Sports

Borussia Dortmund’s Michael Zorc Is the World’s Best Sporting Director

So what does a sporting director actually do?

Team Manager Michael Zorc of Dortmund looks on during the friendly match between AFC Sunderland v Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on August 5, 2016 in Altach, Austria.
Sporting Director Michael Zorc of Borussia Dortmund looks on during a friendly match between AFC Sunderland vs. Borussia Dortmund at Cashpoint Arena on Aug. 5, 2016, in Altach, Austria.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Deniz Calagan/Getty Images.

This piece is excerpted from Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl, published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

What do you do?

It’s one of the most common questions that people ask upon meeting someone anywhere in the world. But even if you know that Michael Zorc is Borussia Dortmund’s sporting director, even if you know that he’s widely regarded as the finest director of football in European soccer, even if you know that Arsenal tried (and failed) to hire him away from Dortmund in 2017, you find yourself wanting to end any confusion. After all, not even the global soccer community can agree on the job title for one of the most important positions in the modern game—that is, if you choose to have one at all. Sporting director, director of football, technical director, general manager—all those terms can be used to characterize what Zorc does in his work.

Which is … what, exactly?

What do you do?

Facing the most basic of inquiries, Zorc can’t help but laugh. “It is a simple question,” he says during one of our interviews at Dortmund’s business headquarters, not far from Signal Iduna Park, “but not simple to describe.”

Book cover for Grant Wahl’s Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game.

Born and bred in Dortmund, a small working-class German city in what used to be coal country, Zorc played his entire career as a central midfielder with Borussia Dortmund from 1981 through 1998. Though he had only seven caps for the German national team, Zorc was a rock for BVB, making a club-record 463 Bundesliga appearances, wearing the captain’s armband, and winning two Bundesliga titles and the 1996–97 UEFA Champions League trophy. Zorc was a solid player and respected as a leader. And even though he scored only rarely in the run of play, he piled up the goals as an expert in taking penalty kicks. In the sport’s crucible of maximum pressure, Zorc didn’t blink.

It’s a skill that he has brought to the negotiating table, the boardroom, and the training fields since he became sporting director in 1998. “I am responsible for the whole football department,” he says in English, “for recruiting the squad for Borussia Dortmund—the players and sometimes the coach as well—and taking care of the whole group and organizing everything around the games. I’m also responsible for the philosophy from the first team to the youth teams, discussing it with the coach, and the youth teams have to follow how the first team is playing. Our philosophy is linked to our region, a working-class region. So it has to be daring, it has to be attacking. The fans don’t like it when the team plays like chess on the field. That’s a very important point. More specific to the professional team, I am responsible for, let’s say, human resources—for buying players, selling players, prolonging contracts, and so on. I’m on top of the scouting department and taking care of players, so that they have someone they can talk to besides the coach. So I am always with the team during the matches. I attend all the training sessions. Not for the whole time, but maybe before or after training I will have lunch or dinner with the team, so that you are there, so they know somebody from the club is taking care.”

In most traditional English-style clubs, the chain of command is different. At the top is ownership. Usually there is a board with a chairperson, who hires the manager, who’s in charge of the soccer strategy over the short to long terms. At Arsenal, for example, the dominant figure in every soccer decision was manager Arsène Wenger, although the club has moved toward a change in structure—coinciding with Wenger’s departure in 2018—that has instituted a director of football to spread responsibilities more evenly.

Most German and continental clubs have an alternative chain of command. By statute, the majority “owners” are the dues-paying members of the clubs. Borussia Dortmund is run by CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, who has been in charge since 2005, with Zorc on top of the soccer side. Who is Zorc’s boss? “Mr. Watzke,” he says with a smile. “He can fire me. It’s very easy. But we are working now together for more than a decade. It’s a very trusting relationship between us.” Who hires the head coach? “It’s me and Mr. Watzke,” Zorc says. “That’s very helpful in this club, that there’s just Mr. Watzke and me who decide these important things.” And who is the head coach’s boss? “First case, me,” Zorc says. “And then, on top of this, our CEO.”

