The tunnel at Veltins Arena is famous. Its walls and ceiling are decorated as a Ruhr Valley coalface, with lamps above splashing light unevenly across the rough surfaces below.
Its where this evenings Revierderby will start.
When its time, the referee will lead the players outside, into the stadium, then up onto the pitch. Its a sharp climb from the foot of the tunnel and at the top of those steps, the stadiums vastness will loom above, from the giant pendulum scoreboard downward. Its not a stage, its an environment. A moody and dark one, too, with thick and heavy air.
Tonight, Schalke andBorussia Dortmundwill walk up and out into that gloom and face each other for the final time this season, with yellow and blue flares burning brilliantly at opposite ends.
One team wants just to survive, the other wants it all theBundesligatrophy and everything that goes with it. Whatever the aims, these sides now need to go through each other.
Schalke arent back, but they are getting better.
Before theWorld Cup, they were helpless. They lost eight straight games between September and November, conceding five goals against Hoffenheim in the cup and four toLeverkusenin the league. Head coach Frank Kramer was sacked in October andreplaced by Thomas Reis.
Thats a story of its own. Reis was formerly the head coach of nearby Bochum and played for the club, too. Schalke first made an approach for him in the summer and although slapped away, it still left a mark. Bochums start to this season was a disaster. Reis was sacked in September and quickly succeeded Kramer.
Not that there was much bounce. In fact, it got worse. When the Bundesliga resumed in late January, Schalke were beaten soundly byEintracht Frankfurtand then thrashed 6-1 byRB Leipzig. They couldnt score goals and they couldnt keep them out. One year after promotion, relegation was a certainty.
Now it isnt. A run of four successive goalless draws began in late January and hinted at a new resilience. Most recently, two wins in a row have engendered genuine hope. The first was against Stuttgart, the second was over Reis old club, Bochum. And because football has its devious sense of humour, Schalke climbed over Bochum with that win and left them in last place.
Dortmund will be wary of that kind of quirkiness and will have watched this sequence develop with bemusement. They remain very much in the title race, neck-and-neck with Bayern Munich. However, what six weeks ago looked like a stroll to three points now looks like a fixture full of peril. While Schalkes focus remains survival, they would dearly love to put an axe through their rivals season.
They might do that, too. Veteran goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann has been a revelation since being restored to the side. January loan signing Moritz Jenz has quickly forged an excellent centre-back pairing withMaya Yoshida. Ahead of them, young ball-winner Tom Krauss has provided excellent protection and, while Reis team generally lack flair, the precocious Rodrigo Zalazar who scored the goal that sealed promotion last season is starting to look like a top-flight attacking midfielder.
So, Schalke have toughened up considerably and Dortmund should beware. But surviving relegation and getting in the way of others aspirations is a strange place for Schalke to find themselves. They are a vast club. With a membership of over 164,000, theyre the second largest in Germany and still one of the biggest in the world.
They have a history to support that heft, too.
Olaf Thon is still playing football today. He stands as we talk around a table in Schalkes club museum, high up in the Veltins Arenas stands, and explains that hes carrying an injury from a recent veterans game. He laughs softly and his eyes dance as he describes the first time he watched Klaus Fischer play and the moment when Fischer, 226 goals in 349 Schalke appearances, became his favourite player as a boy.
Oh, I remember the bicycle kick againstSwitzerland.
Its a rare privilege to tour a clubs history with a local hero. Thon is just that, though. Once, he was the second-youngest player to represent West Germany, making his debut at just 18. He won the World Cup in 1990, scoring againstEnglandin the penalty shootout in the semi-final and would finish his domestic career with three Bundesliga titles won with Bayern Munich, as well as two DFB-Pokals and a UEFA Cup with Schalke.
He was naturally an attacking midfielder, but injuries would later push him back into defence and into a sweeper role, where he was just as good. As if to make that point, thats his position on a wall plaque we pass commemorating Schalkes finest-ever side.
Its a surreal experience standing between someones past and their present. The walls of the museum are full of tributes and trinkets from Schalkes yesteryears and Thon regularly walks past windows back into his own career. While we talk about his upbringing, his hat-trick against Bayern in the 1984 cup semi-final plays on a television in the background. When we speak about the clubs recent difficulties a dire swirl of financial troubleand poor performance that saw them fall from second in the Bundesliga in 2018 to relegation just three years later his thumping header againstDenmarkin 1988 whistles past Peter Schmeichel.
Thon was born in Gelsenkirchen and was raised by Schalke. His father and grandfather played football, both to a high standard, and the latter worked in one of the local mines. The way Thon describes it, to grow up in Gelsenkirchen during their time and in his was to have few options.
I was born in 1966 and we had industry and football. Nothing more. It was normal. I was automatically a fan.
Central to Schalkes identity, part of their mythology even, is the rich seam of players who have originated from this part of the country. Four of Germanys world champions from 2014 were coached by the clubs long-serving, legendary youth coach Norbert Elgert. Two of those players, Mesut Ozil andManuel Neuer, were born in Gelsenkirchen, while two others came from nearby towns or cities: Benedikt Howedes from Haltern and Julian Draxler from Gladbeck. Essens Leroy Sane came through under Elgert, so did BochumsJoel Matip. Local boys. All of them products of the Ruhr.
