Schalke, akin to a majority of European football giants, is a club that characterises itself by past achievements, as well as by modern day successes. Indeed, in barren times, a belief that some of these former achievements transcend today’s football can be seen to permeate such historic clubs, a nostalgic view of the past which allows for a belief that what occurred was somehow more romantic, more genuine, and more difficult to do than ‘modern football’. Schalke, however, is more than this, more than mere successes and achievements and historical records. “Die Knappen” (The Miners) can lay claim to being one of the founding clubs of European football, by challenging social structures, and defining myths.
A myth which this Schalke team helped the construction of, particularly in continental Europe, but often misattributed by the British media to the 1950s/1960s (Manchester United/Celtic), was that of the “hometown team”. The Schalke XI won its first-ever national championship in 1934, with late goals from brothers-in-law Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. Their fraternal relationship highlights the closeness of the mining town of Gelsenkirchen, from where the majority of the 1930s Schalke team hailed, and grew up together. This Schalke team would win five titles in seven years between 1934 and 1940, as well as never losing a home game in eleven seasons. Their stellar achievements did much for German football, providing an intrinsic belief in the power of young, local players, as well as providing the attacking trident (Gellesch, Szepan and Urban) of the Breslau-Elf, one of Germany’s finest ever-national sides. The atypical German-sounding names such as Szepan and Kuzorra came from Polish early 20th century immigration to the Ruhr region, in order to work down the mines. The working-class, mining town myth thus came to prominence, and was further built on in a variety of places throughout the following decades.
Schalke’s 1930s style of football came to be known as the “Kreisel”, the spinning top, and has just claim to be regarded as one of the first styles of football to be dependent on movement of man, and not ball. It is often, however, overshadowed by the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the early ‘30s, which ran during a parallel time period. The swift moving, ball on the ground style of football revolved particularly around the genius of Schalke’s Austrian coach Gustav Wieser, appointed in 1927, and the creativity of Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. It overwhelmed and confused opponents, relied on high levels of fitness, and, according to several contemporary sources, it was successful because it was, essentially, “playing with your mates”, and therefore the close link between the ‘local lads’ and their attractive, positive style of football arose.
Indeed, Schalke has been a club from its very inception to contravene accepted social structures and challenge the status quo. Despite its 1904 founding, the club did not join the League until 1912, due to Bourgeoisie DFB angst. Further flouting occurred in 1930 when Schalke began paying its players to represent the club. Due to massive unemployment in the local area, Schalke paid its players fractions of the huge gate receipts it was receiving, in order to feed their families. Friction occurred immediately with the middle-class DFB, whose rigid view of the amateur nature of football was laudably idealistic, but hopelessly out of touch. Their swift response was to expel Schalke, whose chairman later committed suicide. Popular uproar saw their swift reinstatement, but the club’s reputation as social revolutionaries was beginning to stick.
Some quests for money however, are a step too far, and Schalke’s participation in the 1970s match-fixing scandal, where eight players were banned for accepting Deutschmarks to throw a game against Arminia Bielefeld, is a shameful stain not only on the club’s working-class origins, but on football in general. Indeed, had the team not been decimated, with talents such as Klaus Fischer, “Stan” Libuda, and Klaus Fichtel, it may have become the dominant 1970s force in German football, a place possessed now (rightly) by Bayern Munich.
On the field, fortunes have always been unbalanced at best. The 1980s experienced relegation, three successive seasons in 2.Bundesliga, and eventual promotion to where Schalke fans believed they belong. Even their first genuine continental triumph, against Inter Milan in the 1997 Uefa Cup final, was far from easy, with the aggregate score being tied at 1-1 after two tense legs, Schalke eventually prevailed in a penalty shootout. 2001 saw another tight finish, Bayern’s last day, 4th minute of injury time equaliser against Hamburg snatched the title from the grasp of the “Konigsblauen”. Schalke’s challenging of social norms is even demonstrated in their celebrations, after winning the 2002 DFB-Pokal, their elaborate actions after the presentation resulted in permanent damage being done to the huge trophy.
And what of today’s Schalke team? Today’s “Knappen” are once again at their knack of challenging social structures, emphasised by their Champions League run, in which they put paid to the hopes of European giants such as Benfica, Valencia, and Inter Milan. This team however, hasn’t defined any myths thus far, what it has done though, is permanently established a legend. His name, Raul Gonzalez Blanco.