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A time for celebrations?

Only a handful of days remain of Schalke's one-hundredth year. Was it a good centennial? Let's see.

Schalke began their jubilee year in perfect fashion, winning at rivals Dortmund thanks to a last-minute goal by the Dane Ebbe Sand ­ a fans' favourite who'd been going through a barren spell.

That win was particularly nice because it meant Schalke also overtook Dortmund in the standings, rising to sixth place after 18 rounds. But three of the next four matches finished scoreless, and by the time the big party came around ­ on May 4 ­ Schalke's fans had to face the fact they couldn't gain any ground and would end the seaon not only behind Dortmund, but also behind small neighbours Bochum.

Three weeks later, there was the Champions League final, played in Gelsenkirchen in part because of Schalke's birthday. It generated a revenue of more than 26m Euros for the city and the region and certainly did what it was meant to do: carry the name of the club and the city it represents into the world.

But it wasn't quite the occasion it should have been. There was no Real Madrid on hand, no Manchester United or one of the glamorous Italian giants.

On top of that, the game between Monaco and Porto turned out to be such a one-sided affair that mighty few people outside of Portugal will forever fondly remember this balmy night in Gelsenkirchen.

Then the new season reared its friendly face. Schalke, which the noted magazine Stern rightfully calls 'the most legendary football club in Germany', hadn't won a national championship since 1958. But there was hope.

New arrivals included Ailton, who'd just lifted the Golden Boot, and two of the league's best and most consistent defensive players, the Serb Mladen Krstajic and the Brazilian Marcelo Bordon.

Another well-known man was at the helm, coach Jupp Heynckes. But even before things had gone underway, kicker magazine sceptically predicted: 'Schalke face another turbulent year. But the quality of the squad should suffice to qualify for the UEFA Cup.'

That was certainly not what Schalke's many fans had wanted to read, as making it back into Europe without the ignominy of having to play in the Intertoto Cup should have been the absolute minimum demand placed on a team bolstered by such good newcomers.

Yet the assessment was well-founded.

kicker listed 'harmony between the coach and the team' as one of the things Schalke needed to improve on.

They obviously didn't. In mid-September, Schalke were in a relegation spot, and the powerful business manager Rudi Assauer felt forced to act.

'The relationship between the team and the coach is not intact,' said Assauer upon firing Heynckes. 'Jupp is an old-school type of coach and that's what he wanted to remain. But we're no longer dealing with a generation of players that would have fit into the 60s or 70s.'

Porto won the Champions League final at Schalke's stadium in 2004 but it was not the blue riband final that the club wanted.
Porto won the Champions League final at Schalke's stadium in 2004 but it was not the blue riband final that the club wanted.

And so, with only three months left of 2004, Schalke's special year was in ruins. And for the first time in eight years there was mounting criticism directed at the man who for all practical purposes had become Schalke 04 ­ Assauer.

Back then, in 1996, the business manager had learned of problems between the playing staff and coach Joerg Berger.

Yet there was no easy solution at hand, as Berger was adored by the fans: he had first saved the team from relegation, then led it back into Europe for the first time in almost twenty years. At the beginning of the 1996-67 season, Assauer sent out a signal to the squad by extending Berger's contract.

But this didn't silence the disgruntled players, Jens Lehmann and the Dutchman Youri Moulder prominent among them.

In late September, Schalke earned a draw at Roda Kerkrade to qualify for the second round of the UEFA Cup. A week later, Assauer fired Berger and signed Huub Stevens, Kerkrade's coach.

There was such an uproar that the fans booed their own team at the next home game and policemen had to guard the dressing room area. (We're talking helmets, truncheons and shields here.)

But eight months later, Stevens and Schalke won the UEFA Cup against Inter, and Assauer was suddenly the man who always does the right thing. He's cultivated this image since and it sure came handy, because Assauer has spent the past years walking the tighest of ropes.

On the one hand, he preserved Schalke's role as the most tradition-laden club in the country and fostered the image of closeness to the people. That was a good strategy, considering rivals Dortmund were turning into a faceless, unloved corporation during the same time.

Yet on the other hand Assauer first loaned, then spent millions on building the high-tech Arena which hosted this year's Champions League final ­ and on strengething the team.

Two weeks ago, he announced Bremen's Fabian Ernst will join Schalke the next year ­ the fourth Werder player to take this route in three years. (The others are goalkeeper Frank Rost, Ailton and Krstajic.) 'When will Assauer buy Werder's coach driver?' asked a tabloid, but the Schalke man is unfazed.

His unique blend of a keen and perhaps cold business sense with a gruffy yet charming down-to-earthness has led his counterpart at Dortmund, Michael Meier, to describe him as a 'cashmere hooligan'.

Yet in September, Assauer's aura was in doubt. 'He's now got to live with the stigma of having pulled the second flop ashore', said a well-known radio pundit, referring to Schalke's last two coaches.

'And burdened by an estimated debt of 100m Euros, the club is condemned to having to qualify for Europe.'

Heynckes: Shown the door by teflon-coated business manager Assauer.
Heynckes: Shown the door by teflon-coated business manager Assauer.

But Assauer just took a long drag on the Davidoff Grand Cru No. 3 that is an integral part of his face and pulled off another stunt.

He signed coach Ralf Rangnick, nicknamed the 'professor' and, according to the paper Die Welt, 'a pedagogue, not a ranter'.

This was meant to say he didn't fit Schalke ­ but he must have fit Schalke's players, for the side immediately enjoyed an uncanny string of successes.

As the club's 100th year draws to a close, the team is level on points with league leaders Bayern, whose business manager Uli Hoeness says: 'It looks as if Schalke are our closest rivals'.

So I guess it's been a good Schalke year after all. Hope the same can be said of you, the reader. May your dreams for 2005 come true.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.