The Greatest Fans on Earth

A startup soccer team in Dortmund once gave the steelworkers and coalminers of this hardscrabble German city something to live for. A century later, their die-hard descendants are still bleeding black and yellow.

The Greatest Fans on Earth

There are cities that have everything, there are cities that have nothing, and somewhere between glistening skyscrapers and fallen walls is a city that has one thing.

That place is Dortmund and that thing is soccer.

Dortmund barely existed until the late 1800s, when a steel factory was built. The steel workers who brought their families to create this city in northwest Germany worked all day killing themselves, and then formed a soccer team and found they had more energy after work.

Borussia Dortmund, or BVB, was formally introduced in 1909 as a club for the men of steel and coal, to provide a weekly exertion that didn’t consist solely of beer and gambling. It gave them something to live for other than surviving diseases and broken limbs.

A view of Dortmund's industrial skyline today. (Photo: Holger H. / Flickr)
A view of Dortmund’s industrial skyline today. (Photo: Holger H. / Flickr)

A century later, the steel plant that once employed 40,000 men was bought by a giant corporation, dismantled and shipped to China. The main coal plant is now a museum, one of several industrial monuments that, along with the massive soccer stadium and sporadic church spires, shape Dortmund’s rustic, low-lying skyline.

But the people who lived off their weekly paycheck never left, and instead of hauling metals and shuffling rocks, they’re shipping natural gas and hawking cell phones, selling insurance and typing on computers. And still, they all need another reason to pump out five days of work every week.

BVB’s black and gold stain the streets here as if a giant bumblebee exploded over the city and nobody bothered to clean it up. Stickers, clothing, signs, flags, logos — even garbage cans — are black and yellow. Walk down any avenue in Dortmund and it feels as if you’ve suddenly become a weird kind of colorblind.

A compilation of BVB fans’ most passionate moments.

I came here because they claim to have the best soccer fans in the world. During one week, I met a lot of them — including a player whose name used to be shouted from the stands, and a family that does a lot of that shouting. They carry different stories of this industrial German city, but what I learned from each of them is that Dortmund needs soccer, and in a way, soccer needs Dortmund.

The Most Famous Street Sweeper in Germany

Mrs. Gunter asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, and the class clown sensed an opportunity. Little eight-year-old Knut announced to the room, “I want to be a street sweeper.”

Bull’s eye. The other kids joined in — suddenly, they wanted to be street sweepers, too. Frustrated, Mrs. Gunter couldn’t calm the rebellion, and couldn’t control Knut.

Later that year during a sort of school field day, the kids were tasked with throwing a ball as far as they could. Most of them could throw it eighty or ninety feet. Knut grabbed the ball.

“Go long,” he told Mrs. Gunter.

She stepped back.

“Keep going,” Knut said.

He launched the ball 200 feet, over her head and over the fence. Mrs. Gunter stared at Knut. He was a monster.

But even monsters can grow up. As a teenager, Knut Reinhardt matured, perhaps more quickly than other kids his age. He was good at soccer and, thanks to a growth spurt when he was sixteen, became one of the most-watched young players in Germany. He wanted to stop going to class every day and commit to the sport, but his father insisted that he finish high school.

A BVB fan shows his pride after a raucous post-match celebration. (Photo: March Vetch / Flickr)
A BVB fan shows his pride after a raucous post-match celebration. (Photo: March Vetch / Flickr)

“I saw that I would be a football player, and I said, ‘I don’t need an education. For what? I am a football player,’” Knut says. “Now I am very thankful for my father that he said, ‘Finish your school.’”

Playing for Germany’s national youth team brought more pressure than Knut had ever known. He turned to music for focus. Before each match, he would pop the soundtrack from “Rocky IV” into his Discman. He kept doing that when BVB signed him.

In thirteen years as a midfielder for BVB, like Rocky, Knut earned the badge of a fighter. Sometimes literally. He was fast, brash and quick-thinking, occasionally all at once, like when he sprinted across the field to avenge a teammate by assaulting an opponent from Stuttgart. But his body paid the price, and after seven knee operations, he had to stop.

As a star player he found money and fame, and women like that sort of thing, and so do people who call themselves friends. But without his jersey he found that the trappings of a celebrity life evaporated quickly. Maybe it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then again, maybe it was — he was lonely.

“You need a lot of discipline,” he said.

