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Jun 7, 2011

Schalke profit from Bayern's desire

Almost exactly ten years ago, Oliver Kahn provided the league with an image of lasting impression, especially for the supporters of Bayern Munich and Schalke 04.

Deep into stoppage time on the last day of the 2000-01 season, his Bayern team, needing a point to win the league, were trailing 1-0 away at Hamburg - a scoreline that would have given Schalke their first ever Bundesliga title and their first national championship since 1958.

But then-Hamburg goalkeeper Mathias Schober, who had come up through Schalke's youth teams and had been loaned out only eight months earlier, picked up what may or may not have been an intentional back pass and Bayern were awarded an indirect free kick in Hamburg's penalty area.

Kahn, not a relaxed and easy-going person at the best of times, was so fired up that he ran over to the other end of the pitch and tried to position himself in front of Schober's goal. However, his team-mates reminded him that this was not a corner and that there were already more than enough legs and limbs the ball somehow had to pass through.

Four days later, Kahn would save three penalties in the shoot-out that decided the Champions League final, but right now he was apparently of little use and so he trudged back, then stopped and turned to watch Stefan Effenberg take the free kick.

Schalke's fans, meanwhile, had deliriously invaded the pitch in Gelsenkirchen, believing Bayern's game to be over. But then they stared at the giant video screen, because suddenly there were images from Hamburg that appeared to be live. One of the Schalke fans standing there and looking at the grainy pictures was a fifteen-year-old by the name of Manuel Neuer.

Like everyone else around him, Neuer would never forget the moment of sickening horror, when - 3 minutes and 43 seconds into injury time - Effenberg gave the ball a nudge and Patrik Andersson struck to score the latest title-winning goal in German football history.

Performing what Konrad Lorenz would have termed a displacement activity, Kahn didn't celebrate the goal with his team-mates but raced over to the corner flag, ripped it out of the ground and fell on his back, manically pumping the flagpole.

The image was emblematic of both Kahn's never-say-die attitude and his intensity which often bordered on the psychotic. As such, it also came to symbolise Bayern's supremacy and the worst trauma in Schalke's history.

Eight years after these events, in April of 2009, Schalke were winning 1-0 away at Bayern when the hosts mounted one last, late challenge. Hamit Altintop cut inside from the left and struck on the turn, but Schalke's airborne goalkeeper managed to tip the ball over the crossbar. The referee immediately whistled for time. As soon as the goalkeeper realised there would be no corner kick and the game was over, he ran to the corner flag and did an almost perfect imitation of Kahn's celebration in 2001. This keeper's name was, of course, Manuel Neuer.

He came under a bit of criticism back then, because some observers felt he had been provoking the Bayern fans. However, the people standing in that corner of the ground were mainly Schalke fans and Neuer himself said: "It was done spontaneously. In no way was it directed against Bayern or Oliver Kahn. It was an action meant only for the Schalke fans."

But of course there was a subtext both sets of supporters understood very well, which is why the Schalke fans loved Neuer for this celebration while the Bayern supporters weren't exactly thrilled.

Indeed that is one reason why a sizeable part of Bayern's support is so unhappy about the transfer announced last week: Neuer's €25 million move to the Munich giants.

Another reason is that young, homegrown talents have broken through in great numbers at most major clubs in the last couple of seasons, not least between the sticks, as the stunning number of baby-faced goalkeepers in the top flight shows. Bayern, however, have now managed to drive away no less than two well-liked and promising keepers in only eleven months.

One of them - Michael Rensing - has just been voted the No.3 keeper in Germany by kicker magazine, way ahead of internationals like Rene Adler or Tim Wiese. The other one, Thomas Kraft, has since joined Hertha on a free transfer. Neither has Neuer's class, but still there are fans who would prefer putting trust in your talents to importing from outside.

These two arguments against the Neuer signing from the camp of hardcore Bayern supporters are usually frowned upon as too emotional by those Bayern fans who welcome the move and also by many neutral observers who seem to think that this is a good deal for the club.

Me, I'm not sure. I think it's a good deal for Neuer himself, provided he can win over the sceptical fans. Chances are he will, as he's already planning some sort of round-table talk with fan representatives under the direction of Raimond Aumann, now the club's main fan liaison officer and once a very good goalkeeper himself.

I also think it's a very good deal for Schalke, as they stand to earn up a lot of cash for a player who joined them at age five and thus cost them not a penny in transfer money. Especially if that player is a goalkeeper. Of course a good goalkeeper makes a difference - the question, however, is if he makes about €2 million per month worth of a difference.

Which leads to the third argument against the deal brought forth by some Bayern fans, an argument which can hardly be called too emotional and which I tend to agree with; namely that the Neuer transfer doesn't make any economic sense for Bayern Munich, considering the player could have joined them on a free transfer next year.

When I explained this state of affairs on a radio show a few weeks ago, a regular correspondent called Vijay wrote in to argue that "waiting one year to sign him on a free is too risky, as some bigger sharks can join the fray". But there are no bigger sharks in Germany and Neuer has repeatedly stated that he is not interested in moving abroad in the forseeable future. He also hinted he wants to win the Bundesliga before even considering such a move.

So what this all boils down to is that Bayern are parting with an awful lot of money for services to be rendered during one single season, despite having a reasonably reliable goalkeeper in Hans-Jorg Butt who will in all likelihood hang up his boots next summer.

As it goes without saying, Neuer is more than just "reasonably reliable", but no one can tell whether he will adapt quickly or whether the hefty transfer sum, in combination with the other two problems, turns out to be a heavy burden.

Add to this that Bayern are widely regarded the overwhelming favourites for the coming Bundesliga season, no matter who will be in goal for them, and we're edging closer and closer towards a deal Bayern only stand to profit from if Neuer helps them win the Champions League.

The Champions League is, incidentally, the competition Bayern were knocked out of by Inter last season, even though Inter's keeper blundered badly in both games to gift them two goals. And it's the competition Schalke were knocked out of by Manchester United despite Neuer's heroics in the first leg.

All this taken together has me conclude that the party who made the best deal here is, contrary to popular perception, Schalke. The only explanation I have is that moving this summer instead of next year was a part of the agreement Neuer reached with Bayern.

It could mean Neuer isn't quite the cold-hearted traitor Schalke's fans have made him out to be, but has found a way to maximise his hometown club's benefit. Put differently, Bayern may have now quite literally paid the price for a fateful free-kick and an ensuing corner flag celebration ten years ago.

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