CARSON, Calif. – Millions of Americans will tune in for Saturday's UEFA Champions League final at Wembley, but Jovan Kirovski will have a singular perspective as he watches German rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
The LA Galaxy's technical director was a young hopeful with Borussia Dortmund when the club won its lone European title 16 years ago. That makes him the only American with a Champions League medal as well as a most interested observer as Die Schwarzgelben have made a somewhat unexpected run to this year's title game.
“I'm excited for them. I've followed them throughout the years,” said Kirovski, who spent four seasons in Dortmund during an 11-year European run at the start of his playing career. “They were in a tough time financially for a period [during the last decade], and they've brought them back to a really healthy financial state, brought in young players, and what a team [coach Jürgen Klopp] put together.
"Great team to watch, full of energy, young, hungry. They're exciting to watch, for sure.”
Kirovski (at right, vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach), then 20, had joined Dortmund at the start of the 1996-97 season after three years in Manchester United's system, and he was “just trying to get in the team,” he said.
“A young kid, new club, big club, trying to earn a spot, trying to get involved," he explained. "I was a backup as a forward, as a midfielder, so that was [my] role. I was a young kid trying to make a name for myself, trying to develop.”
Dortmund had won the previous two Bundesliga titles and were among eight clubs seeded into the 1996-97 UEFA Champions League group stage. Ottmar Hitzfeld's roster was formidable: the great sweeper Matthias Sammer won the European Footballer of the Year honor in 1996, and the supporting cast included Karlheinz Riedle, Stephane Chapuisat, Stefan Reuter, Jürgen Kohler, Andreas Möller, Júlio César and Paulo Sousa.
“We had a great team,” said Kirovski, who also played for Sporting CP, Crystal Palace and Birmingham City before a seven-year MLS stint with the Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes. “We had world-class players.”
And Hitzfeld “was very calm. He wasn't a guy that came in and shouted or screamed or put fear into anybody. Very calm, very tactical. Totally different than, let's say, [Alex] Ferguson, who would maybe go nuts every once in a while. Different philosophy, different styles, but they're both great in their own way.”
Kirovski made two Champions League appearances as Dortmund finished second in Group B. He came on for Lars Ricken in the 71st minute of a 1-0 mid-October win over group winner Atlético Madrid at Westfalenstadion and for Steinar Pedersen in the 82nd minute of the return match, a 2-1 defeat, two weeks later.
He made the bench in other games, including the semifinal series against Manchester United – Dortmund pulled out two 1-0 wins – but watched the final, a 3-1 triumph over Juventus, from a suite at Munich's Olympiastadion.
“It was amazing,” he said about that final on May 28, 1997. “We had Karlheinz Riedle with two headers and Ricken with a chip. I remember like today. It was a great result.”
If Dortmund can overcome a mighty Bayern team Saturday, Neven Subotic would join Kirovski as a Yank with a championship medal. Sort of. Subotic's decision to play for Serbia rather than the US throws a wrench in that, Kirovski argues.
“He's Yugoslav,” said Kirovski, whose parents are Macedonian. “That doesn't count.”
Kirovski predicts it will happen.
“I'll say Dortmund, 1-0,” he said. “I think they can win. They're tactically very good, they have some very good players. I believe they're good enough to win, for sure.”
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.