He drank. Vodka did the trick.

Knut was trying to find his way for the first time in his life. He had just gotten out of a relationship when one of the friends who stuck around, a teacher, gave him the number of a girl he should call.

It took two glasses of wine before he was comfortable enough to call her, at eleven p.m. on a Saturday. She answered. She knew nothing about soccer, about who he was. It was perfect. She asked him what his job was. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the child inside…

“I’m a street sweeper,” Knut told her.

The response from his future wife: “That’s a good job.”

The joke didn’t last long, particularly as questions arose when they went out — questions like, “Why does everyone know the street sweeper?”

It was the turn of the millennium and Knut tried to restart his soccer career. But his knees kept giving him trouble, and he gave up after rehab. Soccer would never be an option again.

“That’s tough,” Knut said. “You are very popular, and then one year, you’re finished.”

So Knut thought back to when he was a student, when his father told him to finish school, and Knut decided he’d try his hand at being a teacher. He liked kids, because he was a kid at heart. He was kind of like the German bread roll called brötchen—hard on the outside, soft in the center.

For five years, Knut spent his days at a technical university in Dortmund, studying and sometimes partying with students a dozen years younger, and returning every night to his wife and eventually two children.

“Then I have to study, and at night I’m learning,” he said. “I was so busy, and I have to learn, and the tests — every time, the tests — it was a very tough time. It was crazy.”

He had to learn to teach sports, math and German, and then practice for two years in the classroom before he became the real deal.

One of the schools he practiced at was in the northern part of Dortmund, where everyone knows to lock their cars and stay vigilant. Four out of every five kids in the classroom are migrants; some don’t speak German. When they get breaks from school, they stay at home and play video games, too poor to travel and without direction from their parents, who are often drunk.

After seeing that, Knut knew he wanted to devote his life to those kids. But first, he needed to pass a final exam.

“You have to have the same discipline in soccer,” he said. “You need discipline for studying. To fix the targets and get the targets, and the next target, target, target…”

When he was a midfielder, Knut had known many tests. The worst one was after a sharp injury to his knee that made it nearly impossible to play. If he sat out of the match, he would lose his spot to another player. Knut popped some painkillers and walked onto the field, and as soon as he did, he heard 80,000 people scream, “KNNUUUUUUUUUUUUUTTT!”

“It was like a Boeing 747 one meter behind you,” he says. “An unbelievable feeling.”

The pain went away. Adrenaline coursed underneath his skin. He floated across the field as if he were on drugs. He kept his spot.

There was no one chanting his name as he walked into the classroom on the day of his final test. He had to plan two lessons — one for little kids, one for bigger kids — and present for an hour. The riskiest part was his idea for one of his lessons: He had scattered parts of Rubik’s Cubes around the room and instructed the kids to find the matching pairs. If they couldn’t find them, he would fail.

His mentor, the assistant director of the school who was younger than Knut, watched him nervously. But the kids found the cubes. Knut got a B.

He’s been teaching for eight years and it’s let him express that child within — not the child that acted out, but the child who learned to channel that energy in the right direction. The mascot he chose for his classroom is the Pink Panther. He starts every day by writing words on a Smart Board and instructing the students to pick the right picture that goes with it. He uses soccer terms, like “national team.”

“Everybody knows that I was a football player, and football is the same as life,” he says. “You have to work hard to be on top, so that’s from my heart to give to the children. You don’t have to be the best, but if you work hard, you get your target.”

One day when Knut was going through his school mailbox, which normally includes fan letters asking for autographs, he saw an envelope from Mrs. Gunter, his old grade-school teacher, over whose head he had thrown that ball. She had been following his career, and wrote that she was glad he had become a teacher.

It was the report card he always needed.

Sitting in his dining room hours before kickoff at BVB’s stadium, Knut told me he still has the letter, at the bottom of a box of things he’ll never throw away. He planned to watch the Dortmund match at home with his family that evening, but he said that when he watches the games at the stadium, he doesn’t sit with the echelon of ticket holders who treat football like a business opportunity, even though, as a former player, he could sit pretty much anywhere. Instead, Knut joins the true fans, the people who chanted his name that day and healed his knee.

His kids, nine and thirteen, walked into the room. One of them, a midfielder like his dad, was still wearing his jersey from a soccer match he had lost.

