The Bundesliga Fanatic finally arrived in Orlando, Florida Thursday afternoon to cover the 2016 Florida Cup. This year, Bundesliga clubs FC Schalke 04 and Bayer 04 Leverkusen are participating, along with nine other clubs from Brazil, Colombia, the Ukraine and the USA. Schalke and Leverkusen arrived earlier in the week, and we were fortunate to catch up with Schalke today for their late afternoon practice at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
The Schalke squad’s afternoon training session lasted about an hour and a half on a very nice day, as the clouds cleared to allow some sunshine with very moderate temperatures. Several S04 players were absent due to injury, including Joel Matip, but the rest of the squad participated in three drills that combined fun and exertion after spending time working on shooting from the edge of the goal box as a group of fans and Schalke staff watched and took photos and videos.
Coach Andre Breitenreiter divided his squad into groups of four players, a blue team, a green team, etc to compete to win the most ‘points’ after the completion of the three drills. The first drill was a variation of soccer-tennis, head-it, where players lined up against each other in a small outlined area with a low net dividing the space. The objective was to force the opposition to be unable to keep the ball, played in either the air or on the bounce. There were some exhibitions of great athleticism, and more exhibitions of laughter among the Schalke players as they competed.
Breitenreiter’s next drill was a free throw basketball competition, using Torfabriks to score the most baskets in a short period of time as each team of four rotated to shoot and then rebound and get another shot off. The players tended to shoot without much arc, and therefore there were many banked shots and many more misses — NBA players need not feel threatened in the least. The pink team, the club’s tallest group consisting of S04 goalkeepers Ralf Fahrmann, Fabian Giefer, former Seattle Sounder Michael Gspurning and teenager Alexander Nubel, won the contest, coming up clutch after a slow start. They say that big men can’t shoot FTs (Shaq, Wilt, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan) but Schalke’s big men can.
The final feat of athletic skill was a “close-est” contest as players competed individually by team to kick a ball closest to a touchline without going past it. Lots of hoots and smacktalk emerged as Breitenreiter had made sure that everyone knew the team scores before the drill began, and the pressure was ON. After all were knocked out, the blue team of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Leroy Sane, Sead Kolasinac and (forgive me, I can’t think now who the fourth blue man was) won the overall competition. The Hunter let EVERYONE know who won, over and over, to the assorted laughter and catcalls of his teammates and the onlookers on the sidelines.
Again, the players had a lot of fun, kidding each other about airballs, and at the midst of most of the mischief was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. I would never have expected the veteran striker to be such a cut-up — he always has such a serious look during matches. But the Hunter shows that he has a light-hearted side and loves to compete in everything. And Leroy Sane has a smile as big as his talent. I was smiling, too.
It was a special afternoon, to see Breitenreiter’s men, though wealthy, fantastically talented and famous, acting for an hour or so like Breitenreiter’s boys. It’s a memory that I’ll never forget and a reminder that sport is not only competition and big money, but boys (and girls) fun, too.
The fun for the Bundesliga Fanatic crew continued Friday. Kevin Oblocki, Liam Newberry and I attended the Bayer 04 Leverkusen morning practice. You may not be familiar with the names from reading the BF, but Kevin wrote a few articles for the Fanatic in the past and he and Liam, our cameraman, are working to bring you quality video and photos from the Florida Cup proceedings. Cool, talented guys, and I’m glad they are here.
To our discomfort, it does rain in Florida. The Werkself players practiced on a field near their hotel as fans and club officials watched. The rain was steady and with few places to dodge the rain near the practice facility, most fans were soaked by the end of the session. Nevertheless, there was a nice contingent of fans who travelled from Germany to watch their boys, and it was great to see Frank, a great Leverkusen supporter whom we met last year, once again travel across the Atlantic to keep an eye on his beloved club.
Of course there were also Javier Hernandez fans there. The new Leverkusen man who scored goals for fun during the Hinrunde is a phenomena not only for his prolific scoring but also for the crowds of fans he attracts. His popularity is of course due to his talent, and fans from Mexico and Latin America made the trip to see Chicharito up close. He draws swarms of autograph seekers and those wishing selfies. I have so enjoyed what he has done for Leverkusen since arriving, and although Mexico is the biggest footballing rival of the USA, as an American and a fan of Liga MX, it is way cool to see Mexico’s most popular footballer enjoy such success in the Bundesliga. I’ve wondered often what Louis van Gaal thinks every weekend when he checks the scores abroad and sees the name “Javier Hernandez” in the box scores each week. Kudos to Roger Schmidt and the Leverkusen brass who recognized what Chicharito could do for the club on the pitch but off it as well.
