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When we were footballers — Kevin Großkreutz: The ultra who became a World Cup champion

The fourth installment of “When we were footballers” follows the Dortmund-native who ended up winning back-to-back titles in front of his friends on the Südtribüne. 

Photo by sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

Introduction

February 26, 2011 – Borussia Dortmund have beaten Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena 3-1, their first victory in Munich in 20 years. Die Roten away was Dortmund’s last hurdle to one of the most sensational league titles in recent football memory. Facing the football giant in Munich, whose squad was worth at least three times as much, the young kids outran and outclassed Louis van Gaal’s Bayern.

Munich-raised Mats Hummels smashed in a bolt of a header to make it 3-1 and football was changed. Klopp’s gegenpressing became famous the world over and is now something that more or less every team uses.

Whether you are a Bayern fan or not, it is impossible to deny the beauty of a triumph by a team that was near bankruptcy five years before, winning the league with a small budget and hungry hearts. The 2010/11 Dortmund title was special in so many ways: Jürgen Klopp’s romantic coaching style, young academy products and bargain signings winning the title instead of millionaires, and a Yellow Wall of 25,000 fans.

Hans-Joachim Watzke, CEO of Borussia Dortmund, once said that you can’t call a football supporter a “customer.” You can get away with it in the Premier League, but not in Germany. Dortmund’s title-winning squad was a team that played for the fans and one that was literally part of the Südtribüne.

No one epitomizes the link between the supporter stands and the pitch more than Kevin Großkreutz – Südtribüne’s own World Cup winner.

Raised in the stands

Kevin Großkreutz was born on July 19, 1988, in the historical coal-mining district Eving in Dortmund. Eving’s unemployment rate was high after the coal mine closed down in 1987. Kevin’s dad was a miner, and although Kevin did not live in poverty, he definitely lived below the middle-class line. Dortmund was, like many other Ruhr cities, a former industrial metropolis that has become a center of financial services, a structural change that cost 80,000 jobs.

Großkreutz was born into a family of Borussia Dortmund fanatics. Everyone in his family went to Borussia Dortmund games, including his grandmother, who had a season ticket in the heart of the Südtribüne long before Kevin was born.

Kevin went to his first game at the Westfalenstadion when he was four years old and got his first season ticket when he was seven. Whenever there were away days in Europe, Kevin’s dad, a Dortmund ultra, often sent written excuses to Kevin’s school saying that he could not come to class for three days. Whether the game was in Bochum or Istanbul, Kevin was always in the middle of the away section.

When Kevin was eight years old, he stopped getting autographs from players and took down all the posters of individual Dortmund stars on his wall. Why? He supported the club, not the players. The logo on the breast meant more than the name on the back.

Whenever he wasn’t on the stands, Kevin was on the pitch. He was a talented player, but nothing exceptional. He was deemed to thin and not good enough to play for the professional squad in Dortmund, so he went to a smaller club called Rot Weiss Ahlen. Ahlen had some good years and was even promoted to the 2.Bundesliga when Großkreutz was playing for them. Playing for a club in Germany’s second division as a young player did not limit Großkreutz’s fanaticism for his home-town club.

Kevin was in the Dortmund stands on Saturday whenever Ahlen played on Sunday. The Ahlen board wasn’t particularly amused that Kevin was jumping with his ultra friends for 90 minutes the day before a match, but they didn’t press him too hard, since they knew he would break his contract if he was prohibited from going.

The love for Die Schwarzgelben and the emotions he felt when deep in the Yellow Wall were even more important for Kevin than progressing as a footballer.

An ultra at heart

Großkreutz scored six goals in his first season in the 2.Bundesliga and didn’t hesitate when new BVB manager Jürgen Klopp was interested in signing him. Like many of his Dortmund teammates, Großkreutz’s career and development took off at an unexpectedly rapid pace. He became a regular in front of his friends and family at the Südtribüne in his first season at Dortmund. The only thing separating him from them was his talent with a ball.

Klopp’s intensely tactical style, based on constant running with and off the ball, suited Großkreutz perfectly. He was used to playing 90 minutes with Ahlen after jumping for 90 minutes in the stands with his friends. He was an all-around workhorse, who was as comfortable attacking as he was running back and defending. When asked about his heart-on-his-sleeve playing style, Großkreutz answered (11Freunde):

Wherever the trainer puts me, I will give everything.

It is easy to understand why Klopp instantly fell in love with the Eving native who became known as “Mr. Versatility.”

Klopp needed only one year with his new, charismatic Dortmund side to win one of the biggest surprise league victories in modern football history. He did it with players like Großkreutz and Nuri Sahin, Ruhr-natives who had supported the club since they were children.

A famous song in the stands that season was Wir sind alle Dortmunder Jungs — “We are all Dortmund kids.” In line with the ideology that Dortmund’s board promoted for their club, this chant has never stood truer than it did when Großkreutz was on the pitch.

Großkreutz’s love for Dortmund never seemed to dwindle, even as he became more successful as a footballer.

After Dortmund reached the final of the Champions League in 2013 by beating Madrid in the semi-finals, Großkreutz left the team while they celebrated at their fancy hotel in Madrid. He went into town and found his ultra-friends sitting in an Irish bar and celebrated with them. Back in Dortmund, Großkreutz taught the new expensive Dortmund signings the songs that were sung on the stands and kept everyone in the club up to date with what was happening in the stands. The logo on the breast means more than the name on the back.

Back-to-back titles were followed by a call-up to the FIFA World Cup 2014. Although Großkreutz did not make an appearance on the pitch at the tournament in Brazil, he was now also a World Cup winner, a two-time Bundesliga Champion, and a DFB-Pokal winner.

A derailed career

Tragically, things have not turned out well for Großkreutz since he left Dortmund in 2015. A move to Galatasaray fell apart when the Turkish club failing to submit the relevant documentation. Then his time in Stuttgart ended on account of his own self-destructive actions. Großkreutz got in a fight in Stuttgart’s city center that left him hospitalized.

The act of violence wasn’t out of the blue. Großkreutz had previously risked his World Cup 2014 selection when he threw a kebab at a FC Köln fan on a night out. After losing to Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final on May 17, 2014, Großkreutz responded by getting drunk and urinating in the lobby of his hotel in Berlin.

Großkreutz’s actions off the pitch hurt his football career. After his release from Stuttgart, he played a stint at SV Darmstadt 98 and now plays in the 3.Liga for KFC Uerdingen 05, where he has also fallen out of favor.

Nevertheless, there was a time when Kevin Großkreutz embodied the era of coal, steel, and beer. He was the last local hero in a now long globalized German football world. His jump from the Südtribüne to the pitch of the Westfalenstadion is not only inspiring but remarkable.

On the August 9, 2019, Uerdingen hosted Dortmund in the first round of the DFB Pokal. Dortmund won the game with 2-0, but the highlight was when Großkreutz, with his daughter in his arms, went to the away curve to thank the fans. He was met with a nostalgic chant:

Wir sind alle Dortmunder Jungs.

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