The dressing rooms at Signal Iduna Park are buried deep in the stadium.
Fresh coats of emulsion aside, they haven’t been renovated properly since the ground’s opening in 1974.
Nothing that has happened to Borussia Dortmund since has left a mark down there. Not the great industrial decline in the Ruhr Valley in the 1980s and the mass unemployment that followed. Not their Icarus-like rise and fall of the 1990s, nor the rebirth under Hans-Joachim Watzke and climb back towards the top of the game.
There are no aphorisms or slogans stencilled on the wall, nor even a hint of black or yellow.
An unvarnished table sits in the middle of the floor with two or three feet of space either side, while iron hooks line the walls. The only clue as to what lies above comes from the tiny stickers with each player’s name and photo on, placed next to those hooks, telling you who changes where. Otherwise, this could be any dressing room at any level of the game in any part of the world.
And Dortmund want it that way.
The first-team players spend just a few days a month at Signal Iduna Park, so available funding has been better directed towards the club’s training facility, but it’s meant that as this temple of football has grown and been expanded — new parts were bolted on in the 1990s and then again before Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup — these dressing rooms have remained locked in time.
The dressing rooms sit deep beneath the stadium at Signal Iduna Park (Photo: Seb Stafford-Bloor)
What a privilege to be there.
It must be such a special place on a matchday. Football may have evolved, but the minutes waiting for the referee’s knocks are the same. Studs tapping on the floor, nervous hollering bouncing between the walls, the stands high above rumbling with anticipation. Imagine that. The surge of adrenaline, the heart rate.
What a place to be.
Especially ahead of a Rivierderby.
The Dortmund-Schalke rivalry simmers with a deep animosity that only geographical proximity can incubate.
In the minutes before kick-off, as yellow and blue clouds of pyro rise out of opposite stands and converge into a thick cordite fog over the pitch, that dressing room must be ready to break through its walls.
Carsten Cramer is one of Dortmund’s managing directors and has been at the club since 2010.
He’s forthright and precise when he talks, even in a second language. On the eve of the weekend’s game, in a suite high above the stadium on a dusky Friday, he’s holding up one of the club’s famous black and yellow shirts to a room of journalists.
“It’s a very simple message,” he says. “It’s no coincidence the club’s name is on the top (across the shoulders) and not the player’s name (which is printed further down, below the numbers). The club is the message.”
Cramer believes what he’s saying. In a sport dominated by the few and where the finest players now march to the wealthiest clubs at ever-earlier ages, finding affirmation in identity can seem like a necessary refuge. In the German Bundesliga, which offers atmosphere, affordability and fan experience as a counter-weight to Bayern Munich’s decade of domestic dominance, that’s probably even more true.
Cramer is a realist. He understands what’s happening elsewhere in the global game and how Dortmund’s place within it is challenged by the migration patterns and developing trends. But he’s defiant and convincing.
“We have been playing football for 113 years,” he says. “We did so with Erling Haaland and without Erling Haaland. We did it with Robert Lewandowski and without him, and the club is still able to attract 81,000 people. We are always sold out.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with Cramer.
He’s slender and dressed all in black and while he’s cordial and warm and happy to grant an audience, he punches out sentences in German-inflected English with absolute conviction. It’s compelling. Especially so with Signal Iduna Park looming through the window behind him.
The ground is a wonder. Inside, it’s like something that has been chiselled out of a coalface. It’s dark and heavy, and even with nobody else there it has a distinct gravity.
Die Gelbe Wand, the Yellow Wall, is its world-famous south stand, and walking on those steps feels more like an invasion than barging through the dressing-room door.
The capos’ platforms are there, alongside the crude, circular drum-holders. It’s the stadium’s engine room, its heartbeat; in less than 24 hours, it will be a valley of smoke and fire and noise, a vivid symbol of the city’s love and loathing.
When full, Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall is one of the most striking sights in European football (Photo: Seb Stafford-Bloor)
Jurgen Klopp should never have been allowed to coach in such a stadium. Combining his rhetoric and personality with Signal Iduna Park’s potency seems at best ludicrously unfair and at worst deeply irresponsible. On all sides, the roof slopes down over its sharp-banked tiers, meaning the noise that rises out of those stands is sent back down towards the pitch. The noise must be unholy.
After the game, I ask United States international Giovanni Reyna who the Dortmund leaders are during a derby. Who beats their chest? Who growls? I want him to tell me it’s Jude Bellingham, so that I can confirm what I think I’ve seen and mine a valuable little paragraph from the occasion. No chance. He doesn’t know. It was just too loud on the pitch to hear anything above that barrage of noise.
