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50-50 Challenge
By ESPN Staff

The exception that proves the rule?

There are not many things football journalists have in common with normal people. Among the few that come to mind is that journalists, just like anyone else, have a favourite club.

This will not be news to you, dear reader. In fact, it seems readers, or listeners or viewers, take vested interests for granted and are convinced that likes and dislikes shape a journalist's perception in much the same way in which they cloud their own.

I once received a baffling email from a Soccernet reader in Huntington Beach (no, not J├╝rgen Klinsmann) in which I was accused of hating Hertha Berlin. I say 'baffling', because Hertha are definitely one of the very few clubs I don't have any opinion about, neither a positive nor a negative one. Then again, I also did a column many moons ago about Hamburg that convinced a reader from Southampton that I must be a supporter of this club, while someone from Holland wrote in to ask why I have something against Hamburg.

For a while, I thought that perhaps my English wasn't good enough and that I was inviting misinterpretations. But gradually I understood that every writer or journalist has been through experiences of this kind.

The German television commentator Marcel Reif still recalls with horror the day in October of 1996, when he was covering a Champions League game in Dotmund and suddenly became the target of the crowds' angry chants.

The Dortmund fans felt Reif was habitually bad-mouthing their club because he was a closet Bayern supporter. The irony here is that only a few months later, Bayern's business manager Uli Hoeness said he needed to have a word with Reif. Then, in private, he accused him of being unreasonably critical of Bayern and cited his dear wife Mrs. Hoeness as a material witness, as even she had supposedly noticed Reif's irrational aversion during a recent televised game.

'Such accusations always annoy me', Reif would say many years later, 'because I consider it a lack of respect towards my work when somebody claims it is based on sympathies or antipathies. If I were biased, I'd betray my profession.'

There you have it, in eight words. We - meaning the hacks and scribes and other scourges of football - do keep our fingers crossed for the clubs we grew up with (Reif says that, on any given matchday, he still checks Kaiserslautern's result first, as this is the club where he started playing the game as a seven-year-old), but we never let this get in the way of impartial, balanced, well-researched, professional reporting.

Well, unless circumstances conspire to create a situation that poses potential problems. (Excuse this alliteration mania, but we're talking about circumstances that apparently only occur every fifty years, so you have to make allowances since I cannot be my normal, restrained self.) In my case, that problem is called Schalke 04.

From almost every position I can claim to inhabit, Schalke winning the league title this season looks like a great proposition. As a normal football fan, for instance, you'd love to see some change at the top of the Bundesliga; that would mean Schalke much more than Bremen or even Stuttgart. Because as competitive as our league is, only five different teams have won it in the past 23 years. Schalke would be a much-welcomed sixth.

Besides being a fan, I'm also - excuse the hubris, I need it for the argument - a historian. And few clubs have played a more prominent role in the history of our domestic game than Schalke, so everyone who is not blind to the greater scheme of things should hope that this oh-so tradition-laden club can finally win its first national championship since, gasp, 1958.

I also happen to be a bit of Ruhr patriot and don't feel ashamed of it, as parochialism is the lifeblood of our game. We, meaning people from the Ruhr, are convinced that this region was, is and always will be the beating heart of German football, in pretty much the same way in which Geordies make that claim for the North East and the English game. And, like the fans in the North East of England, we are saddened by the fact our clubs no longer have the standing they once enjoyed.

Between 1934 and 1942, six championships went to the Ruhr, albeit all to Schalke. Between 1955 and 1958, all championships went to the Ruhr (Essen, Dortmund, Schalke), and the region also won the last title before the Bundesliga began in 1963 (Dortmund).

Since then, it's been a different story. For well over thirty years, the league titles went to cities Ruhr people regarded as posh, rich, smug or a combination thereof - Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart - until Dortmund finally lifted the curse and won in 1995, then again in 1996.

That created a problem for Schalke fans, who hate Dortmund with a passion that is only rivalled by how the Dortmund fans hate Schalke and how strongly they love their part of the country.

Thus some of the Schalke fans gritted their teeth in anger over Dortmund's triumph, but not all of them. Ruhr pride is a pretty strong potion. I know a Mancunian who's been living in Germany for over twenty years and has grown into a devoted Schalke supporter.

'In May of 1996, on the penultimate day of the season, we qualified for the Uefa Cup by beating Bayern,' he says. 'Then the news came through that this also meant Dortmund had won the league. And suddenly a cheer went up! People started singing 'Ruhr, Ruhr'.' He adds: 'I tried to imagine being at Old Trafford and hearing that City had sneaked past Liverpool on the last day. You wouldn't hear a cheer. No way.'

Did I mention that I'm a Dortmund fan, since this is where I was born and where I have been watching my football since 1977? No? Well, I have now. And I can tell you one thing: on the penultimate day of the season, I will certainly not be at Dortmund's ground and chant 'Ruhr, Ruhr' if it should turn out that Schalke have won the league, and I will not even smile a secret football-fan or football-historian smile.

Because on the penultimate day of the season Dortmund host - Schalke.

If they have to win the Bundesliga (and I guess that one day they will have to), then so be it. But at our ground? That would definitely be worthy of the combined efforts of Stephen King and Clive Barker.

I know Dortmund fans who have already sold their tickets for this game, and from what I read on message boards, many of those are being snapped up by Schalke supporters. ('There is a veritable mass migration via eBay', a user at gleefully noted as early as mid-December.)

If it should really come to that, to the worst-case scenario, expect a few weeks without any columns from Germany.

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

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.