What makes a fan a fan? More often than not, it is simple geography. We follow and cheer for those teams who play close enough for us to watch on television and even visit the stadium on occasion. It makes things easier. For some Americans, it’s all about the winners; they become fans of the team that always takes the title.
But how do you explain those fans who begin to follow and then become passionate fans of a team that is states away, sometimes countries away, from where they live, through the ups and downs, the good, the bad and the just plain awful? How did I become a fan of Schalke 04?
That was a question asked numerous times of me when I recently made my first trip to Gelsenkirchen to see my beloved Royal Blues play in their last home game of the season, against Stuttgart, on May 11.
Heinz Geldermann, whom I had become good friends with two years ago through social media, and who volunteers with Schalke 04 giving tours of the stadium and other spots of history in town, arranged most of my visit in Gelsenkirchen. Part of those arrangements included an interview with the Schalker Kreisel, Schalke 04’s stadium magazine that is published on game day and sent to all members. I was beyond thrilled at the opportunity to visit the Schalker Kreisel offices.
The first question of that interview: How did you become a fan of Schalke 04? And I knew it sounded a bit cliché but it is my go-to answer whenever I am asked, because it is true: “You don’t always choose whom you fall in love with.” I try to back up that answer with statements like, ‘They’re the working class team,” or “I like their style of play,” and even, “I blame Kevin Kuranyi for my passion.” But when it comes right down to it, a true fan will tell you that the why isn’t always that easy to explain.
Being a true fan also goes beyond the team and game day, as I was to learn more and more on this trip. Heinz had a full itinerary for me which included watching a 10 a.m. practice for the team and taking a private tour of the stadium. First I got to see the pitch, which was outside of the stadium that day. The Velins is a bit unique in that the pitch can be wheeled outside mechanically for the best grass growing conditions (and to make room for concerts, etc. in the stadium) and then wheeled back in for games.
Inside, I got to see the seats spelling out “FC Schalke 04,” the Nordkurve section, the locker room, the players’ tunnel with the motto “Blau und Weiss, Ein Leben Lang” (a personal favorite), the chapel inside the stadium, and the Schalke museum. And this was all on my first day in Gelsenkirchen. I told friends later, “It was like Schalke 04 just exploded all over the place.” Paradise.
Everywhere I looked that day, the heroes of today stood side-by-side with the history and traditions of this proud club.
On my second day there, that history would deepen for me, as we visited das kleine Museum, dedicated to the history of coal mining and in particular the Hugo coal mine, the last mine to be closed in Gelsenkirchen. The museum is run by Johannes “Hennes” Wilde, who retired from Hugo, as had his father and grandfather before him. Schalke 04 are also known as Die Knappen, and the bond between the team and the miners runs as deep as the veins of coal that Gelsenkirchen sits on. Those mines are closed now and that bond may be test in the future, but for now, there are fans like Heinz and Hennes who work hard to keep that connection strong. The Hugo mine, or what’s left of it, has been purchased by a preservation organization, and they are working to reopen it as a museum. We got a quick tour of Hugo, including what they called “the treasure room” — filled with more Schalke memorabilia than I’d ever seen before. I and my companions for the day stood in gleeful awe as we looked from floor to high ceiling on all four sides of the huge room at all of the Schalke goodies. Hennes explained that it was written in each Schalke player’s contract that he had to visit the mine, to keep the bond strong. And those players each left behind a bit of themselves. It was a Schalke fan’s heaven.
Being dipped, if even briefly, into this history and tradition helped to solidify me as a true Die Knappen fan. I was beginning to really feel like I belonged now.
The moments just kept coming. Through other social media contact, it had worked out that Deutsche Welle’s “Kickoff” program wanted to do a story of my coming from Missouri to see Schalke play. Videographer Thomas Lemmers spent most of game-day morning introducing me to other Schalke traditions and history. We visited Glückauf-Kampfbahn, the original grounds and stadium for Schalke 04. As I stared across the old pitch and the somewhat neglected stands, I could still feel the history seeping from the grounds, and I knew then too that this tie went beyond the game. A part of me felt that a Strauch or a Stieferman or a Sauer might have been kicking around a ball on a pitch much like this before they headed west to find new opportunities in a place called Missouri. I suddenly felt a connection with my own history, my own past. It was a beautiful moment for me.
We also visited the Schalke Fan-Club Verband pub in downtown Gelsenkirchen, filled with Schalke memorabilia and fans in blue and white. Germans as a whole tend to be a bit reserved so most greeted me with kindly silence, but a few, upon discovering that I had come from the U.S. just to see the game, greeted me warmly and showed me some pieces of memorabilia they knew I would enjoy, particularly photos of Kevin Kuranyi and Marcelo Bordon at the club, after learning they were one reason I’d become a fan.
