He spent over 13 years as a Borussia Dortmund player, wearing the captain's armband for six seasons and lifting three Bundesliga trophies. Now, Sebastian Kehl is tasked with restoring his club to their former glory as he replaces the long-standing Michael Zorc as BVB's sporting director.
"I have felt very closely connected to this great club for almost 20 years now," Kehl declared in June 2021, when he was announced as Zorc's successor. "I'm proud to be given the opportunity to shape the sporting future of Borussia Dortmund."
Before looking to what lies ahead, however, bundesliga.com invites you on a trip down memory lane to get a clearer picture of the man who will be looking to take the Black and Yellows back to the summit of the German game.
1) He chose Dortmund over Bayern
'The summit of the German game' can usually be defined in two words: Bayern Munich. And yet Kehl rejected a lucrative offer from the record Bundesliga champions in the summer of 2001, preferring to join Dortmund midway through the following season.
Kehl turned pro with Hannover in 1998, but really started making a name for himself at Freiburg (2000-02), where he was deployed as a sweeper by legendary coach Volker Finke. Drawing comparisons with the great Franz Beckenbauer, Kehl helped the Black Forest club reach the UEFA Cup in 2000/01, as they finished sixth in the Bundesliga. He also earned his first call-up to the Germany squad, making his international debut under Rudi Völler in May 2001.
Watch: Kehl's top 5 Bundesliga goals
Bayern and Dortmund were soon engaged in a tug of war to secure the services of the Hessen native, who was then just 21 years old. He eventually opted for the latter, penning a four-year deal with BVB in January 2002.
"I'm delighted to have him," said then BVB coach Matthias Sammer, who previously occupied the same sweeper position as Kehl. "I'm counting on him performing right away."
Sammer would not be disappointed. Kehl played all but one of the remaining 16 Bundesliga games for Dortmund that term, helping them secure the title just ahead of Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern. It was the first time they had lifted the Meisterschale since 1995/96, when Sammer himself was anchoring the midfield in the same libero position as Kehl.
2) Jürgen Klopp made him Dortmund captain
Kehl was the new kid on the block when he joined Dortmund at the start of 2002, but by the time Jürgen Klopp was appointed as coach in summer 2008, the battling midfielder had established himself as one of the squad's leaders – and a firm fan favourite.
'Sebastian, please stay and sign!' read one BVB banner during the 2005/06 campaign, a few months before Kehl's contract was set to expire – and he did exactly that, extending through to 2008. "I belong here," he confessed, saying he had 'followed his heart' despite offers from abroad. "I identify with the club and the supporters. I believe we can make a step forward and reach European competition again in the next few years."
In the mid-2000s the club had struggled to keep pace with the Bundesliga frontrunners. After their title win of 2001/02, they finished third and sixth in their next two seasons under Sammer. Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk could only manage successive seventh places, before Dortmund laboured to ninth and 13th place – their worst finish in 20 years – under Thomas Doll. But their fortunes were set to change when Klopp came on board in 2008, after an impressive seven-year stint in charge of Mainz.
One of his first major decisions was to give 28-year-old Kehl the captain's armband, to succeed retiring skipper Christian Wörns. "When you think of Dortmund, Sebastian is the first player who comes to mind," Klopp explained. "He's an integral member of the team. And football-wise, he has all the attributes to lead from the front."
Slowly but surely, Klopp began to work his magic at the Signal Iduna Park, lifting BVB to sixth place in 2008/09 and fifth in 2009/10, before finally guiding them to another Bundesliga title in 2010/11. Kehl remained one of his most trusted lieutenants throughout, although injuries prevented him playing a major role on the pitch in Klopp's first title-winning season. He was a much more central figure as they defended the Bundesliga crown in 2011/12, before beating Bayern Munich 5-2 in the DFB Cup final to complete a memorable double.
"Jürgen has a special charisma, he's a very positive man," Kehl once told the Daily Mail, after Klopp traded Dortmund for Liverpool in 2015. "He carries everybody with him, it's a special type of people management. But he's not walking around with a magic wand, you know? He's following his plan and just wants everyone to give their best. You feel it every day. It's hard work."