Most clubs that have a sporting director or director of football use the terms head coach or trainer, instead of manager, to describe the person in charge of the first team. “The coach,” says Zorc, “is responsible for the tactics, for how we play, and to choose the players for each game.” Player transfers—incoming and outgoing—are Zorc’s domain, though the CEO and the head coach usually play roles as well. “The CEO is responsible for the budget you can handle,” Zorc says. “Normally in recent years, we discuss [transfers] with the CEO and me and then the coach at the end, when it’s about a big transfer.”

Zorc cuts the imposing figure of a former elite professional athlete. He’s more stylish than most soccer executives, with a taste for Hugo Boss sweaters, cashmere scarves, and the occasional tailored suit, though he doesn’t look out of place in black-and-yellow Dortmund training gear. Known for his long, flowing hair during his playing days, he now wears it a bit shorter, often slicked back. He is undeniably handsome, a Teutonic version of Alec Baldwin.

If it sounds like Zorc has more power at Borussia Dortmund than the head coach, that’s because he does. In the 2016–17 season, coach Thomas Tuchel guided BVB to the Champions League quarterfinals and third place in the Bundesliga (enough to qualify for Champions League again), in addition to winning the German Cup knockout tournament. But three days after raising that trophy in Berlin, Tuchel was out of a job. There were many reasons for Tuchel’s departure, but the genesis of the split was friction between Tuchel and Dortmund’s renowned chief scout, Sven Mislintat, over transfer targets. And Mislintat, who worked for Dortmund from 1998 until he left for Arsenal in 2017, reported to Zorc. “He’s in my department, not the coach’s,” Zorc says. “Our scouts report to the chief scout, and I speak to Sven every day.” BVB’s head coach may be on global television all the time, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge at the club.

“Michael Zorc stands for Borussia Dortmund like no one else,” Watzke said upon announcing Zorc’s five-year contract extension through 2019, noting that Zorc has been with the club since 1978 (when he joined its youth ranks).

Explaining the chain of command and what Zorc does allows you to understand why he’s so good at his job. In the modern game, money matters. In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski calculated that 92 percent of the differences in English soccer clubs’ league positions can be explained by a club’s relative salary bill. Borussia Dortmund is by no means poor—it has the highest average attendance of any club in the world—but BVB’s annual revenues are nowhere near those of the clubs it aspires to compete against, whether it’s German nemesis Bayern Munich or megawealthy Champions League rivals like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester City.

“It’s a big challenge, one that you normally can’t win very often,” says Zorc, “because we are talking about professional football, and we have to talk about money. Our aim is always to be at the top of Germany, or at least behind Bayern Munich, and, if you transfer it to Europe, we have to reach the quarterfinals of Champions League, which means that you are among the best eight clubs in Europe. But the problem we are facing, especially compared to Bayern Munich and the big guys from England and Spain, and now from PSG, is revenue. All these clubs have [annual] revenues of more than €500 million [$596 million]. We’ve hit €370 million, but that was including transfers, so our basic revenue is about €300 million. So that means we are lacking €200 million of revenue, which means €100 million as a budget for the team. That’s our challenge. If this was Formula One, they’re driving a Ferrari, and we’re driving, I don’t know, a Ford Mustang.”

The obstacle facing Zorc—trying to compete with teams that have far higher revenues—is the same one tackled by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in Michael Lewis’ classic book Moneyball. Zorc’s response hasn’t been exactly like Beane’s; European soccer doesn’t employ a draft system to acquire prospects the way baseball does, and while Zorc says he and his staff use some Beane-style data metrics to identify transfer targets, they also rely heavily on their traditional scouting system (more on that later). Zorc knows better than anyone that Dortmund has to focus on finding value for talent, recognizing that its players are assets and an important part of the club’s revenue equation. “We have to have a different approach to compete,” he says. “We have to be more creative. We have to be quicker in taking decisions and finding players. And we have to find different players. We can’t go on the market like Real Madrid and just buy anyone we want. We are trying to find players who have not reached the highest level.”

No director of football in Europe has done better than Zorc when it comes to identifying young talent, buying at a low price, and selling for a high price—all while keeping Dortmund in a position to spend most of the past decade competing to win European soccer’s most prestigious club trophies. The pricing on transfer fees is influenced by a number of variables. How good is the player right now? And how much potential does he have for the future? The more time a player has left on his current contract, the higher his price will be. And the younger the player, the higher his potential resale value will be a few years down the line. Once a player hits age 29 or 30, his transfer price usually declines because his resale value in his 30s will be much lower.