Elgert was born in Gelsenkirchen itself and part of the clubs success has depended on the self-sustaining reputation he and they have forged for youth development. Thon credits him for helping to cultivate that part of Schalkes identity and for the breadth of his work.
Hes the best youth coach in Germany. He develops players on the pitch and off it. When you hear his players talking about him, they always say how he prepared them for pressure and for life.
Young players at Schalke are expected to behave a certain way. To be welcoming to those around the training complexes and to shake hands with people they meet. Its hardly unique, but its valuable and particularly in a place where identity has been vital for a very long time.
Footballing-wise, the Ruhr Valley is a heartland. There are just 35km between Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund. Bochum is even closer and Cologne, Dusseldorf and Monchengladbach are all just an hour away. Its a tight corner of west Germany in which rivalries are fierce but where plenty of the social history is actually shared and where many towns and cities grew for similar reasons.
Schalke is a district of Gelsenkirchen, a city which is sometimes referred to as a place where everybody there is really from somewhere else.
In the middle of the 19th century, that was almost literally true. The Ruhr Valleys coal was the fuel for the Industrial Revolution and that mineral wealth made it a production powerhouse and a destination for economic migrants. As recently as 1840, Gelsenkirchen was little more than a rural village of a few thousand people. Within a quarter of a century, it grew to become the mining capital of Europe, the so-called City of a Thousand Fires and home to nearly 400,000 people.
The football team would mirror its changing society and that great influx. Schalkes golden era ended long before the Bundesliga began in 1963. They were six-time German champions between 1934 and 1942 and the teams who achieved those successes were true to the clubs environment and its societys composition. Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra, who are regarded as the finest players in Schalke history deities really were both born in Gelsenkirchen, but to parents who migrated from the former East Prussia. Adolf Urban, a great forward from the same era, was a child of Polish immigrants. So too was Reinhard Libuda, one of the finest dribblers in German football in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like much of the Ruhr, Gelsenkirchen was devastated by the Great Depression. Later in the 20th century, in the 1960s, the coal, iron and steel industries began to retreat and populations across the whole region receded with them. Currently, only around 250,000 people live in Gelsenkirchen and that describes the impact the city has had to absorb over the past century and just how much of its labour force has migrated away.
Today, its muscular. Different-shaped buildings jostle for space in its skyline and, on the streets, theres a functional energy. A city tram takes fans to Veltins Arena and that rattles north from the central station, then up through narrow streets with concrete houses on either side and on to a broad highway lined by factory buildings and hulking gears of modern production.
Its not among the most beautiful German cities, but its too easy to characterise it as just another post-industrial town in a permanent state of decay. In 2018, while German unemployment rates were approaching a post-reunification low of 5%, Gelsenkirchens was hovering at around 13%. Its fallen since, though, and while the community faces societal challenges, Gelsenkirchen often receives a harsh and cliched press that fixates on headline statistics and average wages. Its not really fair; it seems too narrow.
Some of the remnants of industry have been turned into museums and places where the city can show its past with pride. Elsewhere, back in the 1990s, an old coal-powered steel plant was converted into a science park and is at the heart of the citys drive towards future sustainability and digital development something for which Gelsenkirchen was awarded a UNESCO award back in 2017. And, while the tram that runs out of the station does run past tenement buildings that served a previous generation, it also passes through a world-famous music and ballet venue and eventually reaches an art museum further to the north.
So, Gelsenkirchen is not Cologne or Berlin, or Hamburg or Frankfurt. The past has been difficult and the future might also be tricky, but its not just a collection of disused machinery and empty factories with broken windows. Stand at the top of Veltins Arena and look out and you can still see the big pipes puffing in the distance; this remains a city at work.
Asked about what its like to have watched Schalke suffer in recent seasons, Thon doesnt pretend. Hes a club ambassador now and part of his job has been to put on a brave face with sponsors and fans and to generate optimism at a time when the team was providing none. At the end of last season, when Zalazar crashed his goal in off the crossbar to complete a comeback win over St Pauli and secure the 2.Bundesliga title, it began a wild and uninhibited celebration. A few months later, after it appeared Schalke were badly outmatched at the level above, the media, fans and ex-players like Thon were preparing for another slog out of the division below.
Now, there are signs of life. Reis new structure is working, Thon says, and the defensive spine is starting to show it can be trusted. When asked whether Schalke have improved just in time to ruin Dortmunds season, he stops short of answering the question as if the progress is still too fragile and speaking of it too loudly might scare it away.
Not all of Schalkes success is buried in the past.
In a corner of the museum hangs a framed portrait of the tactical instructions ahead of the second leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup final, which the Eurofighters would win on penalties. The back-to-back Pokal trophies from 2001 and 2002 are there, so are Rauls shirt and Neuers gloves, commemorating the Ralf Rangnick era, which included a dismantling ofInterat San Siro and a run to theChampions Leaguesemi-finals in 2011.
Its still a long way back. Die Konigsblauen The Royal Blues are not where they want to be in this football world and relegation remains a real and frightening possibility. But theres finally life in this team and power in their building.
Dortmund know that. Theyll feel it, too, when they step out of that tunnel and up into the Revierderby on Saturday night.
(Top photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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