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Revered Revierderby on hold in Ruhr football hub

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

Schalke 04 are one of the great names of German football but you would be hard pushed to find ‘Schalke’ on any railway timetable. This is because the district of Schalke lies within Gelsenkirchen, a post-war pairing of Gelsenkirchen-Altstadt, rebuilt as a compact and pedestrianised commercial centre, and the residential green-belt suburb of Buer.

It sits in Germany’s industrial heartland and football hotbed of the Ruhr, characterised by traditional clubs with large fan bases, most notably Schalke, and their eternal rivals in the Revierderby, Dortmund. These communities – also including Duisburg, Essen and Bochum – are interlinked by a regional train and S-Bahn network.

Set by the main road and S-Bahn line halfway between downtown Gelsenkirchen and its suburb of Beur, in an area known as Erle, stands the VELTINS-Arena. Home to Schalke 04, it was opened in 2001 to replace the adjoining Parkstadion, now used for training and reserve matches. A capacity 61,500 crowd pack into this modern, multifunctional arena for every home match.

This impressive attendance figure rarely wavers, even after Schalke dropped back into in the 2. Bundesliga in 2023. With the club in dire financial straits – despite 180,000 members – the situation is paradoxical. It’s one that is closely linked to energy, as was ever the case here in this former rich vein of coal mining. 

In 1904, ten young men with family ties to mining met on what was Hauergasse, today the junction of Grillostraße and Herzogstraße. This is the part of Gelsenkirchen known as Schalke, north of the historic Altstadt, developed by influential industrialist Friedrich Grillo in the mid-1800s. It was incorporated into Gelsenkirchen proper the year before these sons of toil convened.

Their aim was very simple: to form a football team to play and beat Spiel und Sport Schalke 96, established by the sons of mine owners and bureaucrats in 1896. The lads named their team Westfalia, after the region.

SuS Schalke competed with the best teams in Westphalia, finishing ahead of Turner-Club Gelsenkirchen 1874 to win the Western Division in 1912, beating Eastern champions Preußen Münster in the play-off, then losing in the regional semi-final. The winners, the forerunners of I.FC Köln, went through to the all-German finals.

These, therefore, were very decent footballers the boys were looking to spar with. TC Gelsenkirchen, meanwhile, operated as the football department of a gymnastics club formed, as so many in Germany, in the later 1800s. 

After World War I, TC would merge with SuS Schalke, which ended with the ‘clean divorce’ of 1924. This separated the amateur gymnasts of pure sporting ambition from the footballers receiving money in small brown envelopes. Clubs across Germany had to choose one ethos or the other.

By then, Westfalia had gone through several changes, too. First playing at Grenzstraße, ‘Border Street’, straddling the dividing line between Gelsenkirchen and Schalke, the young team was also forced to become part of a longer-established gymnastics club, hardly a pastime most associated with miners.

Beginning to make waves at local level, Westfalia welcomed a younger generation of players into the fold, some whose fathers were among the many Polish miners who came to Gelsenkirchen in the early 1900s – a workforce which represented nearly 15% of the local population back then. 

Meanwhile, the Dortmund-born Ballmann brothers had returned from England, where they had spent their formative years in thrall to the Scottish passing game. This interplay had already been adopted in the major football cities of Central Europe, Prague, Budapest and Vienna.

When Westfalia faced their own split from the gymnastics operation in 1924, it would be a clean break from the past. From now on, the club would be known as Schalke, abandoning the red and yellow of yore and adopting blue and white.

Friedrich Ballmann set about teaching Schalke’s most talented young players a tactic known as the Kriesel, quick passing on the deck and moving into space. His star pupils were Ernst Kuzorra and his brother-in-law, Fritz Szepan, whose fathers had come from what was then East Prussia, and what is today Poland.

This bold initiative did several things. First, it created an all-conquering football team, the Schalke 04 of lore, initially barred from promotion as the footballing authorities didn’t take kindly to working-class upstarts infiltrating the higher echelons of the sport. The same attitude that inspired the club to be formed in the first place was still prevalent two decades later. But not for much longer.

Secondly, it made stars of Kuzorra and Szepan, who soon received caps for Germany, the younger Szepan captaining his country to third place at the 1934 World Cup Finals.

Thirdly, it established a passionate football culture around the club’s new home of the Kampfbahn Glückauf, opened on the site of a former mine at the northern edge of Schalke. Named after a miner’s good-luck greeting to his colleague before a shift, the ground was deliberately planned as all-standing, 1,000 or so seats reluctantly added as an afterthought before the stadium’s opening in 1928.

For a friendly (!) with Fortuna Düsseldorf in 1931, more than twice the capacity packed into the place for an unofficial attendance of 70,000. The club had just been permitted to play once more after a dispute over payments, one poorly handled by the haughty authorities. It was around this time that the Schalke legend was forged – one that remains to this day. 

Although the Glückauf was replaced by the Parkstadion further north in Erle before the 1974 World Cup, a good century after Kuzorra and Szepan, fans of the Königsblauen still swarm in significant numbers to the Schalke bars around  Ernst-Kuzorra-Platz, surrounded by photographs of Weimar-era club legends.

Not all of the portraits are pre-war, however, for the same Schalke football culture was branded into later generations of players, the likes of Olaf Thon, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, all of them Gelsenkirchen-born, bred and trained. 

Alongside, just as the city fathers deigned to accept Schalke into the fold back in 1928 by part-funding the Kampfbahn Glückauf, the club was granted the name of FC Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 04, and so a populist football movement became part of the urban identity of the community.  

