Schalke’s Incredible Journey to the 1997 UEFA Cup Final

Few clubs in Germany have the tradition and history Schalke do. They were one of German football’s first great sides and one of the most successful in the first half of the 20th century. Since though, the club has struggled to live up to that history and remained continuously in search of that storied past.

That’s what made their incredible UEFA Cup-winning run in 1996/97 so special.  It was a cathartic moment for the club and its supporters and one of the most remarkable journeys to success in the history of German football.  It all started rather inconspicuously before crescendoing in the most unbelievable manner imaginable.

Their journey began with a game against Roda Kerkrade.  Despite the team finishing third in the league before that no one realistically expected them to go far in the competition, much less reach the final. Schalke had in fact waited 19 years for another appearance in Europe, 6686 days to be exact and there were a host of other clubs in the competition with greater talent and experience.  When Marc Wilmots scored just eight minutes into the game a huge sigh of relief was felt throughout the stadium.

They went on to win the game 3-0 and draw the return leg 2-2. To many Schalke supporters, this was already a great accomplishment.  Wilmots, who the team picked up in the summer, scored three times in both games and showed showed early signs of what an important player he would be for the team that season.  Coincidentally, Roda at the time were coached by none other than Huub Stevens, who would take over at Schalke not too long after these games.

For now though, Schalke were through to the second round.  Defending champions and domestic rivals Bayern Munich meanwhile, were knocked out by Valencia in Round 1.  Up next for Schalke were Turkish side Trabzonspor.  The first leg also happened to be Huub Stevens’ first in charge at home.  Martin Marx decided a nervy first leg with the only goal of the game but things became much more complicated in the second.

Johan de Kock scored twice in three minutes to give Schalke a 2-0, with his renowned headers, lead but the Turks made for a nail-biting finale by rallying from behind and scoring three unanswered goals.  Marx became Schalke’s hero in this Round by scoring the decisive 3-3 to send Schalke to the Round of 16.  It wasn’t the last time the team would things to a late dramatic end, as we’ll see later.

Reaching the Round of 16 started to give Schalke supporters belief for the first time that the team could go on to do more than most expected. It was only going to get tougher from there on though.  Next up were Belgian side Club Brugge.  For Schalke, the trip to Belgium in the first leg was one under heavy snow, cold rain and arctic temperatures.  The match, then, had to be played on a snowy pitch that should never have been allowed by the referees. But that was only the beginning of the drama.

The Belgians took the lead in the 35th minute which put Schalke under tremendous pressure in the difficult conditions.  Soon after the restart though Schalke won a penalty. Olaf Thon stepped up but, because of the slippery conditions, mishit the ball and had his penalty saved.  Mike Büskens, who started his first game under Stevens instead of Anderbrügge, quickly ordered Thon to take the resulting corner.  A minute later came one of the most memorable goals of the competition as Büskens latched on to a failed clearance to volley the ball with his left foot into the top corner.  Brugge won a scrappy game 2-1 but Schalke had the all important away goal.

The weather didn’t get much better in the second leg as cold winds and heavy rain poured down at Schalke’s Parkstadion.  That didn’t stop a highly motivated Schalke though as they put on their best performance in the competition with a convincing 2-0 win against the Belgian champions, goals courtesy of Max and Youri Mulder.  Schalke reached the quarterfinals, were the only German side left in the competition and it was the perfect way to close out the year and celebrate the Christmas season.

In the quarterfinals, Schalke faced their biggest challenge to date.  Valencia had knocked out Bayern Munich in the first round, were quicker, more technical and one of the best passing sides in Europe at the time.  And they proved it by putting Schalke under pressure early, Thomas Linke blocking a shot from Leandro in only the second minute.  This was new territory for the team and a new level of opponent.  It took Schalke over 30 minutes to create their first meaningful chance but when they did they grew in confidence.

The breakthrough came right before halftime when Linke again made himself the hero with a brilliant header from almost 16 yards out.  It was his first goal in Europe but reserved any celebration.  Asked why after the match he said he wanted to save his energy for marking Leandro for the rest of the game.  Sure enough, Schalke picked it up after the break and got a deserved second goal thanks to Wilmots.  After the game, Franz Beckenbauer said he could well imagine this Schalke side in the final. And right he was.

Nearly 5000 Schalke fans made the trip to Spain for the second leg and were rewarded for their support.  The game ended 1-1 with Mulder getting the goal for Schalke and booking a place in the semifinals.  General manager Rudi Assauer said after the game that it was the reward for the disappointing previous 20 years for the supporters and the gratitude could not have been more appreciated.  Things would  take an unfortunate turn though as two injuries threatened to derail their fairytale run.  The next couple of games is the stuff football legends are made of.

As luck would have it, Schalke would have to face Tenerife, then coached by Jupp Heynckes, in the semifinals without their two first choice strikers.  Mulder suffered a serious injury just three days before their game, and Max too got injured in the game against Karlsruhe the weekend before. Suddenly the team found itself without a striker.  Even Assauer had to train with the team to make up the numbers and Stevens joked in the press conference that he might have to start.  All jokes aside, there were nerves within the squad to be sure. Was the fairytale about to come to a crashing halt?

Schalke would reach their low point of the competition in the first leg.  They started the game with lone forward Radoslav Latal and conceded a penalty in just the fifth minute.  Just like that they were down 1-0 with their backs against the wall.  A lifeline was extended to them though as two Tenerife players were sent off.  Moments later Wilmots drew a penalty.  Finally, a chance.  Up stepped de Kock and with the pressure of the world on his shoulders missed the penalty.  Schalke had failed to score away for the first time in the competition.  Suddenly those hopes and expectations were hanging by a thin thread.

The comeback in the second leg is still one of the greatest moments in club history.  Stevens knew he had the height advantage over the smaller Spaniards and practiced set pieces leading up the game.  Sure enough, Linke popped up in the 68th minute to head home the all important aggregate equalizer, taking the match into extra-time.  The almost 60,000-filled Parkstadion was in full voice for 120 minutes, supporting and urging their team on relentlessly.  And the players responded.  Wilmots was the hero again and with the second header of the game, sealed the team’s place in the final.  The players could hardly believe it.

The dream was reality.  What came next though surpassed even the euphoria of their incredible run, events that Schalke supporters could not have imagined in their wildest dreams months back when they were up against Roda Kerkrade.  One obstacle remained in the way of making history.  Two games separated Schalke from recapturing the history they had been chasing for decades.  That giant roadblock was none other than the mighty Inter Milan.  The Inter with big stars like Pagliuca, Bergomi, Djorkaeff, Zamoran and a young Zanetti.  But even giants are meant to be slayed.

Stay tuned for one of the most dramatic finals in history.

Check out all the goals leading to the final.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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