The three of us each got to talk and take selfies with a few of the players. Kevin Kampl is a favorite of our Kevin, and they are the same age and share Slovenian-German heritage. And Kampl was absolutely great in a video he shot with Kevin — unfortunately much of the video suffered from raindrops marring the sound, but we hope to salvage the end as the two Kevins, born an ocean apart, shared hugs. I got to speak with Kiess for a bit and told him how much I enjoyed his goals late in the Hinrunde — it was great to see one of my all-time favorite Bundesliguers in person. And we got a nice pic with Wendell, and got to selfie with Bernd Leno and Andre Ramalho. Cool times.
Later in the afternoon we attended the Florida Cup press conference. Management representatives from the clubs in the competition sat at the head table centered by the energizer of the Cup, Ricardo Villar, the Brazilian who attended university in the United States and played football in Germany and other countries. The club presidents spoke a bit of their involvement in the Florida Cup, what it brings to their clubs as far as increased awareness along with the chance to train at outstanding facilities in Orlando and south Florida while playing friendlies against top-flight clubs. I’ve been told that German players love coming to the U.S.so it is a treat for them, too.
Leverkusen CEO spoke in his opening remarks about how the club enjoyed doing their winter training in Orlando last season, and that they very much wanted to return for the reasons listed above. Additionally, DIe Werkself enjoyed their best Ruckrunde in a decade following their Florida camp, so there was added incentive to return. Later, in the question and answer asked session, I asked Schade about the Chicharito saving that has led to Leverkusen matches topping the Fox Bundesliga TV ratings,viewer numbers that top even those of Bayern Munich !!! Of course, Schade and the club are happy with all the social media attention the club has received, but he emphasized that the Chicharito transfer was strictly a footballing decision, because they needed a world-class striker.
And, of course, what would a day at the Florida Cup be without a some Schalke love? In the evening we attended an autograph session at Orlando’s United World Soccer store. The Hunter, World Cup winner Benedikt Howedes and Schalke and German NT Gerald Asamoah, who now coaches the U-15s in Gelsenkirchen in addition to being a fantastic ambassador for the club. There were quite a few Schalke fans lined up for the Schalke meet up, probably at least 250. The Bundesliga is breaking through in the USA, but it will take time for the TV ratings to grow, especially with the EPL having such a huge headstart in growing their brand here (and throughout the world).
Saturday Was a Schalke Day
We are trying to balance our time between Schalke and Leverkusen coverage, but we ended up at Schalke practice in the morning at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. This training session was more intense and less playful than the last we attended, but still enjoyable.
We were joined by Cris, who works for FCB USA now but once upon a time was one of the Bundesliga Fanatic originals. The quality of his writing and his insights were invaluable in growing out site, and we are so happy that he has gone on to bigger and better things. I had never ‘met’ Cris in person, so after we picked him up Friday night from the airport we all hung out until about 4:00 am talking BuLi and the beautiful game, music, politics and culture.
So we were all dragging a bit caught up with Jody and her Schalke friends at practice. We were also pleased to meet Glenn and James of @schalke_canada. Great fans…Glenn recalls going to Gelsenkirchen when a child. These Toronto guys were great to chat with and I’d advise following them on Twitter, even if you aren’t Canadian or a S04 fan.
In the evening we attended the Orlando Magic game against the Washington Wizards. I am a huge NBA fan so this was a cool perk, although my favorite NBA player, Elfrid Payton, was injured and couldn’t play. I follow the Magic on NBA League Pass, but they couldn’t come up with a win against the Wizards Saturday.
After the game we spent time with the Schalke club media group in downtown Orlando. Great group of people, and I so enjoyed talking with Thomas, Kai and Tobias the ringleader. Our friend from the DFL, Eliane Vaeh, was there, and former Schalke great Gerald Asamoah. I am always amazed at how interesting,smart and friendly football people are.