Now or never: Watzke and BVB have the chance to lead positive reform in European football

Lewis Ambrose
6 min readApr 22, 2021

Borussia Dortmund haven’t won the Bundesliga since 2012 or played in a Champions League semi-final since 2013. Yet chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke, who stepped into the role in 2005 and steered the club from the brink of bankruptcy to German champions within five years, has perhaps never been more powerful.

Watzke recently signed a new contract with Dortmund, keeping him in his role as CEO until December 2025. Michael Zorc, who has stood alongside Watzke as the public face of the club’s backroom operations, is a Dortmund legend. Former captain and Dortmund’s all-time leading goalscorer, Zorc stepped up behind the scenes when he retired in 1998 before becoming sporting director in 2005, and is about to enter his final season with the club.

Watzke has never wielded as much influence inside Dortmund as he is about to. And he has probably never even dreamed he could wield as much influence outside of Dortmund as he probably does now.

After the failed creation of the Super League, Watzke is left sat at the very top table of the European Club Association (ECA) board alongside honorary chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. He is unlikely to retain any meaningful position when he leaves his post as Bayern Munich CEO in 2022. But Bayern will still be represented on the ECA board by Michael Gerlinger. And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain CEO Nasser El-Khalifi, who was appointed the new chairman of the ECA on Wednesday.

All three clubs — Dortmund, Bayern, and PSG — had an option to join the Super League as a “founding” member. All three secured the chance to wait before accepting an invitation to be a Super League founding member that, seemingly, no other club had. And so, the 12 clubs quit the ECA and their boardroom members quit its board. They launched the Super League. And they waited for BVB, Bayern and PSG to follow. But they didn’t follow. They roundly condemned the Super League’s breakaway attempt. Was this a ploy? Secure a Super League spot and see how things pan out before actually committing to it? Or goad the 12 into taking the leap before leaving them for dead and cosying up to UEFA as the new kings of the ECA? Either way, that’s what happened, and now Dortmund and Watzke may be on the precipice of holding an unprecedented amount of influence over European football. An influence that could be used for good.

There is absolutely no escaping that, while the Super League was worse, an immediate and irreversible threat to the European game, UEFA have at worst led, and at best allowed, the erosion of competition across Europe for a long time. The rich have become richer and more dominant. They’ve been allowed to push smaller clubs around and coerce UEFA into assisting them. The latest Champions League reform is one Dortmund fans have managed to campaign against even while locked out of the Westfalenstadion.

It’s also a reform that, in all likelihood, would only ever benefit Dortmund. The new Champions League format would save two places for teams with a strong historical performance who could only qualify for the Europa League or Europa Conference league in their previous season. The reform is set for 2024 but, were it to come in right now, Dortmund would have a good chance of benefitting. Currently fifth in the Bundesliga, they would qualify for the Europa League as things stand but be promoted to the Champions League if one of Liverpool or Chelsea finish in the top four in England (Chelsea are currently fourth) and Arsenal (currently ninth) finish below seventh. Yet Dortmund fans protested nonetheless, because the proposed new system is unfair. And, though the club allowed a banner to sit behind the goal in the Westfalenstadion in recent weeks, those protests were seemingly ignored by the only fans powerful and privileged enough to still attend games. By Watzke.

“The board members of the European Club Association (ECA) came together for a virtual meeting on Sunday evening, where it was agreed that the board’s decision from last Friday still stands,” Watzke said in a statement released on the Dortmund website on Monday.

“This decision dictates that all clubs wish to implement the proposed reforms to the UEFA Champions League.”

Only then did the statement mention the ECA members’ rejection of the Super League project. Dortmund, and Watzke, went against their fans to vote in favour of the new Champions League proposals AND, in the same statement, failed to absolutely rule out their involvement in a Super League. The statement came across as weak and sparked some concerns: were Dortmund keeping the Super League open as an option for later down the line?

According to kicker, on Tuesday, Dortmund had entirely rejected the Super League’s invitation but couldn’t word their statement as strongly as Bayern Munich or PSG. As BVB are on the stock market and have lost around €70–75m this year, flat out refusing an offer as lucrative as the Super League’s could have had legal ramifications.

And a further report, from the Times on Wednesday, brought further hope. Hope that Dortmund could yet oppose the Champions League reforms they voted in favour of just days ago.

Also on Wednesday, Dortmund fans once again voiced their opposition to UEFA’s Champions League reforms. A banner outside the Westfalenstadion ahead of the game against Union Berlin read:

“A Champions League reform as compromise supports those who do not know what compromise is — UEFA, DFB, you hypocrites are playing the same wrong game.”

A new-look ECA board, free of the Spanish giants, the Premier League’s biggest clubs, the Milan clubs and the Super League’s biggest fan and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, could be perfectly suited to twist the screw on UEFA to make changes that don’t benefit the status quo. And the status quo, gone from the ECA, gone from UEFA’s good books and board meetings, and having riled fan anger never seen on such a widespread and continental level, will never be weaker. Not to mention the fact that UEFA’s new format announcement carried a heavy caveat with it.

That change alone would not be enough, but it would be a start. Fans want change and have demanded it for years, but this might be the first time we have witnessed major pushback which has demonstrably changed the plans of Europe’s biggest clubs. Maybe, hopefully, more fans have been awakened to their power, their influence, and the need for their collective action. This time, finally, things went too far.

We avoided the Super League, for now, that was, for so many, the ultimate nightmare scenario. The final straw. And now is the time for further change. As one of the biggest clubs still in the ECA, and one of the biggest to resist the Super League’s greed, Borussia Dortmund now have a unique opportunity to be at the vanguard of a wave of positive change across European football. Rightly or wrongly, and no matter how much of it is just good PR, the club are the wider audience’s poster boy for how football should be.

Whether or not that is deserved, and whether Dortmund have spent the last decade moving increasingly away from genuine ‘Echte Liebe’, doesn’t matter. It can be forgiven. But only if they live up to that half-truth reputation now that 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs have relinquished their power and Dortmund have accepted the platform and position to have a meaningful and lasting positive impact on European football.

They’d better not waste it.