Football : Herr Ferguson of Dortmund

Stephen Brenkley talks to the manager who has revived the German champions
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There is a familiar ring to Borussia Dortmund's tale. For a period spanning the Fifties and Sixties they were Germany's pre-eminent club. They won the championship three times, provided a regular flow of players for the national side and were usually prominent in European competition.

It did not last. They fell into decline and the club slid briefly into the second division. Their crowds were still vast but coaches came and went and the league title eluded them for more than 30 years. Then, at last, Dortmund hired Ottmar Hitzfeld, a coach who had been successful in another country, and stuck by him.

Renewed success did not happen overnight but gradually Hitzfeld built a team to be reckoned with. After four years under his stewardship the club were champions again in 1995. They retained the title and last week went to the top for the first time this season, ahead of Bayern Munich. Dortmund are firmly back where they feel they belong.

Comparisons with Manchester United who suffered a similarly fallow decade or two are impossible to resist. If all goes as expected on Wednesday night the pair should meet in the European Cup semi-finals next month and decide, among other matters, whose revival has been the more effective. Dortmund beat Auxerre 3-1 in the first leg of the quarter-finals.

"I can't think of matches in April. We have eight games in March to consider before and all of them are important," said Hitzfeld last week in time- honoured taking-each-game-as-it-comes fashion. "We have some problems at the moment and it has been difficult to find a rhythm again after the winter break. We had only three matches in the league before the European Cup began again and that isn't enough."

From having too little football - evidence against splitting the season - Hitzfeld is now concerned that Dortmund will have too much. A mounting fixture list will not give his injured players, especially the powerful Brazilian defender Julio Cesar, time to recover. Hitzfeld was doggedly diplomatic but it would appear that the rest has done Dortmund nothing but good. They have followed last year's pattern in waiting until spring to go top.

Whether this is by accident or design there is no doubting that Hitzfeld, 48, was an inspired choice for the job. After a playing career which included representing Germany in the 1972 Olympics, he learned the coaching trade at Grasshoppers Zurich. He was taken to Dortmund by the club's president, Dr Gerd Niebaum, a lawyer who was determined the lean times should end. When early results did not go swimmingly Niebaum steadfastly resisted pressure to sack Hitzfeld (shades of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford).

The key to Dortmund's re-emergence has been the return from Italy of four polished German players, Stefan Reuter, Jurgen Kohler, Karlheinz Reidle and, perhaps most significantly, Matthias Sammer, clinically effective libero and European Footballer of the Year.

The winter break has also coincided with the return to fitness of the dazzling Portuguese midfielder Paulo Sosa, who was signed in the summer and injured almost immediately. Hitzfeld claims he is not match fit but he has already won over the fans as has the 19-year-old Ghanaian striker, Ibrahim Tanko. Although Tanko is still behind Reidle and Stefan Chapuisat in the pecking order for a place, his strike against Freiburg last weekend is in the running for German goal of the season.

Hitzfeld may refuse to contemplate it but there is a special incentive for Dortmund to reach the European Cup final for the first time. The match is being played in Munich, home of their arch rivals Bayern. As Josef Schneck of the club's marketing department put it: "It would mean a lot. It would be like Liverpool playing it at Old Trafford."