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Borussia Dortmund women's team: Slow to start, fast to rise

June 7, 2023

Borussia Dortmund have just climbed to the fifth tier of women's football in Germany after a second straight promotion. They are on course to reach the Frauen Bundesliga in 2027 and are keen to make up for lost time.

Frauen Bundesliga PSV Bork Frauen gegen Borussia Dortmund
Image: Michael Da Silva/DW

Twenty kilometers north of Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion is the village of Bork, a typical German Dorf in many ways with a bakery, a Catholic church and a part-time fire station, staffed by local volunteers, punctuating a residential, rural landscape.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon in early June, the distant sound of cheers and low-budget pyrotechnics can be heard echoing across Main Street at 2:50pm.

PSV Bork is the last stop in Borussia Dortmund's season in the sixth tier of women's football. Dortmund have won 24 from 24 this season, have scored 143 goals, conceded five, and end the campaign 19 points clear of their closest challengers. In the early summer sunshine, the visit of Borussia Dortmund is not something that comes around often — and a couple hundred fans from both sides are here under blue skies to see it.

"We're a small team, we don't even have a stadium, but to have Borussia Dortmund here is a real honor for us," one female PSV Bork fan told DW. "They will be playing at the top level in a few years — people here don't want to miss the chance to see them."

Frauen Bundesliga PSV Bork Frauen gegen Borussia Dortmund
PSV Bork play in the sixth tier — and were the last stop of the 2022/23 season for Borussia Dortmund.Image: Michael Da Silva/DW

Mission: Frauen Bundesliga

Dortmund are on a mission to reach the Frauen Bundesliga (Women's Bundesliga). In existence since 2021, the club have already won back-to-back titles and have secured two of the six promotions they need to realize their dream of rising from the seventh tier, the Kreisliga, to the top-flight, which is dominated by this season's champions Bayern Munich and the giant of German women's football: VfL Wolfsburg.

Svenja Schlenker has been appointed to ensure Dortmund will one day be rubbing shoulders with them. She is a lifelong fan and has been part of the club for 16 years, starting as an intern in the marketing department in 2007 and working her way up to the head of women's football.

"Our big goal is to play in the Bundesliga in a few years," Schlenker told DW. "Of course, we want to get there as fast as possible. I want to climb every year and this is expected by the board. I try not to transfer this pressure onto the coaches and the staff but they know that the first three or four years should work quite easily. Then it gets tougher."

Deutschland Fußball | Borussia Dortmund | Svenja Schenkler
Svenja Schenkler has been in charge of Dortmund's women's team since its inception.Image: Borussia Dortmund

When Schlenker was promoted to her current role in October 2020 she was given a daunting brief: go and build a professional football team. She had less than a year to bring everything together in time for the team's debut in 2021 — all while the corona pandemic was gripping the world.

"They said to me: 'ask whatever you want, we will help you with any problem you have' but effectively they left it to me. They give me every support I need though and really stand behind me and the team.

"It's like a puzzle with many pieces and I didn't really know where to start. I had to find coaches, a team, and the pandemic complicated things further."

Schlenker found a coach in the shape of Thomas Sulewski, who had guided SpVg Berghofen to an unlikely promotion to the second Bundesliga in 2020. The 32-year-old jumped at the chance to step into a prestigious role that was very different to his previous one on the outskirts of Dortmund.

Whereas Berghofen play on a pitch in a forest with modest facilities that are shared with other clubs, Dortmund play their home games in the shadow of the famous Westfalenstadion at the Stadion Rote Erde — the club's old ground where the men's team celebrated titles and played European Cup games in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although BVB remain amateur with no timetable for when professionalization will come, their home — fitted with newly refurbished locker and meeting rooms — is comfortable and, crucially, their own.

Frauen Bundesliga PSV Bork Frauen gegen Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund's women's team attract strong support — home and awayImage: Michael Da Silva/DW

'No Schalke fans here'

Though their resources are far above those they currently compete with, Dortmund's women are not yet able to stretch to a scouting network. As a result, Schlenker and Sulewski ran trials in order to cherry-pick the best of the bunch for their first team and, as of 2022, reserves. They currently have 50 players on their books.

Anyone is eligible to try their luck at the trials but in the beginning all players had to fulfil two key criteria before they kick a ball: they must live within a 35 kilometer radius of Dortmund — and they had to be a Dortmund fan.

"We thought that because we're starting in the lowest tier, why should we have players from Cologne or somewhere? So we established this rule that we only choose local girls. We have relaxed these rules now but I can definitely say there are no Schalke fans in the team!"

One of the players that bleeds black and yellow is Mia Bedarf. The attacking midfielder joined in 2022 from Iserlohn, a club just outside Dortmund. She was a champion there in the 2021-22 season and when the opportunity arose to play for Dortmund, she didn't hesitate to drop down a division to pull on the famous shirt.

"I was born and raised in Dortmund, it's the club I've supported my whole life," Bedarf told DW. "I went to the stadium for every home game last season so to be part of this, even if it's just a little part of the history of this club, it's amazing and I feel honored.

