In soccer-mad German town, no whiff of FIFA's foul winds

Corruption investigators are circling soccer's global governing body, FIFA. But in Dortmund, there's no dampening of grass-roots enthusiasm for the local side, which draws the largest average attendance in the world.

Sara Miller Llana
A stand sells merchandise of the Borussia Dortmund football club in Dortmund, Germany.

This week's arrest of top FIFA officials on corruption charges may have rocked the soccer world, but it’s done little if anything to shake the faith of fans here in arguably the most diehard soccer town in the world. 

“FIFA? The mafia,” says the salesman at a Borussia Dortmund fan shop, a sea of the team’s black and yellow, as he follows the latest news over the radio. What’s he thinking about today? Game day, of course.

Game day or not, Dortmund is a proud soccer city. So is Munich, and Manchester, or any number of European cities and towns with famous home teams. But here in Dortmund, a scrappy former industrial town in the Ruhr valley where there’s not much else to rally around, the ubiquitous team scarves, posters, stickers, banners, magnets – and all other manner of fan merchandise – stand out all that much more.

The centrality of soccer in Dortmund shapes its tourism industry: The “best location” boasted by hotels or reviewed by guests does not mean centrally located next to the train station or historic downtown, but close to the beloved Westfalenstadion. And researching the town's history in newspaper archives requires sifting through reams of soccer stories first, before finding the rare piece on Dortmund’s economy or politics.

“Have you been to the stadium?” asks Merle Stoecker, a blond pony-tailed local who works in sports management. “It has the best ambiance of any stadium.”

In fact, Westfalenstadion is the largest in Germany, and boasts the highest average attendance of any club in the world, at least according to 2013/14 numbers (and every Dortmund resident questioned).

“Well, people from Munich might say they are the most passionate about their team,” Stroecker says. “[But] Dortmund is the most passionate. We are born with it.”

Soon it won’t even be a question. Across from the fan store, where the salesman is lovingly arranging a row of yellow T-shirts, Germany’s new soccer museum is preparing to open in the fall. According to its website, the German Football Museum won’t just be about preservation but a “living forum of encounters,” of talks, presentations, and other entertainment by the entire “footballing family.” “It will be a place where the emotional history of Germany’s football can be experienced and where the joy of football will be celebrated,” it reads. 

But Dortmund hardly needs an institution to affirm its lifelong love. On game days, streets and public transport are brimming, and victories bring all-night revelry. Some locals lament the detours and hassles the games create – not to mention the expense of policing games and dealing with a small but disruptive right-wing hooligan element. When the team plays its biggest arch rival, the North Rhine-Westphalia state police say they dispatch 1,500 officers. One fan sticker at a kebab stand across from the train station has an answer: “Love Borussia, not fascists,” it reads.

Most just experience the team joyfully, however, like one older gentleman in a royal blue sweater and vest. He is carrying a bag with the team’s colors and inside is a black and yellow lunch box and black soccer ball – a birthday present for his grandson, he says.

He doesn’t pay much attention to the money – though according to his city's new museum, 8 million euros of the budget is being supplied by excess earnings from the 2006 FIFA World Cup, held in Germany.

What’s he personally think about FIFA?

“We don’t care,” he says and changes the subject. “Do you want to buy something? There’s a fan store – just there.”

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