Of course, they know all about his past life as a soccer star. But when they ask their dad to tell them stories, he prefers the tales of a young man named Knut Reinhardt who used to sweep the streets of Dortmund.

The Blame Game

They never really had a choice. Larissa and Fabian Lienig were two years old when their dad dressed them in BVB jerseys, posed them by their cribs with a black-and-yellow soccer ball and photographed them.

Two years later, Fabian, the older twin by one minute, watched BVB for the first time, sitting on his dad’s knee because he had only one ticket to the match. Larissa had to wait until she was six.

As toddlers they slept in the same room, and now as they approach adulthood they still find that it’s BVB that brings them together every week. They’ve hijacked their dad’s season tickets and watch every home game in the northwest part of the palatial stadium, rising and hugging when BVB scores, consoling and muttering when they give one up.

There’s a sprinkle of crazy that runs in this family.

I met their dad, Kalli, at Zum Sauren, a mahogany BVB pub in the center of Dortmund. He was playing dice, a game called knobeln, which is like Yahtzee but with more beer. I asked him about the upcoming matches and he pulled out his wallet. Plastered to the inside flap was a Post-it note with the BVB schedule scrawled on it — every date, opponent and location. He made it with a friend, and apparently was so proud of it that he showed it off to everyone in the bar.

The next day, I met his twin children at the same bar, and they took turns describing their indoctrination.

“In my life there’s football, then nothing,” Fabian said. The daily schedule of this high school senior is classes, the FIFA video game, his own soccer training, and sleep.

“We had no chance to choose — there was no choice,” Larissa said of their life in black and yellow. Before every weekly match she sends a text message to a friend, something along the lines of, “We’re going to win!”

Concerned BVB fans take in a close match. (Photo: Marco Vetch / Flickr)
Concerned BVB fans take in a close match. (Photo: Marco Vetch / Flickr)

A few years ago, Fabian ate a bratwurst with mustard before a match. BVB won. So now he eats a bratwurst with mustard before kickoff every week, with no exceptions — even when celebrating Kalli’s birthday last year at a restaurant. Their stomachs were as full as they could be, but he still fit that brat in.

They mourn together. When one of their favorite players, the Dortmund native Mario Götze, left for their rival in Munich, neither of them believed the news until it was official. They call it one of the darkest moments of their lives. Later that year when Gotze played against BVB in Dortmund, he was surrounded by a tornado of whistles (the European version of booing). Gotze scored against BVB, and Fabian and Larissa just sat there with their mouths aching.

“I couldn’t whistle any more,” Fabian said.

Last year, in a bizarre turn of events that only the universe understands, both of them broke their knee at the same time. Larissa did it while training for a handball match (she’s a goalkeeper, and much better at it than at soccer) and Fabian while playing soccer. He was up 2-0 and wanted to score again, so he ran through a defender and chipped the ball over the keeper — then crashed into him. The ball, at least, bounced into the net.

With both of them sidelined for a year — and with Kalli in a state of grief as his vicarious life was put on hold — they had to watch every second of soccer to make up for the action they were missing. The best match came shortly after Fabian’s knee operation. They were watching Dortmund fight for a playoff spot in Málaga, and BVB was down 2-1 with five minutes left.

Fabian’s knee felt like an anvil dragging his body into the couch. But he ignored the pain as BVB dropped a ball into the net to tie the game — and then finished Malaga off with another. Two goals in five minutes, and Fabian was leaping off the couch hugging his sister and throwing pillows, his throbbing bomb of a knee be damned.

Pretty much the only thing that Larissa and Fabian don’t do together is watch the away games. Fabian watches those with his best friends; Larissa goes to her grandparents’ apartment in western Dortmund, which is where Kalli picked me up the next day.

“Today my English is not so good because…no alcohol,” he laughed. He was wearing his yellow BVB jersey, and the key in the ignition hung on a BVB pendant. It was a Champions League playoff, the first of two against Real Madrid. Last year, he went to the stadium with Larissa to watch the same teams square off. Larissa had a molar removed and her cheek was swollen like a tumor; a bartender ended up giving her a bag of ice to ease the pain as she cheered.

Inside the tiny apartment, Kalli’s wife, Carmen, holds a picture of her father from the early 1960s. He’s standing in a coal mine covered in ash. It’s the same mine that I had visited that day — it’s been shut down for years but the structures still stand, a reminder of the city’s industrial past, just like the twentysomething man who stood in that photograph smiling with his friends in a dark tunnel. Fifty years later, he’s sitting an arm’s length from the TV, wearing magnifying glasses over his glasses.

