At age 18, many young American adults are beginning college, preparing for four years of higher education at various universities and institutions around the world. Imagine if, instead, you were playing a sport professionally and had been called upon to join your country’s top competitive team.
Earlier this week, 18-year-old English youngster Jadon Sancho, who plays for German club Borussia Dortmund, received his first call-up to the English national team. This is massive news for the teenager, who has gone from playing for Manchester City’s under-18 team to starring for Borussia Dortmund, where he has compiled one goal and six assists in seven appearances for the league-leading German side.
Sancho’s is the definition of a success story, but the thing is, for Borussia Dortmund, this type of narrative isn’t an oddity — it’s the norm. Attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic is 20 years old and may be the most talented American soccer player in history. Jacob Bruun Larsen is another youth who has emerged from the club’s academy to the tune of two goals and an assist in just four appearances. Julian Weigl, who is in his early 20s and anchors Dortmund’s midfield, received his first call-up to the German national team last season.
Borussia Dortmund has a plethora of young stars and is an internationally renowned club. One can find their distinctive yellow jerseys and club badges in soccer stores around the globe, but unlike their superpower rivals — teams such as league foes Bayern Munich and the many successful English clubs — Dortmund does not have the financial resources to compete in today’s high-value, money-driven market.
Dortmund’s profits are nothing to scoff at — the club made roughly 330 million euros last season, according to Business Insider — but superclubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona gross more than 600 million euros annually. Dortmund plays those same teams in top-tier club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League.
Domestic rival Bayern Munich is especially important. The Bavarian club brings in more than 500 million euros in annual revenue and is Borussia Dortmund’s direct competition in Germany’s top league. The Munich side won the Bundesliga for the sixth straight time last season and has the sixth-highest payroll in football, in addition to its globally recognized brand.
Borussia Dortmund is not even in the top 15 in total payroll and has a more local but nonetheless loyal following. Bayern Munich has spent nearly 340 million euros on player transactions in the last five seasons, acquiring top-level talent from across Europe, including established superstars such as Arturo Vidal, Xabi Alonso and James Rodríguez.
Despite all the clear inequality in sheer spending power, Borussia Dortmund — not Bayern Munich — is currently at the top of the Bundesliga. The team is one win ahead of the second-place team and has the best goal differential in the league. So how does a team with fewer superstars, less money and a smaller fan base outcompete its larger, better-equipped rival?
Dortmund has played the transfer market with an efficiency that might even impress the MLB’s Oakland A’s front-office executive and “moneyball” godfather Billy Beane.
At most large clubs, there is a constant stream of top-level talent arriving for large monetary sums. New managers will arrive, sell players who don’t fit with their systems and overspend on new players. They make headlines and excite fans before leaving in a few years. Then, a new manager arrives to repeat the cycle.
These large clubs capture players at or near their career peaks, when their names and reputations are as big as, if not bigger than, their skill levels. Large clubs also tend to spend more than they make from the players they sell (for those unfamiliar with European football, players’ contracts are bought and sold rather than traded as they are in American sports).
So how is Dortmund different?
Borussia Dortmund actually outspent Bayern Munich in the transfer market in the aforementioned five-year period, but Dortmund also turned a profit in those five years. Bayern has lost more than 90 million euros over that same span. This means Dortmund has received more from selling its players than it has spent purchasing new ones.
Dortmund is willing to sell its best players — Bayern Munich actually bought some of Dortmund’s best players from recent years in Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze and Mats Hummels. Rather than turn to buying superstars, Dortmund brought in young players such as Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulisic, and transformed players such as Henrikh Mkhitryan and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang into lethal attackers. This team found success before selling all but Pulisic for a collective 220 million euros and then bringing in young and unknown players this summer — remember Jadon Sancho?
The strategy behind this process is simple. While most teams focus on the names and reputations of world-class footballers, seeking to impress their fans and improve their squads on paper, Borussia Dortmund focuses on the exact opposite.
It buys two types of players — youth with potential and undervalued veterans. Paco Alcácer and Michy Batshuayi were both riding the bench at their respective clubs after a series of bad performances, but stints playing in Germany saw them resurrect their careers — Alcácer is Dortmund’s leading goal scorer so far this season.
Borussia Dortmund has even purchased players it parted ways with in years past, buying them for less than they sold them for. Shinji Kagawa and Mario Götze are two examples of players who have successfully returned to the club after spending time away.
Borussia Dortmund also buys young. Defenders Manuel Akanji and Abdou Diallo were virtual unknowns before becoming the iron wall that anchors a youthful defensive line. Pulisic and Jacob Bruun Larsen are both academy products who have spent their entire careers wearing Dortmund’s yellow and black.
Borussia Dortmund has thrived in a system that is extremely unequal. There are no salary caps in European football, so the biggest fish are bigger by a wide margin. Dortmund has managed to make itself competitive using smart transfers and an eye for talent rather than an ear for names and reputation.
Other clubs are beginning to emulate this model — Sevilla and Ajax are two examples — but considering the inequality across the sport, it is surprising that more have not joined.
As television and media revenue expand resources for these smaller football clubs, it is key that they spend them wisely and not fall into the same traps that the superclubs have ascribed to.
For now, however, we can only watch and see what Dortmund’s transfer-market intelligence brings this season. Jadon Sancho is just one member of a team that must be enjoyed in the present because, in just a few years, Sancho may very well be gone — for a profit.