For most fans, it can be quite a challenge to remain enthusiastic about your team when those last games roll around, and you know there’s not much that can be done to win the league, or even a Champions League spot. Those last games where it’s just best to get them over with, so we can move on to the summer transfer talks where we know that new coach or that new midfielder is going to be what it takes to get us to the top next season.
That is, unless you are a fan who can only get to see her team in person once a year, and that once-a-year visit erases any feelings of frustration or sorrow that have built up. That’s the way I feel every May when I arrive in Gelsenkirchen for that final home game.
It’s a tradition I started two years ago. I thought my 2013 visit would be my one visit, but at the end of it, I knew there was no way I could not do this again . . . and again and again . . .
These visits never get old.
I honestly catch my breath a bit when we first pull up to the arena on the Friday before the game. My friend Heinz always arranges a big weekend for me, beginning with a visit to the fan shop, then a visit to the Schalke museum, and finally the tour of the arena. I waited all year to see the new players tunnel that had been converted to coal mine shaft. I was giddy like a 12-year-old on Christmas morning.
This year was even more special. Gabriele, whom I had befriended in the Schalke Fan Club USA Facebook group, invited me and my three friends to join her and her husband in their lounge at the game. What a fun experience! Great food and great views. And these are not people who get a lounge at the game just for business reasons. Oh, no! Gabi takes her Schalke team very seriously. She’s a huge fan and has been since she was young. Her father was a Schalke fan. She bleeds blue and white, as all of the memorabilia in their lounge can attest to.
While visiting before the game started, Gabi told me that she had mentioned to the Schalke 04 marketing department that I was coming all this way and that because this wasn’t a great game (versus the since-relegated Paderborn) they should do something special for me. I thought it was just Gabi teasing again, but then her husband Rainier brought out a framed Schalke jersey signed by all of the players. I literally choked up; I was so touched by their kindness. Sadly, I couldn’t take the frame with me (I imagined explaining it to airport security), but that jersey was never out of my sight until I got it home safely and in a new frame in my Schalke room.
A highlight during the game was when Martin Max, on the Schalke team for the 1997 UEFA Cup win, stopped by to say hello. Max’s years at the club were before my time as a Schalke fan, but what a joy and what a nice man.
The game itself was pretty lackluster, much like Schalke’s season. Oh, we won 1-0, but it was far from pretty. I didn’t have long to bemoan the game, though, before an even bigger surprise began to take shape.
Gabi had told the players that they needed to come by their lounge because she had a visitor from the U.S. She mentioned Gerald Asamoah and Olaf Thon. I was quite impressed with the idea of meeting those two. But then they started coming, and by ‘they’ I mean almost all of them: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jan Kirchoff, Christian Wetklo, Leroy Sané, Timon Wellenreuther, Christian Fuchs, Dennis Aogo, Joel Matip, Tranquillo Barnetta, Fabian Giefer, Kaan Ayhan (a personal favorite), Jefferson Farfan, and Leon Goreztka, They all stopped long enough for a quick photo and a few gave a brief greeting. Giefer smiled big and gave me a huge hug me when Gabi explained I was from the U.S. Meeting them all was beyond a dream come true.
And then it got even better. Ralf Fährmann came at the end and even came into the lounge to visit with us and sign the Schalker Kreisel (the team magazine) for this game, the cover of which happened to feature the Royal Blues’ “Number One.” I got a personally signed copy as well as a few photos. He was sincerely a kind and pleasant man.
Next we headed to the bar area for all-you-can eat food, as if we hadn’t eaten enough in the lounge. From a distance I could see Rudi Assauer, Schalke’s former manager who is unfortunately suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A true club legend. Suddenly, we see Asamoah at a distance. Gabi grabs me and we head for a photo. When Asa saw Gabi and me, he told us how sorry he was that he had missed us earlier and was so glad to get to meet me. I was able to croak out that he was playing for Schalke when I first became a fan, but otherwise I was jello with this well-loved player. Unbelievable.
At the end of the day, my face actually hurt from smiling. A great day with amazing friends topped off by meeting the men I usually get to see only on my laptop on Saturday mornings half a world away: my boys in blue.
This year, another part of my Schalke bucket list was checked off — an away game.
As I cannot travel until my university semester is finished, I’m usually only able to make one game. Because of the World Cup, the Bundesliga schedule was pushed a bit further into May this year; hence, I could make two games. I asked, and Heinz delivered with a ticket for me to the last Schalke game, that next weekend in Hamburg. I had to go alone, unfortunately, but I was determined to be a part of the experience.
I had been invited to a pre-game party at the FC St. Pauli stadium, but bad rain and a bit of getting lost got me to the stadium just as many groups were heading to the streets and then public transportation to get to the HSV stadium. Not sure exactly what to do, I just found a group and followed them. And then it happened — the Schalke chants! All S04 fans love to share the videos of away fans in Madrid, London and around the world, walking through the streets singing the Schalke songs. And now, here I was, right in the middle of it. I caught a quick video of it and then just let the feeling wash over me. What an amazing experience.
Getting to and from the stadium was a mess but if you’re going to be shoehorned into public transportation with strangers, at least they were Royal Blue strangers.
The end of the game was not an experience I really ever want to live again. Schalke lost 0-2 to a team on the brink of relegation (HSV would go on, once again, to hang on to their Bundesliga spot by their fingernails). The Schalke fans were livid. It broke my heart to see my boys come across the pitch at the end, with heads bowed, to stand in front of fans who were hissing and gesturing at them in a violent way. But I understood the frustration. I understood the anger. This was not our Schalke.
Perhaps the summer transfer will bring Schalke that new manager or that new striker who will be the answer to get Schalke back to the top. Who knows — maybe we can even win the league. That’s what summer is for — the reboot on fandom, where anything and everything is again possible.
When I thanked my friend Heinz for once again making this year’s trip an experience I would not soon forget, he told me that my visits help him to see Schalke in a new light. He said, the fans there see the team week in and week out and become used to that and take it for granted. He said seeing the team through my eyes, like a child at Christmas, helps him to find again that passion and that love for his team — the team that could, just maybe, win it all next year.