Dokko Posted May 13, 2007 Share Posted May 13, 2007 http://football.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/0,,2078484,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=5 145,000 see 'German Newcastle' blow it It would have been the biggest party in world football next weekend if Schalke, the most popular team in Germany, had ended their 49-year wait for a title. But now the occasion threatens to become a wake. Imagine a football fan's utopia, where supporters decide ticket prices and who sits on the board; where players travel hundreds of miles to visit their fans and mingle with them at training; where supporters debate the finances of the club with the chairman and contribute to the design of their stadium. Such a club does exist. They are called Schalke 04 and they did not deserve to go through the agonies they suffered yesterday, on an afternoon of gut-wrenching, unbearable tension in the Bundesliga Schalke are the most popular club in Germany. Yesterday afternoon, their stadium in Gelsenkirchen was full with 61,780 fans - for an away game. Schalke played at nearby Dortmund, where 20,000 of the 83,000 full house were in the blue-and-white away end. Add the two crowds together and it is just short of the European record for a club game, 146,433, though they all packed into a single stadium, Hampden Park, for the 1937 Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen. While the Premiership has been exciting this season, it has also been predictable: anyone could have named the top four before the big kick-off last August. Germany could not have provided a greater contrast. Bayern Munich, the Manchester United of the Bundesliga, cannot qualify for the Champions League and, going into yesterday's penultimate round of matches (Saturday-afternoon kick-offs, by the way), only Schalke, Stuttgart and Bremen could win it. The three German teams who have played Champions League finals in the past 10 years, Bayern, Dortmund and Leverkusen, are nowhere. This was something like Newcastle, Tottenham and Aston Villa battling it out for the championship and Schalke, the German Newcastle, were favourites. Until yesterday. Now, even if they win their last game, they are unlikely to overtake new leaders Stuttgart, who were twice behind, but won at Bochum. Bremen, beaten by Frankfurt, are out of it. What made it worse to bear was that, at one time, both Stuttgart and Bremen were losing, while Schalke were having the better of it against the local rivals they refuse to call by their real name, referring to them derogatively as Zecke (mosquito). They finished 2-0 losers and what might have been the biggest party in world football this season is on hold. While there is still a chance, Schalke fans will travel from all over Germany to watch the last game at home to Bielefeld. Gelsenkirchen is bracing itself for the invasion - all hotel rooms are booked and the fire brigade have been refused leave. If Schalke do win the championship - they must win handsomely and hope Stuttgart drop points - it will be the biggest celebration in the town since 1958, the last time they won the title. Forty-nine years and three stadiums later, they are still waiting. Two months ago, it had all looked so certain when Schalke were seven points clear. Then fans had brought the replica trophy plates to the training ground for autographs. But three defeats on the trot slashed their lead and now it is out of their hands. Schalke have been here before. In 2001, it took a goal in the fourth minute of injury time by Bayern Munich away to Hamburg to snatch the title from their grasp. The memory still hurts. That day, a TV interviewer informed them they had won and ecstatic players began to celebrate. The images were beamed across Germany. Seconds later, they learned of the Bayern goal. To this day, Schalke are mocked for those celebrations, the video loop repeated on the sports channels. Schalke, named after a district of Gelsenkirchen, a former coal-mining town, are often compared to Newcastle United. Twinned towns, they share an industrial history, a huge fanbase and are perennial underachievers. They also share a friendship of sorts. Back in 1999, a fan exchange took place. Schalke's representative, Dirk Martensen, set off for the Toon - knitted beer can holder around his neck, wrists decked in blue-and-white scarves - to meet Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd. The two discussed ticket prices: at that time Schalke charged about £3 for the cheapest ticket. 'Oh you won't win anything charging that,' said Shepherd. 'Our fans expect the best players.' Martensen smiled sagely and said, 'We won the Uefa Cup two years ago, what have you won?' Schalke are built on fan power, a working-class identity that dictates the ethos of the club - hard graft and low wages. Former manager Rudi Assauer used to say: 'How can we expect unemployed fans to pay high ticket prices to subsidise high-earning players?' With unemployment at 20 per cent locally, the club are the backbone of the community. Schalke membership gets every fan discounts in local supermarkets. The Dachverband (national supporters club) in the centre of town employs 25 staff to sell everything from bomber jackets to fair-trade coffee and concert tickets. Until last year's World Cup, they even ran the tourist office. Club secretary Peter Peters is hands-on with the fans. An earnest and passionate man, he spent more than 50 hours negotiating a rise in ticket prices for this season. Eventually €4 (£2.70) was agreed, but to be split over two seasons. Peters is philosophical when it comes to quibbling over euros. 'The fans say we only have success because they are here and they create this fantastic atmosphere. It's important. It's not like a jeans shop where people can just go somewhere else. Schalke is their life.' Some years ago, Peters tried raising prices in a small part of the stadium without consultation. 