Before Ajax and Barcelona, there was Schalke

The biggest German club never to win the Bundesliga, Schalke dominated the domestic game in the 1930s and 40s with a pioneering style played by tight-knit local lads, reports Stefan Bienkowski

To describe FC Schalke 04 as anything other than huge in German football would simply be ridiculous. With more than 100,000 members, the state-of-the-art 60,000-seat Veltins-Arena and continental talents such as Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby among the alumni, their fans rightfully consider their side as one of the forerunners of Europe’s most exciting league.

Earlier this season, the Gelsenkirchen club topped their Champions League group in unprecedented fashion ahead of English ever-presents Arsenal and Ligue 1 champions Montpellier: not bad for a club with a solitary UEFA Cup trophy to its name. Schalke's group-topping spot is matched by the other Bundesliga participants, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, giving the strong impression that the Germans have their sights set on European silverware.

Yet despite their European exploits, Schalke’s league form hasn't so much skidded to a halt as steered off the track entirely. The club finished the first half of the Bundesliga season with one win and five losses in their last eight league games – a run of form that ultimately cost Huub Stevens his job.

As the Royal Blues slunk into the hibernation of the winter break a startling 17 points behind leaders Bayern Munich, the loyal fans were left to endure the absent weeks of no football, feeling as a bitter as any North Rhine frost. Although they won their first Bundesliga match of 2013 in thrilling fashion - a topsy-turvy 5-4 victory over Hannover - they've taken just two points from four matches since.

Just how did this once great club fall so far behind Bayern and their bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund? Compared to the Bavarian marketing colossus and the gung-ho contemporary movement so painfully close by in Dortmund, the Gelsenkirchen side drift leagues apart from the two, with no ideas or style of their own. They start the second half of the season down in seventh, below Freiburg, Mainz and new boys Eintracht Frankfurt.

Schalke's European success this season has masked domestic struggles

Schalke haven’t won a title in quite some time. In fact, Schalke haven't won the league in the Bundesliga’s 50-year existence, despite finishing second or third on nine occasions – including five of the last nine seasons. For all of the club’s prestige, size and general influence over the league, the absence of the coveted "salad bowl" trophy undermines the club’s claim as one of the Bundesliga’s best.

In Schalke’s trophy room, large domestic cups stand tall – redolent of a pre-Bundesliga era when the great club dominated domestic football, as well as the national team. Of a team who led through intuitive football never before seen on German soil, with a brand of passing that took the sport by surprise. A team dubbed the Schalker Kreisel: the Schalke spinning-tops.

Many consider perfection in passing as the exclusive birthright of a select few Dutch or Spanish players. But eight decades before Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona dominated Manchester United in the Champions League final, four decades before Johan Cruyff’s Ajax conquered the continent with Total Football, Schalke won national titles as an afterthought to their affection for passing their way through opponents.

Schalke's successful style of play is said to have originated from Scotland and the passing game developed by the famous Glaswegian side Queens Park 20 years beforehand, who gained the nickname the Spiders for their revolutionary approach to passing the ball around the football pitch.

Long before Vic Buckingham took over at Ajax and laid the foundations for the club it would become, Schalke were experimenting with the notion of exploiting space on the pitch and the importance of player movement when they didn’t have the ball (an idea not lost these days on Dortmund).

The programme for the 1939 Championship final: Schalke 9-0 Admira Vienna

That Schalke side became famous for their ability to prioritise ball movement over the necessity to win a football match, with one-touch passing as players moved back and forth to retain possession. Such a mentality was where they picked up their ‘spinning-top’ nickname, as the side moved the ball from side to side, back and forth, as opposed to the common lump up the park.

Yet the initial reception of such football was far from favourable, with fans questioning the efficiency of such movement of the ball. With a local magazine famously summing up the football community's viewpoint by stating that "Schalke’s love affair with the ball is restricting and unproductive", it was down to the team to prove them wrong. And didn’t they just.

Between 1933 and 1944 Schalke’s innovative side won 11 West German regional championships, in a league featuring such opponents as Herne, Bochum and Borussia Dortmund, and six national championships. They also reached the national Cup final on five of the first eight occasions, and although they only won it once – beating Fortuna Dusseldorf 2-1 in front of 72,000 spectators in 1937 – that made them the first German double-winners. In those 11 seasons, the club never lost a home game; in six, they went completely undefeated.

In another foreshadowing of the great Ajax and Barcelona sides to come, the majority of that Schalke first-team squad came from the Gelsenkirchen area and came up through the club playing together from a very tender age. What differs is just how close the squad got.

Having lived alongside each other from birth, when they weren’t winning championships the players often worked together in the local mines. This led to an incredible level of intimacy between the players. Ernst Kuzorra, widely regarded as the greatest Schalke striker of all time, saw his sister marry midfielder Fritz Szepan, who captained Germany on 30 occasions through two World Cups; then Szepan's other sister married fellow team-mate Fritz Thelen. Ernst Reckmann and August Sobottka married two women who happened to be cousins, while winger Bernhard Klodt was even closer to goalkeeper Hans Klodt: they were brothers.

Szepan (l) and Kuzorra in 1950: No off-field shenanigans at Schalke

Pioneering tactics and a squad full of local world-class talent? It may seem like nothing more than a pipe-dream to any club outside Catalonia these days, but that's what Schalke once was and it's an ideology that still resides in the hearts of the fans that loyally show up each season.

With midfield starlet Lewis Holtby the latest to up sticks for pastures new as he chases his dream of international success, older fans will feel let down by the player, but more so with their club. The Schalke who once nurtured local talent to national acclaim seems long gone, replaced by a side happy to dabble in third place.

Schalke may never match the innovation and domination of the spinning-top side, but if they are to justify their claim to be one of Germany’s great clubs, they need to go much closer to winning the Bundesliga title – although that may already be beyond them this season, with Bayern having only dropped nine points in 22 games.

But at least there is a fresh start under a new coach, and one whose appointment might please the romantics. Huub Stevens was replaced from within the club: U17s coach Jens Keller was promoted to first-team duties, albeit only initially until the end of the season. The Royal Blues may only need a drop of optimism to get their season back on track. Let’s hope for their sake that they finally do. 

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