By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
The season just past in European football has been one of quite unparalleled entertainment.; quite a contrast to the year preceding it. The World Cup played havoc with 'natural' order (Manchester Utd fans will have something to say here) and thus Chelsea, Juventus (down in Serie B) and Bayern Munich have all been dethroned as champions in their respective leagues. Inter may have ran away with the Scudetto but even the dourly non-competitive EPL went down to the wire and this Primera Liga is one of the best in recent memory. However, none can claim to have put people on the edge of their seats as much as the lesser exposed but hugely entertaining Bundesliga.
Today's story is about the pain and glory (components for the classic drama) which make football the universal sport that it is. The setting is Germany, the playing field the Bundesliga. And the players who are synonymous with the two words are Schalke and Vfb Stuttgart respectively. Bear with me because this is one of the most endearing football stories you will know of.
Most of you already know that Stuttgart clinched the Bundesliga on the last day of the season. what most of you don't is just how dramatic the events that transpired in the final matchday and the weeks preceding it were.
Here is a brief synopsis.
Just to give you an idea about how close the season was, on the 22nd of April (Matchday 30) with four weeks to go Schalke (62) held a four point lead over Stuttgart (58) in third, even behind Bremen. So with a month of the season remaining three teams still had a chance to win the shield. (Schalke-Bremen-Stuttgart)
But the next week (Matchday 31) Schalke suffered an unlikely reverse at mid-table Bochum (losing 2-1) while Stuttgart won meaning Stuttgart cut the lead down to one. Bremen also lost thereby relinquishing second spot to the Swabians. (Schalke-Stuttgart-Bremen)
All three won on the following week (Matchday 32) and the lead was still one point. (Schalke-Stuttgart-Bremen)
Matchday 33 was all set to be a humdinger. The stage was set to erase the 2001 nightmare. (more on that later)
But before we go into that a little background on the Schalke.
In a perfect world, cetirus paribus, a football team would be one where supporters decide ticket prices and who sits on the board; where players travel hundreds of miles to visit their fans and mingle with them at training; where supporters debate the finances of the club with the chairman and contribute to the design of their stadium.
Bogwash you say? Ofcourse not.
Schalke 04 is just the club.
This just goes to show how important winning or losing is for the people of the region who are mostly from a working class background living off the past heydays of coal-mining.
Dortmund are the sworn rivals and are demeaningly referred to as Zecke or mosquitoes. It's a bit like the Real Madrid, Barcelona rivalry although whereas the Spanish form an inter-regional disparity, the German one is based on an intra-regional competitiveness.
On 12th of May 2007, Saturday, some 61,780 fans packed into Schalke's stadium in Gelsenkirchen. (for an away game!!)
At nearby Dortmund, 20,000 of the 83,000 full house were in the blue-and-white away end. Add the two crowds together and it is just short of the European record for a club game, 146,433. That shows just how important the match was for the people of the region.
But as tends to happen, the underdogs turn up to spoil the party.
Dortmund won 2-0 with Alexender Frei and Ebi Smolarek scoring to put what was set to be the biggest party in football on hold.
And what of Stuttgart?
They won a pulsating encounter against Bochum 3-2 to be top for the first time this season. Bremen lost finally falling out of the title race. (Stuttgart-Schalke).
Going into the final day of the season, Stuttgart just needed a win to confirm the title. Schalke, on the other hand, needed to win and hope that Stuttgart were atleast held to a draw.
The ghost of 2001 had come back to haunt the Royal Blues again. And to shed ambiguity of the term, let us examine what the ghost really is.
May 19, 2001 is a day no Schalke fan will ever forget.
Schalke's joy lasted for precisely four minutes and 38 seconds before an almost inconceivable event broke their hearts. The Royal Blues had just defeated Unterhaching 5-3 to maintain their chances of winning the title.
The north Germany side had just scored a 90th-minute goal to lead 1-0; the Schalke fans were delirious and invaded the pitch.
Bayern only needed a draw to become champions, but a defeat meant Schalke would be the 2001 winners.
Four minutes passed with 60,000 fans inside Gelsenkirchen's Park Stadium intently tuned in to their transistor radios hoping to hear the most mundane sound of a whistle blow.
they were just seconds away from the moment they had waited 97 years for, but it was cruelly taken from them.
Bayern earned a free-kick inside the Hamburg penalty area just as the four minutes of stoppage time were elapsing.
The referee could not blow full-time until after the free-kick had been taken. Two touches of the ball later and Swedish defender Patrick Andersson drilled the ball into the back of the net from 10 yards.
The cheers of joy came, but not in Gelsenkirchen and certainly not from the people whose blood runs blue.
Bayern had stolen the 'Meisterschale' back with the very last kick of the 2000/01 season. The most dramatic end to any Bundesliga year in history concluded, as is typically so, in favour of the Bavarians.
And the story of the Great Bundesliga Robbery of 2001 was born.
Six years on to that day, could Schalke erase those eternally painful memories. In hindsight we already know the answer. But lets just skim through how the events actually transpired.
So the equation was simple, Schalke had to win and hope that the Swabians lost.
Onward with the matches. The Blues at home to Arminia Bielefeld while Stuttgart played host to Energie Cottbus.
So what happened?
As one columnist so aptly put it, 'for eight short minutes the miracle actually had the audacity to wink at Schalke.'
But then even the miracle remembered that like all other things it could not be at two places at once. For it was needed far more urgently nearly 500 km's to the south at the Gottlieb-Daimer Stadion, home to the surging youth of Vfb Stuttgart.
With sixteen minutes on the clock, Schalke were 2-0 up. Brazilian Linclon turning in an inspired display put his team ahead on 11 minutes. They doubled the tally on 16.
And would wonders never cease? Cottbus had scored an unlikely first goal at Stuttgart.
At that precise moment, Schalke were all set to be champions again. Fate looked set to be playing its final hand.
But eight minutes was all it was.
For as the miracle swiftly flew south it reached the Swabians just in time to see Tomas Hitzlsperger slam an unstoppable 22-yard volley past the Cottbus goalie. 1-1 it was and that settled Stuttgart's nerves.
Sami Khedira, one of the breed of youngsters who had powered Stuttgart so efficiently this season scored in the second half to give the men in red their first triumph in years.
For Schalke, the pain was all too clear after a season where they had held the lead for almost all of the campaign.
After their return in 2001 general manager Rudi Assauer famously said, "I no longer believe in a football God."
Then striker Ebbe Sand didn't want to turn complete apostate but admitted: "If there is a football God, then he's a Bayern fan..."
All they had to say this time was best said through the words of their manager Mirko Slomka. The beleaguered man replied, “at least eight minutes are better than four.”
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The story of Schalke 04