Watch: Klopp's Dortmund years
3) He suffered a series of injury setbacks
Hard work was something Kehl became all too familiar with over the course of his 13 and a half years with Dortmund, especially when it came to his physical fitness. By the time he retired in 2015, he had amassed 362 appearances for Dortmund in all competitions – but without a host of injury woes, it could easily have been closer to 500.
Kehl was plagued by all manner of problems during his career – thigh, knee, ankle, shoulder, hamstring, groin, you name it – but his most significant injury was one of the earliest.
On 12 August 2006, Dortmund played Bayern in the season opener at Allianz Arena, and in the 19th minute Hasan Salihamidzic slid in on Kehl with his studs up, causing a deep laceration to his knee. BVB thought their star midfielder would only be out for three or four weeks, but the injury was worse than expected, requiring surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. Kehl barely featured for the rest of the season as Dortmund finished ninth, with one of their shareholders describing it to Sport-Bild as "the Bayern tackle that cost us 10 million euros".
Kehl publicly stated that he didn't feel Salihamidzic meant to injure him on purpose, but it was definitely a turning point in his career. He only made 14 Bundesliga appearances in the following campaign, 2007/08, and never played for Germany again. The last of his 31 caps for Die Mannschaft came in the third-place play-off at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a 3-1 victory over Portugal. He also scored two international goals, in friendlies against Hungary and Serbia and Montenegro.
In a curious twist, Kehl and Salihamidzic will occupy the same role at Dortmund and Bayern in 2022/23. The former Bosnia and Herzegovina international has acted as sporting director for the Bavarians since July 2017, filling a gap left vacant by Sammer the previous summer.
4) He has been recognised for his charity work
Kehl’s work ethic on and off the pitch extends beyond football, the 42-year-old happy to use his platform to help the greater good by involving himself extensively in charity work and social projects.
That is perhaps a direct result of his religious upbringing, and he remains a devout Catholic to this day, and even met Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Since 2003 he has been part of the ‘School without racism, school with courage’ project that aims to promote diversity in classrooms, sponsoring two schools in Lauterbach and Fulda. Kehl is also involved in the 'Fair Play Hessen' scheme, along with Steffi Jones, promoting integration, tolerance and fair play. Not only that but the former midfielder has been a member of the board of trustees of the DFL Foundation since 2019.
In recognition of his efforts, Kehl was awarded the Hessian Order of Merit for his charity and social work in early 2020, an accolade he described as “a great honour”.
"Hessen has produced many outstanding footballers and among them is undoubtedly Sebastian Kehl,” said Volker Bouffier, Prime Minister of Hesse state at the time. “With all the great successes he has achieved in his career, it is always important to him to help his state. Sebastian Kehl is particularly committed to diversity, tolerance and fair play. He thus makes a contribution to the cohesion of our society. With that in mind, I am pleased to present him with the Hessian Order of Merit ribbon today."
5) He wants to take BVB back to the top
Make no mistake, however: Kehl’s generosity of spirit and sense of social responsibility mask a steely will to win; he is very much both the floating butterfly and the stinging bee.
After hanging up his boots in 2015, Kehl completed a qualification in management at UEFA, collected valuable work experience at the German Football Association (DFB) and the German Football League (DFL), and also completed his UEFA A Licence in coaching. All of which paved the way for him to accept a newly created role of Head of the Licensed Player Division at Dortmund in June 2018.
If that sounds like vague corporate speak, that’s because it is: in reality he was working closely with Zorc on everything from first-team squad planning and recruitment to youth team development, essentially being groomed for the job he has now been given.
"Sebastian has done a good job over the past few years and has already been able to prepare himself for his future role as BVB's sporting director," said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. "Of course he has big shoes to fill, but we are convinced that Sebastian has the necessary tools for his job."
Zorc believes the same: "Our work together was characterised by great trust from day one. Sebastian has gradually become involved in all the relevant areas of a sporting director. I appreciate his work very much. I think it’s a logical decision that the management has now decided to make him my successor in the summer of 2022.”
Now armed with the necessary qualifications and experience, both as a player and in the boardroom, Kehl is eager to kick on and help Dortmund consistently pick up silverware. "Creating the conditions for BVB to continue to be successful in the future is both an aspiration and an obligation for me," he said.
Having held his own in Dortmund’s midfield despite the emergence of the likes of Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender back in the day, that same drive and determination at management level can only be a good thing for BVB.
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