Then it was time to head back to the stadium and, upon finishing my interview, I headed to the Clubheim, a popular meeting place for Schalke fans, located on a parking lot next to the stadium. I ran into friends I knew only by Twitter handles and we greeted each other like old friends. Even a quick downpour couldn’t dampen my mood, but it did make us head in a bit early to the stadium.
As the concessions don’t take cash, I had to buy a Knappen card and put some money on it. Each Knappen card features a particular player, and I was thrilled beyond belief to find that mine featured a personal favorite, Kyriakos Papadopoulos. I wouldn’t get to see him play as he has been out most of the second half of the season with knee surgeries, so the Knappen card was a nice reward. Heinz teased me that I could turn in my card at the end of the game and get any money back I had remaining. I told him there was no way I was giving up this card.
As I’m sitting there in the arena, just soaking up all of the atmosphere, I suddenly hear my name coming across the speakers. A friend with me explained that I was being announced as a special guest at the game. I turned in surprise to look at Heinz who only returned a sheepish smile. I was overwhelmed.
Tactically, it was a horrid game. Schalke was lazy at passing and seemed to always wait for the ball, never moving forward to claim it. Stuttgart, whom nobody expected to win, simply outplayed the Royal Blues that day and took home a deserved three points with a 1-2 victory. But none of it mattered to me. I had seen Schalke lose and I had seen them win, but I had never seen them play in “AufSchalke” and I was beyond myself with joy.
That joy would continue as Heinz hustled me downstairs immediately after the game, as he and the Schalker Kreisel staff had got me into the press conference after the game. In the press conference area, I got to meet Dir Oberschulte-Beckman. Dirk is the stadium announcer, and I’m a big fan. Watching the games at home, I can hear the chant he and fans do together whenever Schalke scores. For example, if it is our first goal of the game against, say, Stuttgart, he and the fans do this little chant —
Dirk: Schalke Fans: Eins.
(Glück Auf is an old miner greeting that Schalke 04 fans have adopted)
At home, watching on television, I yell out my part, just to feel a part of the day, but I had dreamed of doing that chant in person, in the stadium. However, it wasn’t meant to be. Even though the final score was 1-2, in reality Stuttgart had scored all three goals, our one goal being a Stuttgart own goal.
Heinz had told Dirk about my dream of doing the chant, and after we had visited a bit and Dirk was getting ready to leave, he stopped and said to me, “Schalke….” At first, I didn’t understand, so he got me started: “Schalke, eins.” Ah, I smiled. Dirk: Stuttgart. Me: Null. Dirk: Danke. Me: Bitte: Dirk: Glück. Me: Auf. I had got to do my own personal chant, and it helped to seal this day as one of my best ever.
And it wasn’t over. During that time in the press conference area, Christoph from the Schalker Kreisel staff came running in to tell me that Timo Hildebrand was in the hallway, and that I was to hurry. I had no time to think about what was about to happen. Next thing I know I’m standing next to Timo, and Christoph is saying something about my having met him in Philadelphia.
I was pretty sure Timo wouldn’t remember that at all, but the goalkeeper kindly put his hand on my back and we posed first for my iPhone shot and then more for the official Schalke 04 photographer who was grabbing the moment for the Schalker Kreisel article. I can only remember saying “Thank you so much” over and over, and Timo gave me a nice “Take care” as he left. I was a 12-year-old girl at a One Direction concert, shaking and smiling all at the same time. What a moment. This time I was in the photo with Timo. Priceless.
I would get to see even more players as we left the stadium. First, Tranquillo Barnetta walked right past me and out the revolving doors. Then standing by a set of stairs waiting for friends to show up, I saw first Roman Neustadter, then Marco Höger. Finally, walking the short distance to my hotel, which was right next to the stadium, we ran into Julian Draxler, posing patiently with fans over and over.
On my final morning in Gelsenkirchen, Heinz took me to see the birthplace of Schalke great Ernst Kuzorra and the Schalker Markt, completing my historical baptism. I could never thank him enough for all he did to make my first trip to Gelsenkirchen so completely perfect.
While there was so much to see and do on my two-week trip to Germany (I went on to visit Berlin and Munich after Gelsenkirchen), when I tell my friends back here in the states about my trip, it is always my stories about the people I met that I spend the most time on.
As part of my time in Gelsenkirchen, I got to meet so many Schalke fans that I knew only by their Twitter handles or through Facebook. There were several at a dinner Friday night, where confusion over real names evolved into shouts of joys and hugs when a Twitter handle was recognized. Then there was “tailgating” at the Clubheim before the game on Saturday. I felt like I had known these people forever, and we fell easily into conversation right away, making me feel even more that I was a part of this group, making me feel that I was now grounded in the Schalke history, making me feel that no matter where I lived, this was my home.
View the full picture gallery here