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The club built on fan power

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Dan Roan | 12:24 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

‪With a Champions League semi-final beckoning, most clubs would be forgiven for adopting something of a siege mentality when it comes to their pre-match preparations.

Heads would be down, the barriers up, the drawbridge raised. But not at Schalke 04.

On a beautiful spring day in the Ruhr valley and ahead of the biggest match in the club's history, Schalke had flung open the doors to their fans.

As one might expect from arguably the most popular club across Germany, with a staggering 94,000 paid-up members, 1,300 supporter groups worldwide - including two in England - and the sixth-highest average home attendance in the whole of Europe, some 2,000 loyalists had turned up to watch.

The day was proving a tough one for Schalke's fans. Their favourite son, Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, had just informed them via social networking site Facebook that, after 20 years at his hometown club, he would not be extending his contract, almost certainly resulting in a transfer to Bayern Munich.

But even that news could not spoil the mood.

Just yards from the pitch, supporters enjoyed lunch at the dedicated members' club, while players chatted and signed autographs before leaving to get changed.

Nothing special. This is simply how it is at Schalke.

"Training sessions here are almost always open, it is very different from England," Ralf Rangnick, Schalke's manager, later explained to me at the club's state-of-the-art, 61,000-seater Veltins Arena, where cheap tickets and terracing ensures one of the best match-day atmospheres in world football.

"If we did not let the fans come and see us, they would be unhappy."

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And at Schalke, one senses that the happiness of the supporters genuinely matters.

Elsewhere, of course, clubs are not always as engaged with, or open to, those who support them. Take Carrington, for instance, training headquarters of Manchester United, Schalke's semi-final opponents.

As with other Premier League clubs, a sign makes clear that players will not be signing autographs, while imposing, high-level security prevents fans from getting anywhere near the out-of-sight training facilities. The contrast with Schalke could not be starker.

Gelsenkirchen, just like Manchester, was once at the centre of its country's industrial heartland. But the mines and steelworks have long since closed down, leaving the city of a thousand fires, as it was once known, with a 20% unemployment rate.

Still, Schalke remains loyal to the working-class ethos of the area it represents. This is a club built on fan power.

A supporter representative enjoys a permanent seat on the club's supervisory board, a body that can veto transfers worth more than 300,000 euros. Once Rangnick's predecessor, Felix Magath, attempted to get rid of the rule, his days were numbered, especially once he dismissed the club's supporter liaison officer. Having lost the fans, the man who helped secure Champions League qualification and led Schalke to the quarter-finals was promptly dismissed.

Stuart Dykes came to live in Germany in the 1980s, fell in love with Schalke and now works as a translator for the club, as well as a consultant for Supporters Direct, the network of fan trusts involved with running football clubs. "Schalke is more than just a club, it is the fans, it is the city," he explained.

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"I can't think of any other club in Europe where the club is so closely associated with the community. Schalke is now one of the biggest employer in Gelsenkirchen, the area literally depends on the club.

"The club is 100% owned by the fans. Players visit supporter clubs throughout the country and fans are invited to come on holiday with the squad on pre-season training."

Dykes explains how the club were only allowed to raise ticket prices recently after a long consultation with the fans. And then the cost of a standing ticket was only put up from 13 to 15 euros. Season tickets cost just over 300 euros and include free transport to the stadium from various towns and train stations within a 50km radius.

"I used to support Manchester United but when the Glazers bought United that was the final straw," said Dykes. "I haven't been to Old Trafford since then. The second leg will be my first visit for a long time and I want Schalke to win."

Schalke's extraordinary 5-2 demolition of Inter Milan at the San Siro in the first leg of the quarter-finals was the moment the Royal Blues became the competition's dark horses. Following the return leg, which Schalke won 2-1, the normally reserved Raul climbed into the crowd, grabbed a microphone and led the celebrations, ensuring the striker became even more of a legend than his 71 Champions League goals already guarantee.

Schalke are not without their problems. Despite taking Europe by storm and with a forthcoming German Cup final to enjoy, the club have not won a league title since 1958. The success of bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund, who currently head the Bundesliga by five points, makes such perennial under-achievement even harder to stomach.

Having almost gone bankrupt several years ago, Schalke remains heavily indebted, with its finances under close scrutiny by the Bundesliga authorities. A multi-million euro sponsorship deal with controversial Russian gas giant Gazprom caused consternation among many fans, who felt the partnership did not fit with the club's values.

Seven large sections of the Veltins Arena roof are still missing, too, after snow caused them to collapse in the winter.

