“Blue and White forever”, the anthem sung tirelessly at every Schalke 04 home game, epitomizes the passion of the club's loyal fan base. For millions of fans around the world and almost 90,000 official members, Schalke is more than just a football club. It is more like a religion.
The birth of an institution
A look back to the early days of the Ruhr valley outfit reveals a turbulent first few years. The story began on 4 May 1904, when a group of 14 to 15-year-old boys decided to form a football club, originally named Westfalia Schalke.
The team began playing competitive matches upon its merger with gymnastics club 1877 Schalke eight years later, though the two organisations went their separate ways again in 1924. FC Schalke 04 subsequently came into being, and following a change in strip from red and yellow to blue and white, the Schalke success story began to gather speed.
In the following years, the club were affectionately referred to as "Schalke spinning top", in deference to the bewildering short passing game that became a trademark of the side built around the legendary Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. It was also during this time that Schalke's nickname die Knappen [the Miners] was first coined, as several players had close ties with the local mining community, many of whom attended the club's home matches. As a result, Schalke gained a reputation as a club for the working man.
"Schalke 04 are the club in the west. They put the Ruhr region on the footballing map," says historian Ralf Piorr in an attempt to describe the rich tradition of the club from the industrial heartland of Germany. Rudi Assauer, who later became sporting director, says: "The people here in the Ruhr love and live for the game."
The making of a legend
Schalke's glory years came in the 1930s and 1940s, when they extended their fan base across the country. The Royal Blues reached the final of the German Championship no less than nine times during that period, winning the title on six occasions (1934, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1940, 1942). They also lifted the DFB Cup in 1937.
However, the team struggled to live up to those early triumphs after the Second World War. S04's last league title came in 1958 and, though they were one of the founding members of the Bundesliga in 1963, their dominance soon began to fade as the club found itself battling against relegation more often than not.
Schalke 04 are the club in the west. They put the Ruhr region on the footballing map...
The club’s role in the Bundesliga scandal of 1965 set them back, and it was not until 1972 that Schalke finally added to their list of honours with a second DFB Cup success under the captaincy of star right winger Reinhard 'Stan' Libuda. That success proved a flash in the pan though, and die Knappen were relegated three times during the 1980s (1981, 1983, 1988), though they did bounce back immediately from the first two disappointments. Their most recent promotion came in 1991 following three years in the second tier.
These days FC Schalke 04 are considered one of Germany's top clubs despite not having won the title in over 50 years. Fans have been able to celebrate a number of successes in other competitions, however, such as two DFB Cups (2001 and 2002) and a cherished first European trophy in 1997.
Schalke famously beat Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup final on penalties that year, and were subsequently christened the 'Euro fighters' for their energetic and dedicated displays in the competition."The whole team was so up for it. It was as if we were possessed. We knew we could write history and we it gave absolutely everything," said former midfielder Mike Buskens looking back upon a memorable evening at the San Siro.
Champion of hearts
Another nickname often given the club is one they could do without. “Champion of Hearts” is the sobriquet, and it describes the unfortunate way Schalke manage to capture the hearts of fans, without capturing trophies to go with it.
Take the final matchday of the 2000/01 Bundesliga season for example. Bayern Munich were three points ahead of Schalke at the top of the table, but with an inferior goal difference. The Royal Blues recorded a dramatic 5-3 victory over SpVgg Unterhaching, and were praying that Hamburg would do them a favour by beating Bayern. Things all seemed to be falling into place as HSV took a 90th minute lead, sparking scenes of jubilation among the Schalke fans, players and officials, who hugged and cheered what they believed to be their long-awaited eighth league title.
Their joy would turn to despair. Bayern won a free-kick on the edge of the box, and defender Patrik Andersson slammed home the equaliser, meaning it was Bayern who pipped Schalke to the coveted crown. Pictures of devastated Schalke players and fans were beamed around the world and the whole of Germany took pity on their misfortune. "After that game I don't believe in a football god," said Assauer, while midfielder Andreas Moller added: "We were the team who played the most attractive and exciting football."
From their modest roots as a club for the local workers, Schalke 04 have undoubtedly become one of the flagship teams in the Bundesliga. World stars such as Real Madrid legend Raul, 2010 FIFA World Cup™ runner-up Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Germany No1 Manuel Neuer all ply their trade with the Royal Blues, and each of them is determined to finally bring the title to the Arena AufSchalke for the first time in over half a century.
"The world has never seen a stadium like this before," said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter of Schalke’s multi-purpose Arena AufSchalke, while UEFA rated the stadium in its highest 'five star' category, commenting: "The venue more than meets all the necessary requirements and would probably be a 'six star' stadium if there were such a thing."
FC Schalke 04 have played their home matches at the Arena AufSchalke, one of Europe's most modern stadiums, since 2001. The venue has a capacity of 61,673 for Bundesliga matches (54,142 for European clashes) and cost €180 million to build. The stadium has a retractable roof which can be closed in 15 minutes and the pitch can be removed to protect it when concerts are held there. To top it all, the stadium even boasts a built-in chapel where couples can marry, All for the love of Schalke…