Dortmund are second in the Bundesliga, with five wins and two losses from seven games (Photo: Seb Stafford-Bloor)
And that’s how the 2022 Revierderby starts: loudly. When the players’ studs have clattered and that knock has come on the dressing-room doors, the two teams walk down the sloping tunnel, towards the light, and out into a furnace of colour, sound and seething local hatred.
What is the Bundesliga? Whatever it may be, its spirit dwells in those moments — those flourishes of spirit and expression. It has its challenges and its problems and its conundrums to solve, but it’s a league of matchdays in which context matters only so much as you allow it to.
Fundamentally, it’s a league that can really move you. There are experiences to be found within it that can stir the soul, and this is unquestionably one of them.
I’m new to it. I’ve only lived in Germany for a few years now and I haven’t even scratched the surface.
At first, I tried to learn the league. I read books and watched games and absorbed everything I possibly could, only to find that really — as is true everywhere — the country’s footballing culture is only discoverable in person. It’s at the end of a train line or outside a stadium. It’s in listening to someone tell you how they fell in love with a club or why fan ownership matters to them.
That process, I’ve learned, is going to take years, decades.
The other thing I’ve learned recently is that, yes, when they call you late at night, the police really do ask if you’re sitting down.
Most of my year has been spent in England.
In early February, a frantic 24 hours ended back in the hospital where I was born, with a doctor closing the door behind him and telling me my mother had two inoperable brain tumours and they were investigating a further mass in her right lung.
I knew something had been wrong. In late 2021, she had complained of pain in her shoulder. It was probably just a pulled muscle, she said, and for me not to worry. As autumn turned to winter she started to fall over, too. She’d phone and laugh in that self-deprecating way of hers, describing how she’d had to be scooped up by a stranger, but “don’t worry, you know the council doesn’t grit those roads when it’s icy”.
But in February our delusion fell apart. Doctors rarely tell you someone is going to die. Instead, they use words like ‘palliative’ and ‘symptom control’ which sound nicer but which somehow give you even less hope. I’m an only child and she was long-divorced, so I moved to England, lived out of a bedroom at my father’s house and held her hand as she walked towards the end.
I don’t know if I was a good carer. I learned to sort the drugs every day and I got better at the cleaning and cooking while we waited for the hospice workers to arrive. One month became two, two became three. What a strange existence.
I always thought football would be my sanctuary. In my mind, if something like that ever happened, I thought I would be one of those people to find solace in the game’s powerful meaninglessness. Perhaps I’d lose myself in the recesses of a new league. Maybe I’d affect a lilt in my voice when talking about Italian football or roll my Rs too much after a weekend of La Liga. Maybe I’d become insufferable and lose my remaining friends.
No, as it turns out. If there is a metaphor to employ, it’s probably that of living underground and between two rooms separated by a long, dimly lit corridor. In one room, you sleep, eat and try to complete your work at a reasonable hour, in the other you watch a disease tear through someone you love. In the long corridor, you actually care about nothing else at all.
At the beginning of May, hospice care relieved me and I went back to Hamburg. I was home to see Tottenham beat Arsenal in the north London derby and to feel quite connected again. The Monday following, like every other Spurs supporter, I was watching Arsenal’s game at St James’ Park. It was May 16 and an own goal had just put Newcastle in front. They were excellent. They spent that night banging away at Arsenal’s half-fit defence and anyone watching knew — just knew — how that game was going to finish and what its implications were going to be.
How wonderful. Not the result or experience, but just that sense of investment again. It’s actually a privilege to care deeply about football and I’d never realised. All of that adrenaline and tension, the way you shift and twitch in your stadium or sofa seat… that’s not guaranteed. But it was back and it was overwhelming.
And then the phone rang.
Truth be told, once the police ask if you’re sitting down, you don’t really hear much else. You don’t hear them tell you that they have very bad news or that your mother has died. I noticed Bruno Guimaraes scoring a second for Newcastle — I have no idea why I didn’t turn the television off — but I have little memory of anything else, other than the officer sounding young and nervous and full of compassion.
The days and weeks afterwards were the same. A lighter, easier experience, but a numbing, bureaucratic trudge through official procedure and organisational hoops. It has left me in standby mode.
I function outwardly as normal — at least I hope so — but my emotional responses are bizarre. To football, too, which has grown this new set of associations. Tottenham games remind me of my mum — not her laugh or her voice or the many things she did for me, but her death and the fact I wasn’t there when it happened.
It won’t last forever, at least not in the same way, but it is a strange place to be left in.
Being a neutral in a stadium is such a privilege. Being a neutral during a derby is especially so because you notice so much more.