'It was only 700 seats, but we did not discuss it with the supporters and they boycotted the match. For them it wasn't the price, they just wanted to feel they can decide.' Schalke fan Stuart Dykes, originally from Mansfield, says he feels more at home in football here than he can in England. Dykes swapped the red of Manchester United for Royal Blue and has spent the past 20 years living in Germany and supporting Schalke. 'Here with Schalke, I feel I have a voice,' he says. Such is the power of the supporters they even make it into the dressing room. Last November, fans penned an open letter to the team calling for more passion on the pitch. With Schalke, it does not matter if you win or lose, you just have to try. Coach Mirko Slomka read the letter to his players. At the next home game, against Bayern Munich, as if to underline their point, the fans refused to cheer for the first 19 minutes and four seconds of the game (1904, the year Schalke started). Peter Lovenkrands put Schalke ahead and was met by silence. As the clock crept towards 19 minutes a slow clap began. Around the stadium it grew in volume. Just as the protest neared its end a roar began and Leban Kobiashvili took possession of the ball and lashed it into the top corner for a second goal. The stadium erupted. Schalke fans say they still get goosebumps thinking about it. At the players' request, the team appeared on the pitch holding a message for the fans. It read: 'We are Schalke, we are passion.' But there is fan culture and then there is cold hard cash. And this year Schalke came into an unprecedented amount of money. An estimated €125m, five-year sponsorship deal with Russian energy company Gazprom gave the club the biggest sponsorship deal in German football history. Auditing firm Deloitte lists Schalke fourteenth in the list of biggest football revenues in the world. Josef Schusenberg, who next month takes over as chairman and who masterminded the deal, says the cash will help Schalke extend internationally. 'It's very important for us. In Germany we cannot do like in England. Chelsea with Abramovich, Liverpool and the Americans, our club belongs to no one. We are like David and Goliath against them. First we go to Russia to install fan shops, then in 2008 we begin expanding to the Far East.' With a background in finance, Schnusenberg will be different to the outgoing chairman Gerhard Rehberg, who was a coalminer and former mayor of Gelsenkirchen. Schnusenberg says the fans love him - 'Sport is first, money is second' - but many supporters are worried about where Gazprom's influence might take the club. Gazprom attempted to smooth relations by distributing 10,000 free Schalke flags to fans, but at the next game the ultras unveiled a message for the company: 'Tradition cannot be bought'. Among the left-wing group that produces the official Schalke fanzine, Unser Vater, there is concern about the deal. 'Show me a large company that doesn't have dirty money,' says Dr Susanne Franke, chair of the Schalke Fan Initiative. 'We were more comfortable with brewery sponsors. Schalke is our religion, beer is our holy water.' Happy hour on match day begins at 10am. Plenty of fans agree. Markko, a taxi driver who is originally from Finland, has supported Schalke home and away for 35 years and wears his own T-shirts: 'Not all Schalke fans are psychopaths, but I am,' is a particular favourite. 'We don't know where this deal will take us,' says Markko. 'What will Gazprom expect from us? What happens when they leave? My great-grandmother used to say, "A Russian is a Russian even when you boil him in butter." She meant those in power, of course, not the man in the street.' For new players, all this fan culture is disorientating. Peter Lovenkrands signed from Rangers last summer and it has taken him time to settle in to the Schalke way of life. 'Here, everybody every day is Schalke. It's crazy,' he says. 'If we win the league they are estimating one million fans will come to Gelsenkirchen to celebrate.' The club have always been popular and film fans may recall that the crew in Das Boot, the classic film about a U-boat, were all Schalke fans. So was the previous Pope, John Paul II. Lovenkrands has had to get used to putting the fans first. Supporters attend training here and sit alongside players in their club restaurant. Every year, the players are sent out to visit fan groups across the country - there are 850 in total - and Lovenkrands was sent to Leipzig, four hours' drive away. 'I couldn't believe it, every player had to go somewhere, some went as far as Munich. We drove to Leipzig and met 100 fans who gave me the key to their town.' At the AGM, held in the stadium at the beginning of the season, Lovenkrands had another surprise. 'I thought they were having a wee party. But there was the board debating with the fans about the finances of the club. Then they gave out medals to long-standing supporters of 50 and 60 years, and had a minute's silence for the fans who had died that year. It's a very special club here.' Lovenkrands has been injured for the past eight weeks, forced to watch from the sidelines as his team let their lead slip. Even as a newcomer, he has a sense of how important this title challenge has been for Schalke. 'The kitmen and everyone here talk about how long it's been. The backroom staff and Gerald Asamoah, the only player remaining from that 2001 team, remember that game when they lost in the last minute. It haunts them still.' In truth, they never looked like champions yesterday. Now they look sure to have another late-season failure to haunt them. Link to post Share on other sites More sharing options...
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