Broadly speaking, the consummation of a player transfer requires two separate negotiations—one between the selling club and the buying club on the transfer fee, and the other between the buying club and the player on a new contract. (There will usually also be a negotiation between the buying club and the agents about the agents’ fees.) Unlike in American pro sports leagues, where a player can almost always be traded without his approval, a player transfer in soccer requires the player to agree to make the move and then to negotiate a salary with his new team. If a player completes his contract with a team, he is a free agent and can move to a new club on a free transfer.

In 2010, Zorc took Mislintat’s recommendation and paid €4.8 million for a relatively unknown 21-year-old Polish striker named Robert Lewandowski, who had led the Polish third, second, and first divisions in scoring. Lewandowski went on to become one of the world’s best center forwards—he famously scored four goals against Real Madrid on Dortmund’s run to the 2013 Champions League final—and in 2018 had a market value of €80 million with Bayern Munich. (BVB could have sold Lewandowski to Bayern a year earlier for big money, but decided to get one more season out of him and let him play out his contract.) Also in 2010, Zorc signed midfielder Shinji Kagawa for a paltry €350,000 from a Japanese club (Cerezo Osaka) that few soccer people had even heard of. Kagawa became the Bundesliga player of the year before being sold to Manchester United in 2012 for €16 million. (He returned to Dortmund two years later.)

Zorc and Mislintat developed a reputation for spotting and signing talent from places that aren’t traditional strongholds, and not just Japan and Poland. American Christian Pulisic, who joined Dortmund’s youth academy for free as a 15-year-old in 2014, quickly turned into one of the best prospects in Europe. Zorc has also paid remarkably low prices for players from modest French clubs, including striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (€13 million from Saint-Étienne), winger Ousmane Dembélé (€15 million from Rennes) and fullback Raphaël Guerreiro (€12 million from Lorient). Even inside Germany, Zorc has found diamonds in the rough, from defender Mats Hummels (bought for €4.2 million, sold for €35 million back to Bayern Munich) to midfielder Ilkay Gündoğan (bought for €5.5 million, sold for €27 million to Manchester City) to midfielder Julian Weigl (bought for €2.5 million and now worth 10 times as much). Not every signing has worked out—see Ciro Immobile and Julian Schieber—but Zorc’s success rate is remarkable compared to his competition.

In fact, elite directors are even rarer in the modern game than world-class managers and coaches. Perhaps that’s because there’s so little understanding of what a director of football does. Or maybe it’s just extremely difficult to perform the job well. Other directors of football who have gained sterling reputations are Giuseppe Marotta (Juventus), Ralf Rangnick (RB Leipzig), Walter Sabatini (Inter Milan), and Marcel Brands (PSV Eindhoven). But probably the most lionized sporting director other than Zorc is Spaniard Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, better known as Monchi, who spent 17 years as the director of football at Sevilla and gave a launch pad to such players as Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Jesús Navas, and Ivan Rakitić. “Monchi is absolutely outstanding,” says Zorc. “He did a tremendous job for Sevilla. It’s a different situation at Sevilla, I think, because nobody really expected him and Sevilla to fight against Barcelona and Real Madrid. For him it was about qualifying for Champions League, winning the Europa League, and buying players low and selling high. For us, it’s more about reaching sporting goals. The difference is we have 80,000 people in our stadium who don’t care about our bank account. They want the players to win on the field.”

In 2017, Monchi moved from Sevilla to Roma, where the expectations of winning Italian league titles and going deep into Champions League will be much higher—which is to say, more like they are at Dortmund. Since Zorc took on the title of BVB sporting director, Dortmund has won two Bundesliga titles (finishing runner-up three times) and two German cup titles, in addition to reaching the Champions League quarterfinals three times and the final once. Zorc’s job isn’t just to buy low and sell high. Every season he has to keep Dortmund in the conversation among the very best in Europe. Every season he has to build another souped-up, jerry-rigged, Formula One Ford Mustang.

Copyright 2018 by Grant Wahl. From Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl, published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission.