‘Schalke is my life! This is my life!’ The fallen giants are back in the Bundesliga in usually dramatic fashion

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Seeing broadcasters lose control is rare in modern football, but that’s exactly what happened at Gelsenkirchen last Saturday. As thousands of Schalke fans stormed the pitch to celebrate their team’s promotion to the Bundesliga, the fine line of TV products was suddenly erased by an incredible, stomach-churning mess.

Sporting director Rouven Schroder’s post-match interview was interrupted mid-sentence when a fan insisted on leaning over to kiss him. When Schalke winger Darko Churlinov appeared on camera minutes later, his interviewer was stymied by the ultras in the balaclava. Churlinov, meanwhile, had his shin robbed.

A few yards off the touchline, Sky expert Torsten Mattuschka asked a passing forward what promotion meant to him, the man stared at him with his mouth open for a moment and shouted: “Schalke is my life! This is my life!”

He meant that too. The club will have to answer questions about 18 injured people at close range, but in truth, it will always be difficult to maintain control. At Schalke, emotions are always a little more existential.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” said Schalke board member Peter Knabel Athletics. “Club football has always been the pride of their city, but with Schalke, there is always a little bit more. More drama, more viewers, more power, but also more unemployment. We are talking about one of the poorest cities in Germany, so promotion is also about regaining self-respect and dignity. Sounds like an exaggeration, but if you walk around here you’ll know what I mean. ”

Few clubs in Europe are as important as their city and identity. The last coal mine in Gelsenkirchen closed in 2000, and since then, it has been the football club that has kept the fire going. On the promotional shirts worn by the players last weekend, the catchphrase was “Gluckaufsteiger”, a play on the ancient German miners’ greeting.

In the 21st century, Schalke has become the pride of the city. In terms of membership, they are the second largest club in Germany and the third largest in Europe after Bayern Munich and Benfica. The last of their seven league titles came in 1958, five years before the first Bundesliga season, but three of their five domestic cup wins came in the last 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 straight games without a win, it was a blow to that pride.

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Schalke celebrate their promotion from Bundesliga 2 (Photo: David Inderlied/image alliance via Getty Images)

“It’s not that we just stumbled. We’re talking about landings that failed miserably,” Knabel said of his club’s 2020-21 season. With long-term financial problems, a leadership crisis and the demoralization of the squad, he insists it is impossible to overestimate the magnitude of the task they faced last summer.

“The question is not whether we get promoted or not, the question is whether we can meet the requirements for a second division license, whether we can form a team together,” he said. “It’s only at the end of the season that we can say that the goal is promotion.”

“You can imagine what the atmosphere at the club was like last year,” added sporting director Schroder, who was recruited after being relegated. His job was not just to cut a bloated wage bill and put together a strong second division squad, he said, but also to change the mood. “Slowly but surely, we managed to do it.”

But it is not an easy task. Germany’s second division has become notoriously difficult to beat in recent years, and the league has rarely been stronger than it has been this season, with Schalke and Werder Bremen joining more established giants Hamburg and Nuremberg last summer.

Schalke and Bremen are now on track to secure two automatic promotion spots, but it’s been a rollercoaster. Schalke are fourth, six points adrift of the top, at the start of 2022, and only a change in the dugout gets them back on track.

In March, Dimitrios Grammozis was replaced by assistant coach Mike Buskens, a somewhat brusque local hero who had won the UEFA Cup with Schalke as a player in 1997. Since then, the team has won seven of eight, and can now be crowned Bundesliga 2 champions with victory against Nuremberg on Sunday.

“Mike is a Schalke legend, he knows this club better than anyone. He also has a great sense of humor and the ability to draw people with him. It’s important to have someone like that who knows the club and its players. We knew he was going to give everything he had for this club, and it worked really well,” said Schroder.

But even in good hands, Schalke wouldn’t be a Schalke without drama. Last Saturday, they trailed 2-0 against promotion-chasing St Pauli before sealing their return to the top flight with a dramatic three-goal comeback in the second half. When Rodrigo Salazar scored the winner in the 78th minute, all the pent-up frustrations of the last few years were released in an hour and a half of pure adrenaline blast.

Off the pitch as well, the constant drama surrounding the club has not abated this season. In February, Schalke’s future was in doubt as they, like other Germans, were forced to confront their much-criticized relationship with Russian gas.

Gazprom, whose logo has graced Schalke shirts for 15 years, was never a popular sponsor. Fan groups have long campaigned to end the partnership, widely seen as the main symbol of the Kremlin’s soft power in Germany. However, for a club that is constantly in debt and overspending, it is also the lifeline of the economy.

But after February 24, all the money in the world cannot be justified to continue advertising Russian state-owned enterprises. Four days after Vladimir Putin’s troops marched into Ukraine, Schalke announced that they were severing ties with Gazprom.

The decision, said Knabel, came slowly as the geopolitical crisis escalated in January and February. “We tried to prepare ourselves for this situation by mapping out different scenarios and how we would react to them. It is important to draw a red line, and then decide quickly when it is crossed. We knew very quickly what we wanted to do,” he said.

Some say the club did not act fast enough, but Knabel insists that decisions cannot be made from one moment to the next.

“We have to make sure we don’t jeopardize the survival of the club. We’re not talking about a little money here, so we have to believe that we can afford this decision. But it was also clear to us that once the red line was crossed, we had to find a way to buy it.”

The Gazprom deal is reportedly worth around €9m a year for Schalke in the second tier, and double in the top flight. Although the club were quick to sign new deals with local property companies and a national supermarket chain, the Bild newspaper recently estimated that these are only worth about a quarter of Gazprom’s money.

“In this region, people help each other, and we are lucky to find friends who help us. It’s obviously a little less than we had before, but we will be able to give our sporting director a competitive budget in the transfer market this summer,” said Knäbel, who insists the club is still strong economically.

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There was a happy scene when Schalke beat St Pauli last weekend (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Schroder highly praised the board’s handling of the situation. “They got it all done in a week’s time and said look: this is the new Schalke. It’s an important signal for the fanbase and the coaching staff and players.”

This, they would hope in Gelsenkirchen, the start of a new era. In the last 10 years, this is a club that has had controversial sponsors and a reputation for extravagance. Under the leadership of Schroder and new chief financial officer Christina Ruhl-Hamers, the club at least appears to be working more efficiently. The latest financial figures show that the club’s drastic cost-cutting measures since relegation have paid off, reducing their debt by around €33m.

But it will still be a grueling summer for Schroder, who must now prepare his team in the Bundesliga on a much tighter budget than he had imagined. As well as finding a long-term replacement for interim coach Buskens, the sporting director will need to strengthen the squad while also potentially releasing expensive players such as Salif Sane and returning loanees Ozan Kabak and Amine Harit.

He, then, was reluctant to get too emotional from it all. Schalke may be one of the biggest clubs in the world, but they have learned a lesson from the drama of recent years.

“I’m sure that we’ll get a good squad together, but we also have to maintain our humility. Our motto so far is less talk and more do, and our only goal next season is to stay in the league,” he said.

(Top photo: David Inderlied/image alliance via Getty Images)

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