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All shook up at Schalke

When it comes to press conferences, Giovanni Trapattoni is unassailable.

His ranting and raving in garbled German ('A coach not an eediot! A coach see what happen in pitch!') as Bayern Munich coach in March 1998 is the stuff of legend and was rightfully made part of a CD collection which presents German football's greatest moments.

Since September 1999, the co-holders of the No 2 slot in the Top Ten of Zany Press Conferences had been Uli Stielike and Erich Ribbeck.

When the German FA presented the duo as the new national managers, Stielike wore a daring plaid jacket. It was so loud you almost couldn't hear Ribbeck say he was still in touch with modern football, despite having spent the past years playing golf on a Spanish island. 'I followed the game closely,' he explained, unfortunately adding: 'By reading newspapers and magazines.'

But maybe Stielike's and Ribbecks' impersonations of the Muppet Show's Waldorf and Statler will now no longer suffice to have them breathe down Trapattoni's neck. That's because Schalke 04 gave a press conference on Wednesday which rivals the best in the field.

In all, there were no less than nine people facing the press, among them various officials and coach Frank Neubarth. But only the powerful business manager Rudi Assauer was talking.

'That was a great, great performance from Frank,' he said. 'I haven't seen anything like that in over thirty years.'

Nice words, especially when you consider how gruff Assauer can be, but Neubarth wasn't smiling. The 'performance' in question was how he had broken the news to the team that he had been fired.

Of course, the word 'fired' was not used. 'We're going our separate ways by mutual agreement,' said Assauer. Asked for more details about the decision-making process, he explained: 'We agreed to part company after I said we're not going to carry on.'

And when did he alone reach this mutual agreement? 'During the night of Saturday to Monday.'

If the night had been that long, there must have been ample time to consider which competent coach would follow Neubarth? 'Marc Wilmots will take over the team.' Wilmots is Schalke's Belgian striker, known as the 'Fighting Pig', and will soon go into politics.

What may sound bizarre is probably just par for the course, considering the kind of season Schalke have had.

In late November, Assauer suddenly announced he would release international Joerg Boehme due to various unspecified transgressions.

Boehme expressed consternation. Then a tabloid claimed Boehme had told his chum, Leverkusen's Bernd Schneider, details about Schalke's tactics prior to the two sides' meeting on November 9.

Leverkusen had won that game, after then-coach Klaus Toppmoeller made some last-minute changes to the line-up, explaining 'a spy' had revealed Schalke's plans to him.

Boehme pleaded innocence, but when he met Assauer for a head-to-head in January, it seemed certain he'd get fired. Yet Assauer emerged from this meeting munching his cigar and saying: 'It's up to Joerg to decide whether he wants to stay or not.'

Seven weeks later, the squad met for a quiet evening in a restaurant that ended with Boehme and goalkeeper Frank Rost coming to blows. A fortnight on, a newspaper reported that Rost had yelled at coach Neubarth, saying: 'Football is no longer any fun since you are here!' The writer didn't name his source, but many people are convinced it was a certain player angry at Neubarth -­ Marc Wilmots.

Yes, it's been a season of scandals at Schalke. But the thing that's really surprising is that it took them so long to arrive. During the last three years, life at the club was relatively cozy,­ about the only stirring thing that happened was Assauer dropping the German FA Cup in May 2002 and causing severe damage to the trophy. Yet such tranquility was totally out of character for Schalke.

Together with Nuremberg and Hamburg, Schalke form the grand triumvirate of big, tradition-laden clubs. (Dortmund only came to true prominence in the 1950s, Bayern in the 1960s.)

However, controversy and scandals have always been part of that tradition. In the late 1920s, Schalke were so popular that they paid their players money ­- then illegal. In the summer of 1930, all their first-team players were declared professionals, which automatically banned them from organised football. The ban was lifted a year later, but that was too late for treasurer Willi Nier, who had drowned himself out of shame.

Of course Schalke were also involved in the big bribe scandal of 1971. Thirteen players were found guilty of having thrown at least one game, eight of them also got convicted of perjury. The club then spent the 1980s and early 1990s electing some very strange presidents. One of them held the post for just three days before stepping down, explaining he had only run for the presidency because the Federal Intelligence Service had told him to do so.

His successor, who owned clinics for the treatment of varicose veins, was known as the 'Sun King' and ruled the club until 1994, when he resigned by fax and fled for the USA, leaving Schalke some 15m Marks in the red.

The next president died five months after his election and was followed by former player Helmut Kremers ­ who promised the members to bring back the times 'when we didn't even change into kits to beat Dortmund'.

Kremers fired business manager Assauer, reinstalled him a day later, but was then himself expelled from the club before 1994 was over. Crikey.

Ever since, Assauer has been the main man. His reign brought Schalke the 1997 UEFA Cup, two domestic cups and, above all, the club's impressive domed arena.

But he also has the habit of coming up with bizarre ideas (usually while sitting in a sauna) which he then pushes through, no matter how much the fans protest.

He sacked beloved coach Joerg Berger, he signed a player who had been released by Stuttgart for a racist act, and he also lured the much-hated Andreas Möller away from Dortmund.

Assauer got away with all this, but now that his latest masterstroke -­ the signing of the inexperienced Neubarth -­ has backfired, even he can't afford many more mistakes.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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