Long after the south stand has settled down and the pyro fog has melted away, you can see it ripple in time with the action on the pitch. Not quite with the violence of those old terraces, which would jerk people back and forth, metres at a time, but enough to be a sonogram of the game itself.
When nothing is happening, little clouds of smoke puff rhythmically out of the stand, betraying a thousand crafty cigarettes.
Dortmund’s 1-0 win over Schalke boosted their prospects as they aim to win their first title since 2012 (Photo: Seb Stafford-Bloor)
Dortmund and Schalke hate each other. It’s not rivalry, it’s loathing. Dortmund against Bayern is a business rivalry. These games are part of an eternal feud. They are two flawed teams, too. Dortmund are fast but open, and in the first half they are disconnected in attack and vulnerable on the break. They also lose Marco Reus, whose ankle ligaments are damaged in a tangle with Florian Flick. The stadium sags with disappointment as the 33-year-old is carried from the pitch in tears, his last chance at a World Cup suddenly in jeopardy.
“Auf wiedersehen!” mock the Schalke fans in the corner, setting light to their bright red flares and stoking the feud. The rest of the ground seethes with fury, sending a noise that rises up across the pitch, high above the players and into the layer of cordite hanging in the air.
Signal Iduna Park was filled with smoke and fire on Saturday for one of Germany’s most hostile derbies (Photo: Seb Stafford-Bloor)
After half-time, word spreads that Augsburg are leading against Bayern and Dortmund’s search for a goal grows more tense.
Schalke revel in their role as spoiler. Won throw-ins become fist-pumping victories and a chiselled-out corner draws a mighty roar from the visiting fans. Every Dortmund attack that dies fortifies Schalke’s defence further and with just 12 minutes left, this seems likely to be another day when the gap shows — when Bayern either dig their way out of another hole or somehow find a way of winning even in defeat.
With 11 minutes left, that changes.
Youssoufa Moukoko escapes his marker to score at the foot of the Yellow Wall and draw an extraordinary noise from the stadium. It’s guttural and frenzied, the kind that straightens your back and hits you square in the heart.
The 17-year-old is almost overcome by what he’s done and runs to the corner, before spreading his arms, closing his eyes and roaring at the sky. He’s quickly lost under a pile of Dortmund players, but as they celebrate in a far corner, the beer continues to spray from every part of the ground. Above and below, to one side and the other, it’s as if Signal Iduna Park is weeping hysterically for joy.
Moukoko, 17, earned Dortmund an important win as they adjust to life without Erling Haaland (Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Moukoko might be the game’s next great centre-forward. It’s possible. He’s also charming and has one of those warm, expressive faces. Sometimes players let you down with their flippancy. You watch what they do during a game and see what it appears to mean to them, but then the media training locks that all away. Not for him, though.
In the mixed zone afterwards, his eyes danced as he fielded questions. He knew exactly what that moment meant — to him, to them, to everyone in that tiny, spartan dressing room and beyond.
As he talks, Schalke staff haul containers of kit to their team bus and, at one point, a battalion of police even stomp through the stadium underpass with shields and batons in pursuit of distant sirens. When he finishes his interviews, Moukoko sits on the steps above the dressing room, texting while he waits for his car to appear and the supporters outside to melt away from the stadium into the bars and restaurants and then, finally, back into their lives.
It is the final act of a quintessential piece of Bundesliga theatre.
To some, this league is uncompetitive and short of the star power that drives a competition such as the Premier League. But to others, its games feel more like spectacles, part of something larger than what the final league table looks like each May. It has the capacity to reach people, regardless of where their loyalties lie, and that is something truly rare.
Derbies are always rich in those qualities, but that seems indicative of the tone of the German game as a whole. It’s comforting in its depth. It’s full of dedication and stories of sincerity. Nothing about the visible symbols of all that commitment — the flares, the noise, the fire, the cheap travel and tickets — are suggestive of this being just a distraction, either. It’s a place to actually be, not somewhere just to hide and recover while the weather changes, and perhaps the truth behind football’s enduring appeal is exactly that.
Recently, I read an article that compared grief and the process of recovery to the act of climbing down a mountain. That’s a simple but compelling metaphor and it makes enough sense: everyone has to find their own route, in their own way and in their own time.
If there is a flaw, perhaps it is in the implication that once down, somebody can just leave the mountain behind and walk away from their grief, never to see it again.
It might be better, for instance, to find ways of living with the inevitability of sickness and loss, and of challenging whatever it leaves behind. Whether that be sorrow, regret or anger — probably all three, all at the same time — the counter would seem to be something enlivening, something that blows the dust from your eyes.
And there are definitely places in football where you can do that.