FC Schalke 04: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Champions

Once one of Europe’s great fairytales, Schalke are now staring relegation squarely in the face. Calum Muldoon charts the decline of one of Germany’s biggest clubs.

Many Schalke fans have been watching through their fingers too, but all from home. (Photo Credit – DFB)

This season has been a strange one. Rangers have won their first Scottish title in ten years, Lille and Lyon are battling to end PSG’s dominance in France, and West Ham are in a fight with Chelsea for a Champions League place. An insane year for football. However, perhaps the saddest part of this season is the collapse of the German powerhouse FC Schalke 04, who sit rock bottom of the Bundesliga. 

The demise of Schalke has been a long time coming. The days of Raúl leading the charge against big teams in the Champions League knockout phase are gone and they have been replaced by depressing struggles to keep VfB Stuttgart from scoring more than five in a match. With only one win in 26 games coming for Schalke, it is clear that their once powerful recruitment and playing strategy has fallen apart. Here is a look at how one of the most popular clubs in Germany lost their grip on football and their wealth a mere decade after coming within touching distance of conquering Europe.

April 5th, 2011. The world has their eyes on Schalke. As the Germans stepped out of the tunnel and onto the San Siro pitch to the sound of passionate Inter Milan fans belting the Champions League anthem, they knew it was their time to show what this well-crafted team was made of ahead of their quarter final tie. Impeccable saves from Manuel Neuer and a brilliant display of offence from every individual led Schalke to a 5-2 victory over I Nerazzurri/ The home match back in Gelsenkirchen saw the hosts conquer the reigning champions 2-1 and book their place in the semi-finals against the seemingly unstoppable Manchester United side led by Sir Alex Ferguson. While Schalke crashed out in the semis to the Red Devils, getting thrashed 6-1, they made their presence in the footballing world known. 

Manuel Neuer made over 150 appearance for Schalke before heading to Bayern. (Photo Credit – Getty)

This side appeared good then, but looking back on the personnel , it was exceptional. In goals was future World Cup winner Neuer, considered one of the best players to stand between the sticks. Joel Matip would go on to win the Premier League with Liverpool last year. Up front were goal machines Klaas-Jan Huntelaar & Julian Draxler. They also boasted Raúl, one of the best strikers in history. While they did not get the European glory they dreamt of, they won both the DFB-Pokal and the DFL Super Cup. Although they had a dismal Bundesliga season finishing in 14th, their lowly league position didn’t prevent them from striking fear into clubs across the continent.  

Trouble began to arise as that season of madness drew to a close. Club captain Neuer left to join Bayern Munich for a then world record fee for a ‘keeper. Along with his departure, their manager Ralf Rangnick left due to long-term exhaustion meaning the club was left without a world class keeper, a captain, and a manager. A leadership evaporated in the blink of an eye. 

They brought in Ralf Fährmann to replace Neuer, gave the armband to Benedikt Höwedes, and appointed Huub Stevens, who managed the Schalke side that lifted the UEFA cup back in 1997 using infamously strong defensive strategies. While fans and pundits believed his playing style would flop in Gelsenkirchen, it was more an inharmonious meander. The side was inconsistent for a good portion of the season, but still managed to pull off a third-place finish. For the next few years Schalke saw relative success with top four finishes most seasons and achieving knockout football in most European competitions they took part in.

It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when Schalke truly collapsed, but my best guess is the 12th March 2019. After narrowly losing to Manchester City 3-2 at home in the Champions League last 16 first leg, they travelled to the Etihad hoping for a shock comeback. Of course, that was not the case. Having lost Howedes to Lokomotiv Moscow before the season commenced, Schalke lacked a proper captain and that came back to bite them in this match with a near perfect City side. With only one shot on target, the Citizens annihilated a nervous Schalke defence, putting seven past “the People’s Champions”. That was the beginning of the end of Schalke’s rendezvous with Europe’s elite. At the end of that season they finished in 14th and only five points clear of the relegation playoff place. 

A crushing defeat spelled the beginning of Schalke’s slump. (Photo Credit – Dave Thomson/AP)

Last season seemed to be the final straw and it might not even have been Schalke’s own fault. In 2020, COVID-19 swept the planet and football came to a screeching halt in March and has not returned to normal since. Schalke was one of the worst impacted teams of any major European leagues. To put the troubles faced by Schalke financially into layman’s terms, in May 2019, they were the 14th richest team in the world. In May 2020, they were on the verge of bankruptcy and had to put an annual salary cap of €2.5 million on future players’ contracts to stay afloat. And to kick them while they were down, they would have to finish the season behind closed doors, losing two million euros in revenue for each of their four home games without fans. They finished the season in a measly 12th place, which actually flattered Schalke since they ended their league campaign with a run of 16 games without a win. People knew Schalke had slumped, but no one saw the 2020/21 campaign coming.

The team started the season off abysmally. On the opening day they lost 3-1 to a Werder Bremen side that struggled to stay up last season. Then the next game, they were thumped 8-0 by Bayern Munich. After two games they were on zero points and had a goal difference of -10. It took them 105 days to secure their first Bundesliga win of the season, a surprisingly comfortable 4-0 win over Hoffenheim. Having rotated through 4 different managers already this season, it is clear that the higher ups are desperate. While unable to spend money on a new coach, they also could not afford to bolster their defence. They were unable to afford right back Jonjoe Kenny at the end of the season and were left with an incredibly weak side to face the onslaught of games this season. 

With several teams looking good in Germany this season, Schalke were left behind and are facing their first relegation in nearly 40 years. Schalke have been unable to adapt to football today and seem to have this fixation with their success a decade ago. An example of this is the re-signing of 37-year-old Huntelaar. The fact that Schalke are relying on nostalgia to keep fans happy by signing an aging former striker as their attempt to save the club from the drop just shows how few options this side has left. Very few fans still dare to dream of making an escape from the relegation zone, so I believe it is more than safe to say that we will be seeing this Schalke side playing in 2. Bundesliga next season.

Schalke are an out of fashion club. Having the ability to switch between a tough defence to a smooth flowing offensive style was how they played back in the early 2010s, but as the years rolled by and players were not effectively replaced, the Bundesliga and the rest of Europe figured out how to get under their skin and break them like a stick. Their collective quality has been lost in recent seasons and the board have only just clocked that as they sit 11 points adrift. If Schalke’s owners want to ever return to their former glory, or even return to the Bundesliga, they must accept that the past is behind them, and give the people a reason to once again admire the People’s Champions. 

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