But nothing can tarnish the renewed sense of pride and optimism that Schalke's unlikely European adventure has engendered in this post-industrial city. Germany's original uber-club could yet enjoy its proudest day.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good for Schalke. Just goes to show that clubs don't need to charge their fans half their weekly wages just for the privilege of of supporting the club in order to be successful. Here's hoping Schalke can win the Champion's League and really stick it to the big boys.

  • Comment number 2.

    Obviously, as a lifelong United supporter, I don't want Schalke to win tonight or next Wednesday, but I gaze upon them lovingly, and marvel at the way the club is run. It is the dream of most football supporters to be so involved in, and valued by the club they support, not milked like "cash cows".
    Premier League clubs could never be run like this anymore.

  • Comment number 3.

    @1 Is that strictly true though? Yes they have made it to the semi's of the CL but as the article states, they are deeply in debt and fixing their staium roof seems to be a bit of an issue. Perhaps if Schalke fans were a bit more realistic with the charging structure, the club wouldn't be in such a financial mess?

  • Comment number 4.

    Impressive, but can you really imagine the top clubs over here opening their doors like that? You wouldn't be able to move for gutter press lice looking for their next bit of tattle to feed on.

  • Comment number 5.

    This isn't just Schalke, Dan, but pretty much all Bundesliga clubs, like my beloved Dortmund. The German vs English model has been argued out in many places and I won't go into it here, but even though I'm English, I find the Premier league woefully dull, and the Bundesliga far better. I hope BVB don't choke, and good luck to Schalke!

  • Comment number 6.

    I was in Gelsenkirchen when my team (Benfica) played Shalke in the CL group stage this season, and I was impressed how we didn't need to buy train tickets as it would be included on the match ticket (only found out after we bought them of course...) - but as stated in the article you could travel from quite far for completely free, from Oberhausen, Dussedorf, Dortmund, etc, on matchdays.

    The town is completely covered in blue. And surprisingly I've seen a couple of GE Ultras stickers in random countries, just out of nowehere, so their supporters do get around.

    If anyone wants to know, you can find the UK Schalke support group over here:

  • Comment number 7.

    As Lorcan says, this model isn't unique to Schalke. In Germany, they value the fans and having full stadiums. The fans will just not go to the games if they hike the ticket prices up, and they've warned clubs about this in the past. Tickets are cheap yes, but the merchandise flies off the shelves. Perennial mid-league clubs play to full houses every home game.

    As for "arguably the most popular club across Germany", that's not a view you would find in Germany. Munich are far and away the most popular - and at the same time the most hated!

    I'm a BVB fan of many years but even still would like to see them make the final. I expect Man Utd to edge them over 2 legs, but it should be closer than many think. In Farfan and Raul they have 2 players who can trouble to any defence.

  • Comment number 8.

    Perhaps if players were not so cut off, there wouldn't be the hype or furore that surrounds them when they are actually revealed in some format to the public other than the robotic, media moulded beings that they appear to be.

    After all, their career and fuss will normally last about 10 years, after that footballers become everyday people more or less. Yes with vast wealth in some cases, but that soon diminishes.

    For example at Everton heroes from 1990's in Joe Parkinson, Graham Stuart etc regularly take part in public benefits with the club, intergrating with fans and there are never any problems, just as I imagine there are no problems now over in Germany.

    If you make something unattainable, people will seek it more. If the players walk through your highstreets and chat to fans at open training events then where is the need to seek them out?

  • Comment number 9.


    That is unbelievable. The tickets are much cheaper anyway! We accept getting ripped off quite easily in this country - fans in the main aret reated like dirt by their clubs in this country.

    It's almost as if you should be greatful to have paid your £35 ticket, to sit in a obstructed view, to pay £10 on simple refreshments, pay your £3 to get to the nearest train station and then walk 2 miles to the ground...but come May they'll do anything to get your season ticket renewal sorted out.

  • Comment number 10.

    "I used to support Manchester United but when the Glazers bought United that was the final straw," said Dykes. "I haven't been to Old Trafford since then. The second leg will be my first visit for a long time and I want Schalke to win."

    I am not knocking the bloke, to each their own and all that, but I genuinely can not understand how someone can just say "Well I am not supporting that club any more"
    and start supporting another club.

  • Comment number 11.

    Im rooting for barca, but having read this im kind of hoping Schalke win the whole thing. Clubs treat their fans like mugs now and they just put up with it. Delighted to see a club that hasnt forgotten where it comes from and to then sell its soul for a few quid extra. Might be how the world runs now in football here's to them anyway.

