Schalke return to the Bundesliga after a year of transformation on and off the pitch.
A humiliating relegation from the First Division has forced one of Germany’s traditional giants to rebuild their squad. Then came the war in Ukraine and Schalke severed ties with Russian gas company Gazprom, the financial fuel for some of its greatest successes, leaving the club facing an uncertain future.
Schalke’s late push for promotion this season was reflected in Saturday’s game which secured their return to the Bundesliga. Schalke lost 2-0 at halftime to promotion rivals St. Pauli but recovered to win 3-2.
“I have huge respect for this group, for the way it has developed. Incredible,” said coach Mike Büskens, himself a Schalke great for winning the UEFA Cup as a player in 1997. “You get kicked out of the division unceremoniously, you don’t have a team. And then a group develops where everyone is ready to believe in each other, to give their all, and I must say that the guys well deserved.
A shadow was cast over the festivities when fans were injured in crushes and falls as thousands marched onto the pitch. Police said 18 people were injured on Monday, nine of them seriously.
“This field invasion could have ended in disaster,” said Peter Both, the senior officer on duty.
In January 2021, Schalke ended a 12-game losing streak to an all-time Bundesliga record of 31. When relegation was confirmed three months later, fans clashed with players and staff, attacking some of between them as they left the team bus.
The lack of ticket sales during the coronavirus pandemic has caused the club to warn of possible insolvency. Even with 20 million euros ($21 million) a year from Gazprom in the top flight, Schalke had spent beyond his means as he chased glory in the Bundesliga and Champions League, where he played for the last time in 2018-19.
Gazprom sells gasoline in large quantities to industrial buyers and countries, not to German households. One of the oldest and most lucrative sponsorship deals in world football was therefore a paradox – what was advertising really for?
The sponsorship began in 2006 and has accustomed locals to seeing the logo of the Russian state corporation in the industrial heartland of Germany, which is also an electoral stronghold of the Social Democratic Party, one of the two main forces country policies. Side billboards displayed the logo of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany that would have extended Gazprom’s control over European markets. This project was suspended shortly before the invasion.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Schalke terminated the sponsorship deal with Gazprom and Matthias Warnig, an old friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, quit the board. The new sponsor is a local real estate company. The new deal is not public but is likely worth far less than the Gazprom deal, which was to last until 2025.
Fans made stickers to cover the Russian company’s logo on their replica shirts, or rushed to buy new ones without Gazprom’s name. Schalke now donates money to charities helping Ukrainians for every new club member and every shirt sold with a ‘Together for peace’ message. Goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann organized match tickets for 100 refugees.
Getting promoted on the first try was vital for Schalke in a division filled with teams like Hamburg, Nuremberg and Hanover, all of whom were once top-flight mainstays and are now battling a slow post-relegation decline.
Schalke may be on top at the moment, but the transition to the Bundesliga won’t be easy. This season’s standout player with 29 goals in as many league games is Simon Terodde, a 34-year-old German who has a superb record in the second division but has struggled on several occasions in the top league. Main defender Ko Itakura is on loan from Manchester City.
But first, Schalke fans can continue the celebrations in Sunday’s final game of the season at Nuremberg.
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