Flattened during World War II, its last mine closing in 2000, thanks to Schalke, Gelsenkirchen has long been synonymous with football, raising its international profile and bringing in a regular influx of visitors. In 2004, the VELTINS-Arena, the stadium that replaced the Parkstadion, staged the Champions League final, then five games at the World Cup two years later, including Portugal’s penalty shoot-out win over England in the quarter-finals. 

The fan zone for that tournament? The Kampfbahn Glückauf, then still used by Schalke’s youth team. The atmosphere around the ground and interest shown by complete strangers in its history inspired lifelong Schalke fan Olivier Kruschinski to establish the Schalke Mile of landmarks, and offer walking tours along it. These remain popular, while the old ground is today used by Kreisliga side Teutonia Schalke Nord

Germany play home games at the VELTINS-Arena every few years, most recently a friendly with Colombia in June 2023. This is also where England meet Serbia and Spain face Italy at Euro 2024, two of the four games to take place in one of Germany’s great football capitals. 

For two weeks, the bars and squares of Gelsenkirchen will fill, which is just as well. The city is now a hub of the solar-power industry, Germany’s transition to clean energy not as immediately lucrative as coal. Energy may still fuel the local economy but the rewards require longer to take effect, a moot point where football is concerned, too.

Sponsored by Russian gas giant Gazprom until the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Schalke, already in a precarious financial position, took the laudable step of cutting all ties with one of their main benefactors. The result has been the threat of bankruptcy, relegation from the Bundesliga in 2023 – and regular crowds of 61,500 to watch second-tier football.

Getting Around

Arriving in town and local transport

The nearest airport to Gelsenkirchen is Dortmund, 53km (33 miles) east. An hourly Airport Express bus runs to Dortmund Hbf main station (€10 from the ticket machine or cash on board, 25min journey time). From there, the S2 S-Bahn or a regional train runs every 15-20mins to Gelsenkirchen Hbf main station, journey time 30mins, single ticket €7 (Preisstufe B) valid for 2hrs, 24hr ticket €17. Hopping around by regional transport run by VRR can work out cheaper by using their eezy app

Dortmund Airport Taxi to Dortmund Hbf should cost €35, all the way to Gelsenkirchen €80. A local Gelsenkirchner-Taxi (+49 172 617 6767) may charge less going to the airport. They also offer transfers to Düsseldorf and Cologne.

Busier Düsseldorf Airport is 38km (24 miles) south-west of Gelsenkirchen, the airport connected by free Skytrain to Düsseldorf Airport train station. From there, it’s a hop one station to Unterrath S, then change onto the S1 for Duisburg, then a regional train for Gelsenkirchen. Journey time is around 1hr 30mins including transfers, eezy-ticket price €12, single €18.

TaxiRuf Düsseldorf (+49 211 71 41 41) offers all kinds of airport transfers. A cab to Düsseldorf main station should cost around €30.

Gelsenkirchen Hbf is just south of the mainly pedestrianised city centre a short walk away – the stadium is way north, accessed by using the same VRR regional tram network. A single ticket is €3.30 or use VRR’s eezy app. Note that match-ticket holders may travel for free anywhere on the VRR network to and from the stadium on the day itself.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Despite the closure of the legendary Charly’s Bummelzug (‘DIE Fankneipe!’), there are still enough football bars around Gelsenkirchen to fill a boozy weekend and then some.

Just up from the station where Charly’s had served fans for nearly 40 years, cosy Friesenstube on Ahstraße wears its Schalke heart on its sleeve, decking the place out in blue and white, down to the huge tap of Frankenheim Alt dominating the bar counter. S04 flags are draped over the awning if a game is screened on the front terrace.

Football-watching blends in with the friendly natter around the pocket-sized Posthörnchen, where main Weberstraße meets Sellhorststraße, a traditional Gelsenkirchen haunt that closes at 10pm daily. For late-night fun, the City Pub rocks it on Ringstraße until late on Fridays and Saturdays.

Just off Weberstraße, Arminstraße is also lined with drinking spots, including Armin Nr.8, a simple local bar where Schalke fans gather to watch matches, and the Café Extrablatt, a nationwide chain offering breakfasts, cocktails and beer and occasional TV football.

The northern end of the city centre is traditional Schalke territory. The Kleine Kneipe No.1 on Von-Oven-Straße is a classic gathering place for the Königsblauen fraternity, with a TV when required, while Traber Kneipe Sportsbar on Hansemannstraße combines late-night partying five times a week with Schalke dedication and match-watching. 

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Visit Gelsenkirchen has a basic list of local accommodation. Replacing the former Courtyard by Marriott, funky stays by friends Gelsenkirchen lays on an impressive breakfast spread, access to a gym and parking – all right next door to the VELTINS-Arena. It also offers hotel rooms by the half-day if you just need a few hours to snooze and freshen up.

Near the stadium on Willy-Brandt-Allee, the Arena Hotel provides comfortable mid-range lodgings – note that reception only stays open until mid-evening. At the northern, Schalke end of the city centre, near the tram for the stadium or station, the PLAZA Premium Gelsenkirchen basks in greenery, with views of the lake at City Park alongside. The pool and pub should be reopened for the summer of 2024.

Right in the heart of town on Munckelstraße, the 18-room St Petrus is run by the Tapalović family, the father who came to Gelsenkirchen in the early 1970s and fell in love with Schalke, and his two sons who played for the club as youngsters. The in-house Restaurant Dubrovnik offers Balkan flavours of the homeland. 

To stay near the station, Good Morning Gelsenkirchen City brings affordable Swedish style to the Ruhr, with a bar at reception in case you need it. The Accor chain has long plonked its flag here: there’s a 135-room ibis Styles on nearby Ringstraße.