Following Schalke 04 can be bad for your health. Literally. In September 2011, after just six months as manager, Ralf Ragnick announced his immediate resignation, citing exhaustion as his reason for leaving the club. And no wonder: he’d fought to clean up the mess left from Felix Magath’s departure, but while Ragnick brought Schalke to the Champions League semifinals for the first time in their history, at home they’d finished the 2010-11 season in a disappointing 14th place.
Such a contradiction neatly encompasses Schalke, a club that just can’t have nice things. The 2000-01 season is burned in fans’ collective memory. An ecstatic crowd in Gelsenkirchen were celebrating not just victory on the final day but Schalke’s winning the title when the news rolled in that Bayern Munich had equalized in their finale. That single point meant the trophy went to Bayern, leaving Schalke without a Bundesliga title. Ironic, really, for a team that was Germany’s best in the 1930s and 40s (before the Bundesliga), even going six out of eight seasons unbeaten during that time.
So if Schalke fans are reluctant to be optimistic about their team’s strong start to the season, well, it’s hard to blame them. Currently, their side sits third, one point back of rivals Borussia Dortmund but 11 behind first-place Bayern. And with this weekend’s date pitting them against a suddenly lethal Borussia Mönchengladbach, followed by a DFB-Pokal encounter against the same side and a derby with Dortmund following close behind. Let’s just say it’s easy to imagine Schalke Schalke-ing this up.
It’s unfortunate, because the Bundesliga could really use another side that’s ready to spice things up. Recent history suggests the league goes in cycles: Bayern dominate, a challenger arises, and things get interesting for a year or two before the Bavarians obliterate the competition. Dortmund were tipped to be the side to break that pattern after winning back to back titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12, but last year they fell big time, and now Bayern’s 10-point advantage, combined with their recent 5-1 humiliation of BVB at the Allianz Arena, shows Dortmund aren’t quite ready to permanently disrupt the Bundesliga.
Beyond the field, it seems like Schalke have all the ingredients necessary to be that perennial big player in the Bundesliga. They’ve certainly got the fans, drawing more than a million last season and filling the Veltins Arena to 99 percent capacity. They’ve got the money, adding two Chinese companies to a sponsor list dominated by Gazprom to come in at 14th on Forbes’ team valuation list. And their history, combined with notable recent Champions League appearances, means they’ve got the name recognition (a 4-3 comeback against Real Madrid in Champions League last season didn’t send Schalke through, but it sure caught people’s attention).
But as anyone who’s ever excitedly opened the oven door only to see their beautifully constructed cake has fallen knows, having the right ingredients isn’t always enough. Six years ago, this was a club with a high enough profile to keep Raúl from signing in the US or Qatar, while also tempting Klaas-Jan Huntelaar into the fold. Yet this summer, they couldn’t keep hold of one of their own, and the young and talented Julian Draxler went off to help the competition at Wolfsburg. Clearly, somewhere along the line, someone confused the baking powder with the baking soda, and Schalke have been suffering ever since.
A casual observer might believe that most of the blame lies with Schalke’s recent managers, six of which have paced the touchline since Magath left in 2011. But while Huub Stevens couldn’t keep the side on a steady course, and Jens Keller was simply uninspiring, and Roberto Di Matteo should’ve known his squad weren’t able to pull off the tactics he had implemented, the problem actually ran deeper. General manager Horst Heldt, brought in by Magath, was the man responsible not only for appointing these men to the bench, but for bringing in the players they had to work with.
The news in Germany suggests Heldt is on his way out, with Schalke hoping to install Christian Heidel, with Mainz 05 for the past 25 years, in his place before the winter transfer window opens. The hope is that Schalke can continue moving away from the often uninspiring veterans favored by Heldt — and certainly steer away from troubling pickups like Kevin Prince-Boateng, who was suspended indefinitely last season — and focus on younger, more dynamic players. Schalke has a strong academy that’s produced the likes of Manuel Neuer and Mesut Özil, and the current team is lead by youth product Benedikt Höwedes, while 19-year-old Leroy Sané has been a joy to watch this season. Another highly touted Schalke product, Max Meyer, is finally benefiting from regular playing time. Bringing in a quality sporting director who can wisely use Schalke’s money to supplement these youngsters could well put the club on its way to being a consistent Bundesliga force.
Schalke doesn’t need to compete for trophies to survive, of course. Despite the disappointments of the past few years, fans continue to show up, even if it’s to show their frustration by refusing to applaud their side. But the league would certainly benefit from the increased competition.
Right now, Bayern Munich’s having to shoulder the burden all by themselves, and the lack of challengers in the Bundesliga gives casual fans little reason to tune in. This season was meant to be more enticing, but Wolfsburg without Kevin De Bruyne have stalled, Bayer Leverkusen are nicknamed “Neverkusen” for a reason, and Gladbach fell flat on their faces. Dortmund are busy pulling themselves back together, but unless Bayern’s capitulation against Arsenal is emblematic of a deeper sickness (not likely), they’re still not going to be able to challenge for the title.
And as far as this season is concerned, Schalke won’t either. This year won’t be the great Bundesliga advertisment fans — and Fox! — had hoped for. But after more than five years of near-ineptitude, Schalke finally look to be wisening up. Ousting Heldt will mean they’re able to set the stage for next year, constructing the right team around the right manager. And who knows, with that stable foundation, Die Königsblauen may finally be able to capitalize on their history, creating a club that competes year in, year out.
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