  • Comment number 12.

    Interesting article, though I have heard it all before.

    Maybe fans do need to be a bit more realistic, and then they could repair the roof and get their finances in order though? Just a thought.

    You can not have those principles and be a wealthy club, but there is lots of middle ground.

    As someone pointed out though, the pathetic excuse for reporting which most of the English Press resort to are a huge problem in taking the "open approach".

  • Comment number 13.

    This isn't really special to Schalke more across the bundesliga which others have said. I support Dortmund when it comes to Germany but have been to a Schalke game and the stadium and fans are amazing. Many clubs have open training sessions, why only the other week i got my photo with Mario Gotze and Felipe Santana after a training session. The players have a close connection with the fans and even twenty minutes after a match has ended the players are often still out on the pitch interacting with supporters after a win. The premier league may have the more glitz and glamour but that is exactly what is ruining it. Football is much better on the continent in my opinion and I'm english.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks for this article Dan. As a Man Utd ST holder I want United to win... but have great respect for Schalke and the involvement of the fans..if only United were the same. I went to Dortmund in 1997 and Barca in 1999 to watch United against German opposition.. and their supporters are generally fantastic. One of my football highlights was at Dortmund with a mass 'dance' at half time by United supporters to James Brown.. 'I feel good'..and wish Schalke well for the future.. but not in the next 8 days!

  • Comment number 15.

    I agree entirely with this blog from my experiences of visiting germany.
    To think it costs £40 plus for a ticket @ Old Trafford. Yes the atmosphere is great but the interaction isnt there. Id love to be able to afford to go and see Utd play every week but it would bankrupt me!
    I went for my stag weekend over in Dusseldorf, not only where the people within the town amazing and welcoming but the cost of transport across the city was minimal.

    The fact that the match tickets incorporate transport just adds to the ease of getting around and not spending a fortune in the process. As for watching the team train. If your watching the matches and buying the merchandise its not much to ask for.

  • Comment number 16.

    This is very noble but aren't Schalke about 100M euros on debt? Perhaps that should have been stated also. That huge debt may be related or not to the fact the tickets are cheap, etc. Anyway, good luck to Schalke next season... tonight GO UNITED!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 17.

    Dan, i more than a lot of people, want to see shalke beat united...(both legs)
    do you think they have not just the quality but the mental toughness through out the team/squad to do this?

    Ive seen some of their group games and the ties verses valencia and inter, and although playing fantastic, i do believe their victories in some cases (against the bigger teams) was due more to, complaincency and poor play from their opponents than their superior footballing ability? Sir Alec will know of Raul's threat and i sadly think ferdinand & vidic - unless they have a poor game; will subdue the prolific spaniard, no?

    thoughts would be appreciated!

  • Comment number 18.

    Oh I wish the Ipswich CEO would look at this blog and remember that it is also meant to be a community club..... Dreams of course.

    I really really hope Schalke make it to the final now, and then meet Real Madrid.

  • Comment number 19.

    @7, stevie_bhoy, there is no team called Munich. The two Bundesliga clubs in that city are Bayern and TSV1860. Bayern (the one you probably referred to) is NOT among the top four most supported clubs in Germany, they are Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Hamburg and Hansa Rostock. Bayern are probably the most hated club in the country, though.

  • Comment number 20.

    This is an extraordinary example of how just the fans support and involvement can turn around the fortunes of a club. I am a Srilankan and I can truly appreciate this as the Football clubs out here are not in the best financial conditions and we do not have any foreign players. As a Manchester United fan I would like Man U too to introduce a system that allows fans to interact with a greater level of intimacy with the players because a true sportsmen plays for the love of the game and the support of his/her fans.
    There must be something special in Schalke and its players (other than Raul) to have beaten Inter 7-3 on aggregrate. Inter have not had the best of seasons yet they've managed to churn out the results albeit a few hiccups on the way. After all they beat Bayern convincingly.
    My best wishes to Schalke to continue their good form and excellent football that they played at the champions league but as a Man U fan I hope and pray that we win.

  • Comment number 21.

    Although I am a proud Englishman, I am wholly ingrossed with the Bundesliga and all the good that eminates from it.
    Matches are decent, the crowds better than anywhere else on the continent bar none, and above all the supporters are truly regarded as being part of the clubs and not just "customers" there to be fleeced for cash.

