the 1993 UEFA Cup final, which the latter won 6-1 over two legs. Juve later knocked Dortmund out at the semi-final stage of the same competition in 1995, while the following season’s Champions League group stage saw Dortmund’s only win in the fixture – a dead rubber as far as Juventus were concerned after previously sweeping them away.

BVB were Germany’s pre-eminent club in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the Bundesliga era gave rise to Bayern Munich, and they had reached a European Cup semi-final in 1964. But they had faded into relative obscurity over the decades that followed.

That all changed in 1991, with the appointment of Ottmar Hitzfeld – in 2001 he later become only the second manager to win the European Cup with two different clubs – and an aggressive recruitment strategy in the transfer market. Dortmund started to do well in the UEFA Cup and in 1994/95 landed a first German title in 32 years. They then retained it a year later.

For all Juventus’ prestige, this wasn’t exactly a Dortmund team of nobodies.

Matthias Sammer was presented with the 1996 Ballon d’Or just months earlier. Stefan Reuter had been deemed good enough in 1991, a time when Serie A was the best league in the world, to join Juventus, while Paulo Sousa was in the Juve team that had lifted the Champions League trophy. Jurgen Kohler, another former Juventus player, Andreas Moller and Karl-Heinz Riedle were all World Cup winners with Germany in 1990. Sammer, Reuter, Kohler and Moller had won Euro ’96 too.

But they were riddled with problems heading into the 1997 final. Leading centre-back Julio Cesar had missed much of the season through injury and was unavailable. Rene Schneider and Steffen Freund were also ruled out, with Moller, Riedle, Sammer, Kohler, Reuter, Sousa and Heiko Herrlich all overcoming various fitness concerns to make the squad for the game at Munich’s Olympiastadion.

Lars Ricken, forever a Dortmund legend because of the role he played in the Champions League triumph – including scoring the killer semi-final goal at Old Trafford, was a doubt for a different reason. The 20-year-old was doing his mandatory military service at the time and had to beg for time off to be available for the final, even avoiding a three-day spell in military prison after accidentally leaving his locker open with access to his rifle and firearms license.

Hitzfeld expected Juventus to take a lead and, in true Italian catenaccio style, sit on it. It prompted him to cut defender and semi-final hero Wolfgang Feiersinger from the squad in favour or more attacking options on the bench. “That was one of the hardest decisions in my life.”

But Juventus didn’t take the lead, Dortmund did.

Riedle, for whom it was a last game with BVB prior to an unsuccessful spell with Liverpool, latched onto a cross from functional Scotland international Paul Lambert, having recycled the ball from a corner, chesting the ball down and lashing it in from close-range before Peruzzi could reach it.

Juventus didn’t have time to respond before another corner was their downfall again. Moller’s in-swinging delivery was met powerfully by Riedle’s head from eight yards and hit the net in the blink of an eye. Dortmund were 2-0 up with 34 minutes played.

Prior to half-time, Zidane hit the post and Vieri saw a goal disallowed. After the break, goalkeeper Stefan Klos produced an excellent save from Boksic and then Vieri, with the resistance eventually broken a few minutes past the hour mark. It was a moment of brilliant ingenuity from Alessandro del Piero, readjusting his feet to flick in Boksic’s low cross into the six-yard box with his heel.

The expectation at that point was for Juventus, seemingly with the momentum on their side, to throw everything at Dortmund to equalise. Yet it was Ricken, having waited for his chance off the bench despite his impact in previous rounds, who had the next and final say only six minutes later.

Few expected Dortmund to win their first European Cup

Few expected Dortmund to win their first European Cup / Christian Liewig – Corbis/GettyImages

Juventus were indeed piling forward, which left spaces to be exploited. So when Sousa stole possession and fed Moller, he could see the gap opening up in front of Ricken and threaded the ball into the path of his young teammate. With defenders closing in fast, the midfielder could have tried to hang onto possession to run even just a bit more time off the clock. But he spied an opportunity instead, with Peruzzi standing off his line, and took on the first time lob that floated over the goalkeeper’s head and restored Dortmund’s two-goal lead.

Even with almost 20 minutes plus stoppage time left, Juventus had no response.

Veteran club captain, home-grown hero and the future sporting director who helped rebuild Dortmund in the wake of near financial oblivion in 2005, Michael Zorc only managed to get on the pitch at the very end but was still urged by his teammates to lift the trophy.

Hitzfeld left Dortmund that summer, landing the job at Bayern Munich, who he guided to the brink of Champions League glory in 1999, before getting over the line in 2001. As for Ricken, he spent his whole career with his boyhood team, but saw the enormous potential that was on display for all of Europe to see in 1997 ultimately limited by injury trouble. He played his last senior game aged 30.

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