The showdown with Chelsea is the eighth knock-out tie with an English club in BVB history. On four occasions, the Black & Yellows were sent packing, while the other three – 1966 against West Ham, 1997 against Man United and 2016 against Spurs – saw the team from Dortmund progress to the next round. The most memorable fixtures were on 2 and 23 April 1997. Let’s take a look back.

1-0 and 3-1 wins over AJ Auxerre in early 1997 were enough to book Borussia’s place in the penultimate round of the UEFA Champions League, despite the fact personnel problems had plagued the team all season. The build-up to the first leg of the semi-final clash with Manchester United was no exception, as coach Ottmar Hitzfeld had to make do without star strikers Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stéphane Chapuisat, not to mention Matthias Sammer (suspension), Jürgen Kohler and Julio César. In preparation for the tie, Hitzfeld spent long hours in front of his TV screen watching video recordings of the opposing team in action. In the modern game, video analysts examine every single detail of the opposition. 25 years ago, it was the head coach’s job, and the tools at his disposal were rather primitive. Though he was able to count on the services of a ”spy” (Gerd Löwel), who was dispatched to Manchester to gather intelligence.

But instead of honing in on the (many) strengths and (few) weaknesses of Manchester United, for whom a certain David Beckham had been the revelation of the season, Hitzfeld was rather more preoccupied with the personnel situation among his own ranks. A torn shoulder ligament on the eve of the first leg plunged Heiko Herrlich’s participation in question, but the striker chose to make himself available in light of the injuries to Chapuisat and Riedle. Hitzfeld opted to partner him up front with utility player René Tretschok.

“It was eerily quiet. Before a Bundesliga game, there was always a joke or two going around. This time it was different. You could tell everything was at stake,” recalls Tretschok of the minutes before kick-off, adding: “Every player – no matter how experienced he was – had complete focus.”

It’s a real battle. 0-0 going into the final quarter of an hour, in no small part thanks to Martin Kree, who thwarted David Beckham from scoring with an acrobatic clearance on the goalline in the 67th minute. The star-studded English side are flattering to deceive in this game of tactical tos-and-fros when Eric Cantona is robbed of possession deep in his own half by Paulo Sousa. The BVB midfielder looks to drive forward with the ball before teammate Tretschok takes it from him. The Portuguese star appears offended, but as he turns away in disgust, he misses the highlight of the match. Tretschok, around 23 metres from goal, takes a couple of touches with his left foot before drilling a shot on target. Man United keeper Raimond van der Gouw is far too slow to react, as the centrally-placed shot flies past him into the back of the net. René Tretschok is overcome with emotion, as he rips his shirt off to celebrate. “We willed our way to the win,’’ he would later say. He was the hero, at least on this occasion. And Paulo Sousa was the first to congratulate him.

In the second leg, BVB wrote their way into the history books, as Jürgen Kohler led a defensive performance the likes of which had never been seen before at Old Trafford. Another 1-0 win saw the Black & Yellows reach the final of Europe’s elite competition for the first time. And as he so often did, Lars Ricken scored the deciding goal. The 20-year-old got the better of United keeper Peter Schmeichel in just the eighth minute, as he received the ball from Andreas Möller on the turn and fired a well-placed left-footed shot into the bottom corner. The champions of England responded to this goal by doing what they did best: launch wave after wave of attack. But the Dortmund rearguard had a certain Stefan Klos, Wolfgang Feiersinger, Martin Kree, Jörg Heinrich, who came in at right-back after an injury to Stefan Reuters, and not to mention a certain Jürgen Kohler, who in this pressure-cooker atmosphere delivered the performance of his life. 

As the team fly to England on 22 April 1997, Jürgen Kohler is absent. The official line is that he has a stomach bug. But in fact he is in the hospital with his wife Silke. “That was the day we lost our child,” reveals the now 57-year-old. It was an extraordinarily difficult time. “If my wife hadn’t said: ‘Go there and play’, there is no chance I would have gone to Manchester,” he says.

Kohler makes the trip on 23 April – and takes to the pitch in one of the most legendary Champions League battles of all time. Borussia go into the second leg at Old Trafford with a razor-thin 1-0 lead. Man United boast a star-studded cast of elite attacking talent: Beckham, Butt, Cole, Solskjaer – and Cantona. The Frenchman has the ability to win games on his own, but Kohler and goalkeeper Stefan Klos form an insurmountable wall. “The jersey with the number 15 on the back shone like a red light in traffic,” writes the newspaper Die Welt. “Without Kohler, I don’t think we would have been able to hold our own here,” says Ottmar Hitzfeld after the match, which ends in a 1-0 win for Borussia, in no small part thanks to Jürgen Kohler, who makes three clearances off the line. “That was pure luck. Cantona actually scores those in his sleep, but I just happened to get my leg in the way at exactly the right moment” says the hero of the evening in reference to the moment when, after falling to the ground, he somehow managed to extend his leg and block what looked like a certain goal.

That evening, the BVB fans exalt him to the status of a “football god”, while the Man United supporters make plans to prevent Kohler from flying back to Dortmund. They hope he’ll stay in Britain and sign a contract with the Red Devils.

A quarter of a century later, Jürgen Kohler is still in defensive mode. “Football God. That’s really quite something,” he says, going on to add: “There were a good few players who put in just as much effort as I did, and even scored the all-important goals.” Borussia Dortmund’s greatest achievement in club history, the Champions League victory in 1997, was the success of the entire team and its coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, “not of an individual,” Kohler emphasises: “I was in the right position three times in Manchester; everything just went our way.”

The entire team fought with heart and passion to deny the hotly-tipped home side, and came away with the result their heroic efforts deserved. “It’s madness, it’s just unbelievable. The whole of Germany can be proud of us,” said a delighted Andreas Möller.

The crowd at Old Trafford acknowledged the champions of Germany with a standing ovation. And at Münster/Osnabrück airport, well over a thousand fans turned out to welcome the heroes of Manchester on their return home late in the night. “We’ve clearly surpassed expectations. A huge compliment to everyone, especially to those players who are not always part of the team, but who have risen above themselves in this round. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it,” said a beaming Ottmar Hitzfeld. Borussia Dortmund were in the final of Europe’s elite club competition.
Boris Rupert