Liverpool FC vs Borussia Dortmund wasn’t just the featured tie of the Europa League this season, but the tie in all of Europe after the Champions League failed to offer a more tantalizing match-up that round. Jürgen Klopp’s current club versus Jürgen Klopp’s former club was a juicy match-up for social media managers on sports desks everywhere, and that the games themselves made for excellent viewing for neutrals certainly didn’t hurt.
But some were less than enthused about the surging affections between Liverpool and Dortmund fans leading up to both legs, prompting local newspaper the Liverpool Echo to ask “Liverpool & Dortmund, are you loving the love-in?” ahead of the second leg tie hosted at Liverpool’s ground, Anfield. The question reflected the degree to which the two clubs had become cosy with one another, a closeness that had clearly caused teeth to be set on edge in some quarters. Football is a sport filled with sentimentality, but “El Kloppico” – the name by which the match-up quickly became known – was a saccharine bridge too far for some.
Thankfully, fans who answered the Echo’s poll did so for the most part in the affirmative. No matter what might happen on the pitch later that day, they were happy with the state of their relationship with Dortmund and Dortmund fans, a relationship that stretches back a half-century to when Dortmund beat Liverpool 2-1 in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1966. Borussia Dortmund hosted the dramatic 2001 UEFA Cup final at their Westfalenstadion ground, where Liverpool emerged victorious to complete a historic treble that season. Non-competitive activities have also taken place between the two clubs over the years, with Liverpool participating in Dortmund’s 75th anniversary celebrations, while Dortmund fans have mounted in-stadium memorials to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans.
It’s a relationship borne largely of mutual respect, one that re-ignited this season with an intensity not previously seen thanks to both sets of fans’ deep love for Jürgen Klopp. Both clubs are famous for the atmosphere their fans provide, on the Kop at Anfield and the Südtribune (a.k.a. the Yellow Wall) at the Westfalenstadion, and they share an anthem in “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, a song that ultimately expresses a certain kind of togetherness when sung by tens of thousands at once. It’s deeply uncommon for two clubs to demonstrate such unbridled affection towards one another as Liverpool and Dortmund did during their quarterfinal tie, and the bewilderment over this affection seemed to stem from the apparently incomprehensible idea that two clubs might find a shared warmth in their similarities rather than their differences.
That many are baffled at best or disgusted at worst by the idea of two clubs getting along speaks volumes about the state of rivalry in sport. Though not present between Liverpool and Dortmund, intense rivalry and its incumbent tribalism beget a negativity between clubs and supporters more often than not. On a good day, that negativity is expressed as banter through stadium song, the best of it finding a humourous or even self-deprecating tone that gently rather than viciously gives opposition supporters a good ribbing. But at worst, that negativity can descend into offensive chanting, anti-social behaviour, violence, and even death.
For all the camaraderie enjoyed with Dortmund over two quarterfinal legs, that camaraderie was the diametric opposite of Liverpool’s experience in the previous round when they took on arch rivals Manchester United in the Round of 16. The match-up featured offensive chanting by both sets of fans, each group feeling compelled to mock the tragedies in each club’s past – Liverpool’s fatalities at Hillsborough, the Munich air disaster that killed eight United players in a plane crash in 1958 – while later engaging in fisticuffs with one another for good measure. UEFA levelled charges at both clubs, and the investigations are still ongoing.
What happened between Liverpool and Manchester United was par for the course in a football rivalry, a nasty face-off that is far more comfortable for many fans and even neutrals than the radical idea that two clubs might grudgingly respect or even outright like one another. For a certain type of fan, this was business as usual and a mark of a successful match. The weight of the rivalry demands supporters to not only provide support for their club but also against the opposition, as loudly as possible and as negatively as necessary. A match-up that lacks this hostility, then – a match-up like the one between Liverpool and Dortmund – can elicit derision and even contempt from those who can’t imagine rivalry existing any other way.
There is, of course, middle ground between either extreme represented by Liverpool’s relationships to Dortmund and Manchester United. The Merseyside club’s other Europa League knock-out round opponents have been perfectly pleasant without going over the top in their interactions with the club and its fans. FC Augsburg delighted in facing Liverpool in the biggest match in the German club’s history, cracking jokes on Twitter and then continuing to share thoughts on Liverpool’s match-ups as they progressed through the later stages of the tournament. Liverpool didn’t have nearly as much chemistry with semi-final opponent Villarreal, but the obvious ties to Liverpool in the Spanish club’s “Yellow Submarine” nickname were enough to tip the scales towards the positive rather than the negative.
Having pushed past Augsburg, Manchester United, Dortmund, and Villarreal, Liverpool take on Sevilla in the Europa League final two days from now. Win or lose, fans of the Reds will look back on the club’s continental run with fondness not just because of the strength of their play and the quality of their results, but also because of the rather extraordinary string of opponents they met along the way.
The second-leg quarterfinal against Dortmund has set a new standard for what European nights at Anfield can be, but the companionship between the Reds and Die Schwarzgelben has also set a new standard for what a healthy rivalry might look like. There’s no requirement that football be devoid of respect and friendliness, where supporting one’s team means disrespecting and demeaning the opposition. Football might not always be a love-in between rivals and fans, but the sport as a whole could benefit from even a fraction of the goodwill and lack of antipathy demonstrated by Liverpool and Dortmund.