The match is about to begin. They dim the lights, like at a movie. Kalli grabs another beer. Their grandmother makes a prediction: Dortmund will win, three to zero. “If Granny says three-zero for Dortmund, they will win three-zero,” advises Larissa, wearing her yellow jersey, of course. Across the airwaves we can hear the other fans in yellow who have traveled to Spain.

Real Madrid scores early in the first half. Kalli yells “shizah!” Grandpa mutters at the TV. Larissa gets up — “I know what it is. I don’t have my scarf. That’s it.” She gets it from the other room and returns with it on, chanting with the fans on TV: “Win for us because we love you so.” Carmen is singing too.

Some minutes later, Kalli gets up to go to the bathroom. While he’s gone, Madrid scores again. Grandpa starts another rant, this time that BVB needs to shoot quicker. Kalli returns and the family blames him for the goal — why wasn’t he in the room? There’s always an excuse.

Finally BVB gets a chance on a fast break. The camera moves quickly to catch up with the ball shooting across the other end of the field. Grandpa leans so close to the TV he can probably feel the static coming off the screen. Granny leans in. Carmen leans in. Kalli leans in. Larissa leans in. I lean in.

Nothing happens. Halftime.

Grandpa takes the break to muse about life in Dortmund just after World War II. They had nothing, he says. They played soccer with a broken old ball and no shoes. Their feet hurt, but they enjoyed it. Nowadays, he says, these kids don’t understand. They’re metrosexual, and their hair and shoes are too fancy. It’s not football. It’s something else.

Second half. BVB gets an early chance on another fast break. Grandpa leans in toward the screen again. Everyone leans in and screams. They want it so bad. The ball misses the goal. “Shizah!” screams Kalli again. It’s a corner kick — the family holds out their hands and wiggle their fingers toward the TV. “OOOOOOOHHHHH!” Nothing.

Real Madrid scores for the third time. This time Granny’s to blame. “My fault,” she says, explaining that when she predicted the score, she said “three-zero” when she should have said zero-three.

The room is dark suddenly and it’s not because of the lights. Nothing is going right; they’re getting antsy. “Shizah shizah shizah!” Kalli keeps screaming when the Dortmund players can’t find their target. Carmen and her mother are clutching each other’s hands on a loveseat. Grandpa suggests the referee is unfair based on where he was born. The match ends, three-zero, with Dortmund’s fans chanting louder than ever.

Kalli lets out a big sigh laced with the smell of Krombacher beer. “Ah. It’s O.K.”

A few days later, Larissa works at Zum Suaren on the afternoon of the next match. Her shift ends a half hour before kickoff, and I meet her and Fabian there so we can rush to the stadium together. On the tram, Larissa sends a hopeful text message to her friend like she does before every game; inside the stadium, Fabian eats his bratwurst with mustard.

Even in a stadium with 80,000 seats, it feels as if there aren’t enough.

Looking down toward the net I feel like a kid on a roller coaster just before the plunge. I’m standing on the steps in Dortmund’s legendary fan section, not even near an actual seat number, but nobody notices because nobody uses the seats anyway. There isn’t enough room to raise my arms without brushing against five people who are so close that we basically watch the game in a group hug.

BVB fans fill the stands with their signature black and yellow. (Photo: Peter F. / Flickr)
BVB fans fill the stands with their signature black and yellow. (Photo: Peter F. / Flickr)

My stomach is mostly empty, and the dozen tattooed men around me take care of the rest by passing around cups of beer. Take a sip, pass it on. I smoke a pack of cigarettes just by standing next to them and breathing normally.

This time, Larissa’s scarf stays around her neck the whole evening. There’s no grandma to make a botched prediction, no dad to take an untimely trip to the bathroom. Dortmund gives up an early goal, and the twins console each other. But soon their team gives Larissa and Fabian something to cheer about.

“Lewandowski!!!!” Larissa squeals, hugging her brother as the striker scores. Near the end of the game, Dortmund scores again, and the feeling lasts through the ninetieth minute, leaking outside the stadium, onto the train ride back to their neighborhood and into their home, where Larissa lays in bed that night playing it all over again in her head just before falling asleep.