As Borussia Dortmund go in to their huge last 16 second leg tie against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night, Ben Loder looks at an experienced German midfielder excelling in Jurgen Klopp‘s talented side who is just glad to be back playing where he belongs.
By Ben Loder – @nextmegswins
“Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m not all that popular with the Dortmund fans.”
Hard to believe now, but those were the words of Sebastian Kehl in a 2003 interview with Borussia fanzine Schwatzgelb. In fact, even at the time his impression was somewhat off the mark, though the then 23-year-old had recently rubbed a few fans up the wrong way by collecting red cards in the German Super Cup and a league derby against VfL Bochum. Of course, he would face far greater setbacks in his career, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves …
Born in Fulda, Hesse, in 1980, Kehl moved to Hannover 96 at the age of 16, at a time when the club were competing in the second division. He made his debut two years later and made 32 appearances before SC Freiburg’s legendary manager Volker Finke brought him to the Bundesliga. In his first season, Kehl, at the time mostly being used as a libero, made 25 appearances as Freiburg finished sixth and were surprise qualifiers for the UEFA Cup. He continued to impress the following season, and moved to Dortmund midway through the campaign with Freiburg sitting 13th – they won just three of their remaining matches and were ultimately relegated. Kehl, however, started all but one of his new club’s games in that period and was rewarded with his first Bundesliga winner’s medal at the end of the season, though he was cup-tied for Borussia’s UEFA Cup final defeat to Feyenoord.
The move was an instant success, but not free of controversy. In the summer of 2001, prior to the Dortmund move, Kehl had already agreed basic terms with Bayern Munich, and even accepted an advance payment of 1.5 million Deutschmarks. The money was returned in November, but Bayern were angry at the about-face and threatened legal action. But, of course, the €3.2 million deal with Dortmund was allowed to stand, and the rest is history.
Over the seasons that followed, the decision not to head to Bavaria started to look a little less savvy. In his second campaign with Dortmund, Kehl made 24 league appearances and started every game as the club reached the second group stage of the Champions League, but the domestic/European balancing act proved too much and Dortmund finished the season 17 points behind champions Bayern in third.
Things didn’t improve the following year – the Schwarzgelben came in sixth in the league, crashed out of the primary European competition at the qualifying stage and only made it to the second round of the UEFA Cup. Indeed the interview featured at the start of this piece fell between the club’s underwhelming 2-2 draw with Sochaux and their being overwhelmed 4-0 in the return leg. Little wonder that some dissenting voices felt Kehl’s performances had dropped off.
The following year, he became fully established in the defensive midfield role he is known for. By now 24, his combination of diligence, tough tackling and a surprisingly cultured left foot had earned him a place in the Germany squads for the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, and he continued to feature regularly for his club, starting more than 60 league games over the next two seasons as the financially crippled Dortmund struggled to consecutive seventh-place finishes in 2005 and 2006 that brought little prize money to boost the coffers.
Kehl’s fortunes were to mirror those of the club: although he did feature for the national side in their home World Cup, he injured his left knee in a challenge with Bayern’s Hasan Salihamidzic on the first day of the 2006/07 season, and managed just four starts as the team limped to ninth place and the club’s continuing financial woes forced changes in the boardroom. A catalogue of further injuries restricted him to a total of 45 league starts over the next three years, a time of transition in the club generally. On taking over in 2008, new coach Jürgen Klopp saw enough in Kehl to name him club captain, but in the 2010/11 season, as Dortmund became champions again, the skipper was only fit enough to start three matches. What’s more, 22-year-old Sven Bender had emerged to fill one of the two spots in central midfield, while the man in the other, Nuri Sahin, had just been voted players’ player of the year. It was hard to see a way back for the unfit 31-year-old.
However, Sahin was snapped up by Real Madrid, and Kehl managed to get his body to play ball again. Around that time, he opened his heart to Spiegel (a German weekly news magazine) about his “five years of injury”, a discussion that said much about the battling character of the man from Fulda:
Spiegel: Did you ever consider retiring?
“There were a few hard days, where I thought about giving up. But that ambition to make it kept on coming back … Everyone has to prove themself again this season, and I believe I can be very valuable to the team.”
Spiegel: But aren’t you too slow for the Bundesliga?
“No … Jürgen Klopp taught us how his notion of quick football works three years ago. I was a regular then and kept up throughout. Plenty of experts wrote me off years ago, slated me, but I’ve always come back.”
And indeed, he did so again, playing more minutes than both Bender and Sahin’s replacement, Ilkay Gundogan, as he captained Dortmund not only to the defence of their league title, but also the final of the German Cup, where they dispatched their eternal rivals Bayern 5-2 in Berlin.
They won’t retain either of those titles this time around, but the Champions League dream is still alive, and Kehl is probably happy just to be playing again: he’s made 23 appearances in all competitions this season already, more than in the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons combined. What’s more, he is active off the field: Kehl has spoken of his interest in coaching in future, and is strongly committed to charity work with the Roterkeil foundation (www.roterkeil.net), aimed at stamping out child prostitution.
And if he ever feels as though he should have got more out of his career, he would do well to look back at his own words from 2003: “What I’m working towards is that people say ‘You can rely on Kehl. He always performs, and he always gets stuck in for the team.’” No one would doubt that he has achieved that target.
For more on Sebastian Kehl and Bundesliga football, you can follow Ben on Twitter @nextmegswins or comment below.