"There's huge support for us and excitement for where we're going. I see it with my friends, my family and the fans," the 25-year-old said after being substituted during the second half in Bork. "Just look around you, in a place like this, 30 or 40 minutes from Dortmund, we have lots of fans following us. So we feel that support and it's just amazing."

Bezirksliga Frauen Borussia Dortmund vs.Wambeler SV
Dortmund Frauen coach Thomas Sulewski with attacking midfielder Mia Bedarf.Image: Zeising/Beautiful Sports/IMAGO

'Football is for everyone'

The elephant in the room remains why exactly it took Dortmund so long to establish a women's team. When they put the wheels in motion in 2019, they were already renowned as the biggest European club without one.

"I was always interested in girls' and women's football so when I started working for BVB in 2007 one of my first questions was 'Hey, where can I play football for this club, my club? Is there a girls' team?' The answer was no, we are not really thinking about it right now," Schlenker says.

At one point the issue became political, with fans unfurling a banner on the Yellow Wall during a men's German Cup game against Paderborn in November 2019 that read: "Football is for everyone — women's team now!" That was timed just ahead of the club's AGM when the board were quizzed again by fans about the absence of a women's team.

"Borussia Dortmund focused for many years on our successful women's handball team and table tennis too. Maybe we feared handling too many teams," Schlenker says.

The banner shamed Dortmund into action. After the motion was carried to launch a women's team, the next step was to create an internal focus group that would discuss the project and all its considerations. Schlenker was part of this group and then selected a year later as the head of the new department.

Germany's best floating to the top

Everything was set for Borussia Dortmund to enter a team in the women's football pyramid for the 2021/22 season — but at what level?

While interest and investment in the women's game has been welcomed, established men's Bundesliga clubs — and in particular those with external backers — are gradually floating to the top of the women's game.

"There will be a day when all of the top teams in Germany are playing in the Frauen Bundesliga and then it will be more attractive," Schlenker says. "The big clubs have better facilities, structures, medical departments. So that level of professionalism will attract the best players and make the Frauen Bundesliga even more popular in the years ahead."

The last 11 Frauen Bundesliga titles have been won by either Bayern or Wolfsburg, while this season's third-place team, Eintracht Frankfurt, acquired their place in the league by merging with joint-record women's champions FFC Frankfurt in 2020 and absorbing their senior women's team.

As RB Leipzig just secured promotion to the Bundesliga and came very close to becoming the first second-division team to reach the German Cup final, traditional giants Turbine Potsdam, the last team other than Bayern or Wolfsburg to win the Frauen Bundesliga, have been relegated, left unable to compete.

Frauen Bundesliga PSV Bork Frauen gegen Borussia Dortmund
Having been promoted from the Bezirksliga, Dortmund will be in the Landesliga in 2023/24 — and their fans don't miss a kick.Image: Michael Da Silva/DW

'Authentic and honest'

Borussia Dortmund also had the option of simply purchasing the license of an existing women's club and entering the pyramid at a higher level — but decided against it, opting instead to start from the very bottom on a limited budget.

"Of course we want to reach the top but we won't just play subsidy football from the start," explained BVB chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke, speaking to Kicker magazine's "FE:male view on football" podcast last year.

"If we entered the arena as 'Borussia Dortmund,' it would be difficult for the other clubs [to compete]. So we consciously decided to start from the bottom because we don't want to immediately kill teams off. We won't go spending three times the budget of other teams just because we're Borussia Dortmund. We don't want to buy up all the best players in the second or third division."

For coach Sulewski, the most important thing is not how quickly Dortmund get to the top but that they do it in the right way. The coach believes they will reap the rewards in later years for a patient approach now.

"We wanted to do things authentically and in a really honest way," Sulewski tells DW. "That's why we said we would start at the very bottom and go step-by-step within a framework that allows us to hopefully be in a very good position within 10 years.

"By giving ourselves time, we can build up the infrastructure that the club might not have yet. That could be super important for the women. If we had started in the regional leagues, we'd only be two promotions from the top now and we might not know how everything works. We need that knowledge, we need that time. I think we've chosen the right way."

Frauen Bundesliga PSV Bork Frauen gegen Borussia Dortmund
If all goes to plan, Dortmund could be in the Frauen Bundesliga in the 2027/28 season.Image: Michael Da Silva/DW

2027: The golden year

If all goes without a hitch, 2027 is the year Dortmund could be competing with Bayern, Wolfsburg and RB Leipzig — but now they are focused only on the years in between.

"We have to get more and more professional in every department. We will build a scouting network to replace our public trials, for example. The challenges will grow but the team around me will too," Schlenker says.

As Dortmund were kicking off the second half in Bork — already 5-0 up — the women's Champions League final was getting underway just over the Dutch border in Eindhoven. The dream is that Dortmund will one day be competing in such games — and Bedarf is optimistic it will happen.

"This team is ambitious to do well and maybe one day it will be competing at the very top. I'm positive that one day that could be us."

Edited by Matt Pearson