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Opinion: A Competitive Schalke is Good for Borussia Dortmund and the Bundesliga

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I expect this to raise some eyebrows.

FC Schalke 04 Press Conference
David Wagner staying at Schalke is yet another sign of the club’s changing direction.
Photo by Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

The day is May 12, 2007. It’s match day 33 of the Bundesliga season. Schalke currently sit on top of the Bundesliga table, but are barely hanging on by the tips of their fingers. They’ve struggled during the second half of the season, and only sit one point above VFB Stuttgart, who have been shredding the Bundesliga to pieces over the past two months, winning the previous six matches in a row. Worst of all, Schalke will have to go to the Westfalenstadion, home of their arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, and win, in order to secure their lead over Stuttgart going into the final day of the season.

Borussia Dortmund, on the other hand, are having a disappointing season. They currently sit ninth in the table. The hope of a title never seemed realistic to begin with, as is currently the hope of competing in the Champions League or even the Europa League. Purely in terms of the league standings, this is a meaningless game for Borussia Dortmund. But Dortmund hadn’t beaten Schalke at home since 2000, so it was personal. As any Dortmund fan will tell you, no game is meaningless when Schalke come to town, and the chance to nip Schalke’s heels just as the grace down the final stretch towards the Meisterschale? Well, that’s too good to pass up.

The game was an all-around classic. The full highlights are available on YouTube in astoundingly poor quality, but I’ll give you a recap nevertheless. After Borussia Dortmund got off to a 1-0 lead in the first half thanks to a goal from Alexander Frei, Schalke really turned up the pressure during the second half. Realizing that their title chances were slowly slipping away. Schalke threw everything but the kitchen sink at Borussia Dortmund, but neither a free kick from Lincoln or a point blank shot from a young Mesut Ozil could get by Roman Weidenfeller.

With the clock ticking down, a long shot from midfielder Christoph Metzelder flew high into the air off a deflection from a defender. Every other player on the pitch watched the ball loop into the air and come down into the smashing foot of Polish forward Ebi Smolarek, who rocketed the shot past first-time past Manuel Neuer and into the net.

The Westfalenstadion went absolutely bonkers. Smolarek bounded up to the fence in front of the yellow wall and hoisted himself up to celebrate with the jubilant Dortmund fans. The match eventually ended 2-0, and Schalke knew very well that with Stuttgart playing as well as they were, their chances of winning the title were as good as gone. Schalke would go on to win against Arminia Bielefeld on the final match day, but it didn’t matter, because they had already slipped below Stuttgart thanks to their rivals in black and yellow.

Moments like these matter. In a season where things haven’t gone your way, the title is out of reach and the loses have piled out, derby day is a way of making things better, even briefly. As a New York Mets fan, I can’t tell you how many times the disappointment of a lackluster season with no playoff ambitions has been temporarily reprieved by a win against the Yankees. Even when your team is good, the idea of winning a title by beating your rivals, or beating them to a top-four spot, makes every other game that much more important.

I think it’s really easy to give in to the temptation to take pleasure in Schalke’s demise over the past few years, especially for fans who have a long personal history with the club. Since BVB pumped the breaks on Schalke’s title run, BVB have become the dominant power of the Dortmund/Gelsenkirchen area, and Schalke have slipped further and further behind. Now, as Schalke feel the sting of financial troubles due to the Coronavirus and poor management, it looks like they may be entering a more serious and prolonged period of decline.

Snatching the title from Bayern will be hard enough as it is, so the fact that Schalke have declined so far means that there’s one less challenger to have to worry about. In the short term, this may indeed be helpful to Borussia Dortmund. In the long term, though, I think that Borussia Dortmund will be worse off, as will the Bundesliga as a league.

Say what you will about Schalke, but they’re not a plastic club. During their early years, the club’s squad largely consisted of miners and other workers from the immediate Gelsenkirchen area. Purely in terms of members, among all sports, Schalke are the 2nd largest sporting club in Germany. Originally founded as a football club in 1904, Schalke have a rich history that saw them rise to the top of German football during the 1930s, and stay competitive until the mid-1950s, when Schalke won their final German Championship in 1958.

Schalke and Dortmund are both historic clubs, so naturally, the Revierderby rivalry is historic as well. The two clubs first met in 1925 with a Schalke 4-2 victory and have traded dominance back and forth over the followig 95 years. Schalke were dominant during the 1930s under the Third Reich, while Dortmund dominated the post-war era until the late 60s and early 70s, when Dortmund struggled and Schalke dominated the rivalry. By the time that BVB and Schalke met in 2007, Schalke were the team on top, with Dortmund as the plucky underdogs looking to take their rivals down a peg.

Recent developments in Gelsenkirchen are extremely worrying, and they go beyond the immediate performances on the pitch and fan unrest concerning Chairman Clemens Tonnies’s deplorable actions during the Coronavirus outbreak. Schalke’s higher-ups have made bad decision after bad decision over the last few years that have put the club in debt. Letting quality players like Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka, and now Alexander Nübel leave on free transfers indicates a pattern of poor financial planning, and Schalke are beginning to feel the bite. They were severely in debt even before the Coronavirus outbreak (about €200 million according to DW), and now have resorted to questionable financial tactics like refusing refunds for season ticket holders and laying off club employees. Schalke have also instituted a wage cap, which will further inhibit their ability to entice quality players.

I’m not saying that BVB should be the underdogs in the Revierderby. Far from it - I want BVB to challenge for the Bundesliga title, and doing so would obviously require defeating Schalke on a consistent basis. The direction that Schalke are currently heading, though, means that not only will Schalke be in a tier below Dortmund, but they could potentially fall out of the Bundesliga. It may be difficult to imagine such a large club falling, but it’s not without precedent. Recently, FC Kaiserslautern, one of the most prestigious clubs in German history, declared bankruptcy a few weeks ago. 1860 Munich, one of the founding members of the Bundesliga in the 1960s, have flirted with insolvency over the last decade and have struggled just to stay in the 3. Liga.

There are some parallels and differences between 1860 Munich and Schalke. 1860 have been subordinate to Bayern Munich for a long time. Although the two were rivals and competitive from the 1940s to the 1960s, Bayern have unquestionably been the dominant team in Munich since the early 1970s. I’m not a Bayern Munich fan, but from the outside looking in, 1860 Munich being buried in the lower leagues doesn’t seem to be contributing much to the average Bayern fan’s experience.

There’s a reason that the Revierderby is considered one of the top rivalries in Germany, and the 1860/Bayern rivalry isn’t. While being so dominant over 1860 Munich might give them some superficial sense of superiority, but I doubt it has the same satisfaction that competing against them week-in and week-out on relatively equal footing would. Dortmund fans have been treated to competitive and meaningful Revierderby matches for decades, and it’s resulted in one of the most storied rivalries in Germany. Not only is the match important to Dortmund and Schalke fans, but it’s considered a must-watch for any football fan in Germany.

As Dortmund fans, we like to rip on Schalke. Personally, I’m always down for a good smurf joke. But like it or not, they’re an important part of Dortmund’s history. The Revierderby is one of the first matchups that we look at when the fixture list is released at the beginning of the season, and it’s produced some of the most thrilling, and shocking, results in recent years. If Schalke get relegated, and enter into a prolonged period of decline, it will take away a vital part of the fan experience for Borussia Dortmund.