Schalke vs Hamburg: woe is us

The fallen giants are now second tier foes – and we paid a visit...

- Words Ed Mccambridg­e Photograph­y Stefan Grey

Germany’s second division could be far more exciting than its top flight this season, with a pile of hungover fallen giants slogging it out for promotion. The unthinkabl­e has become reality for Schalke and Hamburg in 2021, so FFT headed to Gelsenkirc­hen to discover their stories of woe

“Everything has an end, only the sausage has two,” or so goes an old German saying that’s still widely used today. Revered porcine products aside, Germans believe all things end eventually. Nothing lasts forever.

Fans of Schalke 04 and Hamburger SV will understand the sentiment better than most. Until recently, both were considered German football powerhouse­s – successful on the pitch, respected off it. Even rival supporters appreciate the traditions and values upheld by the two clubs.

And yet, the pair find themselves in the 2. Bundesliga, Germany’s second tier, this season. Schalke’s relegation in 2020- 21 was among the most humiliatin­g in top- flight history: 34 matches, three wins, 24 defeats and 86 goals conceded. They came within one match of equalling Tasmania Berlin’s infamous record of 31 consecutiv­e games without a win, dating back to 1965- 66. In tier two, they have found waiting for them Hamburg – by now a veteran of three seasons outside the Bundesliga.

So, how did these juggernaut­s, who have claimed 13 German championsh­ips between them, get here? To find out, Fourfourtw­o have travelled to Gelsenkirc­hen, a mining city in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, for the 2. Bundesliga season opener between the duo. Football is a soap opera, so it was inevitable Schalke vs Hamburg kicked things off.

With 20,000 fans in attendance for the first time since the coronaviru­s pandemic began, the sun- bathed Veltins- Arena looks a thing of beauty as FFT ambles out of the train station on a warm late- July evening.

“It’s wonderful to be back, even if it is in the second division,” Andreas Middeke of official Schalke supporter group Blau- Weiss 80, tells us pre- match, bratwurst in one hand and pint in the other. “The past few years have been a catastroph­e, but here we are.”

“Schalke and Hamburg are massive teams,” explains Marcel Wrobel of HSV fan group Schwarz- Weiss- Blauer Norden. Despite there being no official away support at the match due to COVID- 19 restrictio­ns, hundreds of white- shirted Hamburg fans scurry between the blue masses on Rudi- Assauer- Platz, home to the Veltins- Arena. “They were once our rivals at the top level, but those days are over for now.”

Fans are everything in Germany, where the 50+ 1 rule ensures that a club’s members get the final say on all decisions. A club’s stature, therefore, is determined less by the number of trophies they’ve amassed, and more by the size of their membership. Schalke, with 160,000 members, are considered Germany’s third- largest outfit, behind behemoths Bayern Munich and neighbours Borussia Dortmund. Hamburg, with 85,000, are the fifth- biggest team in the country.

But these two are also among Germany’s biggest in terms of silverware. Schalke have seven championsh­ips to their name, as well as five DFB- Pokals; Hamburg have been top dogs on six occasions, with three German cups. Both boast European gongs: Hamburg won the 1983 European Cup, while Schalke lifted the UEFA Cup in ’ 97. Die Konigsblau­en

– or Royal Blues, as Schalke are known – have even bagged silverware as recently as 2011, as a side including Raul, Manuel Neuer and Julian Draxler lifted the DFB- Pokal.

“I was there – we had a fantastic team and club back then,” says Schalke fan Andreas, surrounded by his blue- shirted, moustachio­ed comrades from Blau- Weiss 80. “That’s in the past, though. We’re in the second division and size doesn’t play a role here.”


Speaking to supporters of both clubs, it’s clear where disgruntle­ment lies. There has been colossal mismanagem­ent in Gelsenkirc­hen and Hamburg, cities separated by 350km of autobahn in Germany’s north- west. They’ve taken different roads to reach this point, but their respective declines have happened almost impercepti­bly, over a sustained spell.

“It wasn’t just over a couple of seasons,” continues Schalke fan Andreas. “The club’s situation got worse and worse, one bit at a time. I believe our recent problems started under former coach Felix Magath, who left in 2011. He alienated members of the dressing room and fired coaches who had been loyal to the club. Various bad decisions were made by the board later down the line, of course, including awarding huge contracts to players that shouldn’t have been signed.”

Schalke’s transfer business has long been a cause for concern among supporters. Die Knappensch­miede, their esteemed academy, has produced such talents as Neuer, Draxler, Mesut Ozil, Leroy Sané and Leon Goretzka. All have departed, but while some fetched large fees, others – including Goretzka – left for zilch. Ozil, tipped for greatness, was sold for a meagre € 5 million.

“It’s really frustratin­g when your brightest talents run down their contracts or leave for next to nothing,” laments Andreas, as FFT wonders how he’s not wilting in his heavily embroidere­d Blau- Weiss 80 jacket. “You can understand if a young player wants to further their career, but far too often we’ve received little for developing these gems.”

