Seeing broadcasters lose control is indeed a rare thing in modern football, but that’s what happened in Gelsenkirchen last Saturday. As thousands of Schalke fans took to the pitch to celebrate their team’s promotion to the Bundesliga, the flowing lines of the television product were suddenly obliterated by glorious, heart-shattering mayhem.
Sporting director Rouven Schroders’ post-match interview was cut off mid-sentence when a fan insisted on leaning in to kiss him. When Schalke winger Darko Churlinov appeared on camera a few minutes later, his interviewer was friendly butted heads by a balaclava-wearing ultra. Churlinov, meanwhile, was stripped of his shin guards.
Meters from the touchline, Sky pundit Torsten Mattuschka asked a passing pitch invader what the promotion meant to him, the man gaped at him for a second and shouted: Schalke is my life! It’s my life!
He thought so too. The club will rightly have to answer questions about the 18 injured in the scrum, but in truth it was always going to be difficult to maintain control. At Schalke, emotions are always a bit more existential.
It’s hard to put it into words, says Schalkes board member Peter Knabel Athleticism. Football clubs are always the pride of their city, but with Schalke there is always a little more. More drama, more spectators, more power, but also more unemployment. We are talking about one of the poorest cities in Germany, so promotion is also about regaining pride and dignity. It sounds like an exaggeration, but if you walked the streets here you would know what I mean.
Few clubs in Europe are so important to their city and its identity. Gelsenkirchen’s last coal mine closed in 2000, and the football club has kept the flame alive ever since. On the promotional t-shirts players wore last weekend, the slogan was Gluckaufsteiger, a pun on a greeting from a former German miner.
In the 21st century, Schalke has been the pride of this city. In terms of squads, it is the second biggest club in Germany and the third in Europe after Bayern Munich and Benfica. The last of their seven league titles came in 1958, five years before the inaugural Bundesliga season, but three of their five domestic cup victories have come in the past 21 years. And with Borussia Dortmund they have one of the fiercest local rivalries on the continent.
So when Schalke were relegated last year after 30 consecutive games without a win, it was a blow to that pride.
It wasn’t like we just tripped. We’re talking about a full-blown crash landing, Knabel says of his clubs’ 2020-21 season. With long-term financial problems, a leadership crisis and a demoralized squad, he insists it’s impossible to overestimate the enormity of the task they faced last summer.
The question was not whether we had been promoted or not, the question was whether we could fulfill the conditions to obtain a license for the second division, if we could even assemble a team, he says. “It was only later in the season that we could say that the objective was promotion.
You can imagine what the atmosphere was like at the club last year, adds sporting director Schroder, who was signed after relegation. His job was not just to reduce the bloated wage bill and build a strong second division team, he says, but also to change the mood. Slowly but surely we managed to do it.
But it was not an easy task. Germany’s second tier has become notoriously difficult to exit in recent years, and the league has rarely been stronger than it has been this season, with Schalke and Werder Bremen joining more established fallen giants Hamburg and Nuremberg in the summer. latest.
Schalke and Bremen are now on track to secure the two automatic promotion spots, but it’s been a roller coaster ride. Schalke were fourth, six points off the top, at the start of 2022, and it was only a change of dugout that put them back on track.
In March, Dimitrios Grammozis was replaced by assistant coach Mike Buskens, a rather gruff local hero who won the UEFA Cup with Schalke as a player in 1997. Since then the side have won seven out of eight and can now to be crowned Bundesliga 2. champions with a victory against Nuremberg on Sunday.
Mike is a Schalke legend, he knows this club better than anyone. He also has a sense of humor and the ability to carry people with him. It was important to have someone like that who knew the club and the guys. We knew he would give everything he had for this club, and it worked brilliantly, says Schroder.
Yet even in the right hands, Schalke wouldn’t be Schalke without the drama. Last Saturday they lost 2-0 to promotion-seeking St Pauli before sealing their return to the top flight with a spectacular three-goal second-half comeback. When Rodrigo Salazar crushed the winner in the 78th minute, all the pent-up frustration of the last few years was released in half an hour of pure adrenaline.
Off the field too, the perpetual drama that surrounds the club has not been denied this season. In February, Schalke’s future was thrown into doubt as, like the rest of Germany, they were forced to confront their much-criticized relationship with Russian gas.
Gazprom, whose logo adorned Schalkes shirts for 15 years, had never been a popular sponsor. Fan groups had long campaigned for an end to the partnership, which was widely seen as the ultimate symbol of Kremlin soft power in Germany. For a club in a perpetual spiral of debt and overspending, it was also an economic lifeline.
Yet after February 24, all the money in the world could not have justified continuing to advertise a Russian state-owned company. Four days after Vladimir Putin’s troops entered Ukraine, Schalke announced that they were cutting ties with Gazprom.
The decision, Knabel says, slowly materialized as the geopolitical crisis began to escalate in January and February. We have tried to prepare for the situation by mapping out various scenarios and what our reaction should be. It was important to draw red lines and then quickly decide when they were crossed. We knew very quickly what we wanted to do, he says.
Some have said the club didn’t act quickly enough, but Knabel insists the decision couldn’t just be made at any moment.
We had to make sure not to endanger the survival of the club. We weren’t talking about a little money here, so we had to be sure we could afford to make that decision. But it was also clear to us that once we crossed those red lines, we had to find a way to afford it.
The Gazprom deal was worth around 9 million a year for Schalke in the second tier, and double that in the top flight. Although the club were quick to sign new deals with a local property company and a national supermarket chain, the Bild newspaper recently estimated these were only worth around a quarter of Gazprom’s money.
In this region, people help each other and we are lucky to have found friends who have helped us. It’s obviously a bit less than before, but we will be able to give our sporting director a competitive budget in the transfer market this summer, says Knbel, who insists the club are still on solid footing economically.
Schroder is full of praise for how the board handled the situation. They managed to do it all in a week and say look: this is the new Schalke. It was an important signal for the fans and the coaching and playing staff.
It is, they hope in Gelsenkirchen, the beginning of a new era. For the past 10 years, this was a club with a controversial sponsor and a reputation for waste. Under Schroder and a new chief financial officer Christina Ruhl-Hamers, the club at least seems to be running more efficiently. The most recent financial figures showed that clubs’ drastic cost-cutting measures since relegation have paid off, reducing their debt by around 33 million.
Still, it will still be a grueling summer for Schroder, who now has to prepare his side for the Bundesliga on a much tighter budget than he had imagined. As well as finding a long-term successor to interim coach Buskens, the sporting director needs to strengthen the squad while potentially offloading costly outcasts such as Salif Sane and returning players Ozan Kabak and Amine Harit.
So he’s reluctant to get too carried away with the emotion of it all. Schalke may be one of the biggest clubs in the world, but they have learned from the drama of recent years.
I am convinced that we will form a good group, but we must also keep our humility. So far our motto has been less talk and more action, and our only goal next season is to stay in the league, he said.
(Top photo: David Inderlied/photo alliance via Getty Images)
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