    Schalke have done fantastic to get this far in the CL and in the words of the Sainted KK " I would just love it" if they reached the final at the expense of moneybags united.
    In any event, this cup run should put some well deserved and needed cash in the coffers for them to build on.

  • Comment number 22.

    "I am not knocking the bloke, to each their own and all that, but I genuinely can not understand how someone can just say "Well I am not supporting that club any more"
    and start supporting another club."
    My ex mate Eammy McCann stopped supporting Leeds 30 years ago to become a Liverpool supporter. Just like that.
    I still can't believe he could have done that. It's a bit like Stevie the punk becoming a New Romantic overnight. Fickle or what. How can people change overnight?

  • Comment number 23.

    Cheap tickets, Integrated transport to games and safe standing to........
    Are we really looking at Germany as a better place to watch football than the sceptred isle that is Great Britain, and the originator of the game?

    Somewhere along the journey we have lost the way, with too much money, over analysis, players on pedestals ready to be knocked off, twitter accounts being used as the word of god and the costs supported by massive ticket price rises and over zealous staffing to remove you should someone dare to say something controversial.

    There are examples of clubs in Great Britain following a similar fan owned approach but currently reside in the lower leagues. Maybe they deserve our attention rather than the over glorified super clubs of the Premiership. I hope their day will come.

  • Comment number 24.

    @10 and 22

    There is no natural ties to any club from birth, they are only formed by going to grounds. Yes, it can be hard to drop these socially constructed bonds but it is not ridiculous. Why should a United fan stay after their club is ripped away from them and the only semblance of what they remember as 'United' is the location and the colour of the strip? It does not make it an easy decision but one lead by both the irrational passion for the club and the rational passion for wanting their club to be theirs. I'll never understand why people accept that you cannot change clubs for political reasons.

  • Comment number 25.

    Dietrich Mateschitz, the businessman who owns Red Bull, bought the historic Austrian football club Austria Salzburg and changed the club's colors from violet to red because "no Red Bull team would have any other colour but red"! Then he changed the club's name to Red Bull Salzburg! Imagine the new owner of your club changing your colours and then changing the name to acconomdate his brand. Would you still be a supporter? What place does loyalty have when the object of loyalty ceases to exist?

  • Comment number 26.

    James Horrocks -
    Its this familiarity you speak of that leads to loyalty. The colours of the strip, the stadium, the fans that fill it. A fan has a special bond with each and every other fan of that team. Its not right to change teams because something has gone on that you dont agree with or cannot get used to. Its called loyalty.

    There is also the rivalry side to it. As 'thatmanjoeagain' touched on it, how can you support one club and fear/hate/envy their rivals then turn your back and support a club you hated, go to the matches and watch your new club play against your old and sing abusive or micky-taking songs against that club you were loyal to for so many years???


    has no room for politically conscious people such as yourself that deem it alright to suddenly exchange teams.

    Fan of wife swap by any chance?

  • Comment number 27.

    I'm the person interviewed and I should make it clear that what I have done is withdraw my financial support from Manchester United. I am still a fan. I simply made a conscious decision not to put any more money in after Glazer took over and that means I don't go the home games any more. I was fed up of being treated solely as a source of cash by my club, as I saw it. Expensive tickets, ridiculous kick-off times, all-seater grounds with no atmosphere, no beer inside the stadium, overzealous stewards, no meaningful dialogue with the fans, etc. etc. Compare and contrast with the Bundesliga. For me, having lived in Germany and been going to Schalke since 1987, there is no competition. I'm a part of the Schalke family now and I get a say in how the club is run. That's how it is at FC United and quite frankly I don't find I miss Old Trafford that much any more. I fully respect those people who took the decision to keep going after Glazer bought the club. All I ask is that they respect mine.

  • Comment number 28.

    Im afraid that many Schalke fans are living in the past, in fact it is over 50 years since they won their last league title. If they want to continue in this way, then good luck to them, if however they want to join the Uniteds of the world, then they must SPEND and with their finances as they are at present, their only hope is to raise prices.
    The last Manager Felix Magath, done his best to pull them into the 20th century, but the Chairman and FANS didnt like having a Trainer/Coach/Manager in one person (which is unheard of in Germany) with this sort of power, the Fans think that because they pay, they have the right to run the club. One thing I am certain of, in 5 years, all Top German clubs will be run like the Premier League, that is with a One man Manager/Coach, much higher ticket prices and owned by American, Arabs and even Russians.
    PS I wonder why no Schalke fan has mentioned that in the 70s Schalke were relegated because of match fixing ?


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