Despite losing potential transfer fees into the tens of millions on some of their players, the lucrative sales of certain others, including Neuer ( Bayern, € 30m), Draxler ( Wolfsburg, € 43m) and Sané ( Manchester City, € 52m) helped to halve the club’s debt to around € 129m by 2016. Yet, just as Schalke edged towards financial safety, they flip- flopped.

Tired of not challengin­g for the title and apparently jealous of the success that arch adversarie­s Dortmund had recently enjoyed under Jurgen Klopp, Schalke ramped up their spending in a bid to keep themselves in the Champions League. Larger- than- life sporting director Christian Heidel was appointed from Mainz, and over the next two and a half years, he rubber- stamped four of Schalke’s six most expensive signings. A hefty € 73m went on Breel Embolo, Nabil Bentaleb, Sebastian Rudy and Yevhen Konoplyank­a alone. Failure to become Champions League regulars plunged them deeper into the red. Heidel finally quit in the summer of 2019.

Schalke remain more than € 200m in debt, even though they have a passionate fanbase, a bumper sponsorshi­p contract with Russian gas giant Gazprom since 2007 and a modern, state- of- the- art stadium used for the 2006 World Cup. Studying it from the outside, the Veltins- Arena resembles a space station, with its sleek glass facade and bubble- dome roof. Ahead of kick- off, FFT watches fans wander through a network of academy pitches, as the stars of tomorrow are put through their paces by Schalke’s academy coaches. You’d be forgiven for thinking a home this luxurious must belong to a team swimming in cash. You’d be wrong.

It’s a similar story in Hamburg, who find themselves more than € 100m in debt. The club’s supporters have winced at some of the exploits in the transfer market over the previous decade. “The management signed players who were too expensive,” Marcel from fan group Schwarz- Weiss- Blauer Norden tells FFT. “Things got out of hand.”

Torsten Rumpf, Hamburg correspond­ent for German outlet Sportbild, attributes their scattergun transfer activity to the 2009 loss of sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorf­er.

“Beiersdorf­er brought in really good players for low fees, including Vincent Kompany and Jerome Boateng, both of whom later moved to Manchester City. He had a good eye for players and ensured that incoming coaches fitted the club’s philosophy. But then he fell out with the chairman, Bernd Hoffmann, and left the club in 2009.

“HSV began to switch between managers, players and systems from year to year. They had no long- term strategy, results began to slide and they started losing a lot of money.”

With Beiersdorf­er gone, Hamburg bought establishe­d stars instead of rough diamonds. Ruud van Nistelrooy arrived from Real Madrid on a free transfer, and Rafael van der Vaart returned from Tottenham for € 13m in 2011 – both on hefty contracts.

“They were good, but you can only afford them if you’re playing at the top,” says Marcel.


“If you miss out on European football, you’re quickly left without money and without good players. We made big mistakes.”

Beiersdorf­er returned to Hamburg in 2014, but by then the damage was done.


While Hamburg’s lack of long- term planning meant regular struggles before they went down in 2017 – having survived relegation play- offs in both 2014 and 2015 – Schalke’s fall from grace hasn’t been quite so linear. Die Konigsblau­en were Bundesliga runners- up in 2018, and reached the Champions League last 16 a season later where they faced Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Those notable achievemen­ts under young coach Domenico Tedesco, who arrived from second- tier strugglers Erzgebirge Aue in 2017, were overshadow­ed by what was perceived as dull and defensive football. Furthermor­e, fans have eventually come to regard 2018’ s second- place finish as a fluke.

“Schalke weren’t the second- best team in the country that year,” concedes Andreas, to mumbled agreement from fellow Blau- Weiss 80 members by a beer kiosk in the stadium’s shadows. “The other teams were collective­ly awful and we were so lucky along the way. The football was mind- numbing.”

Ask Schalke fans to pinpoint an exact date which led to the club’s demise, and they may well say August 7, 2019 – just a year on from Tedesco’s second- place finish. That was the day Schalke’s supervisor­y board acquitted chairman Clemens Tonnies, a meat industry billionair­e who fronted the club between 2001 and 2020, over racist comments made during a business conference in Paderborn.

Earlier in August, Tonnies had called for the constructi­on of power plants in Africa so that, “Africans will stop producing children as soon as it gets dark.” The decision to merely suspend Tonnies for three months split the fanbase, and resulted in the resignatio­n of honorary board member and lifelong Schalke fan Kornelia Toporzysek.

“I saw it as my role as a member of the honorary advisory board to defend the values of Schalke,” she tells FFT ahead of the season opener. “When the most important person at the club says something that is shameful and racist, they should be held accountabl­e. Tonnies was not the first person in power at a football club to do something damaging, and many fans felt he should stay in charge. But moments like this should always be seen as a test for a club.

“Do Schalke take racism seriously or not? Personally, I wanted them to move forward with a new chairman, but he was defended publicly by the board. I had no choice but to step down from my position.”

Tonnies secured Schalke’s Gazprom shirt sponsorshi­p deal – via his mysterious links to Vladimir Putin – and was also a driving force behind the developmen­t of the club’s Berger Feld training complex. Toporzysek admits Tonnies was “a shrewd businessma­n”, but believes he must also shoulder the blame for the football slide.

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