Ugly tear-ups, classic one-upmanship and plastic phalluses: why Dortmund vs Schalke is Germany's big one
Shortly before kick off on a chilly February afternoon in Germany’s Ruhr region, the players of Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund stand at the halfway line of the impressive Veltins Arena.
Waving their arms in the direction of the two main stands to greet the sell-out crowd of 61,500 that have come out to watch Germany's most famous derby, it appears to be business as usual – until both sets of players turn to greet the fans behind the goals.
With a look mixing shock with bemusement, the players watch as the Dortmund fans raise a lengthy banner with the words ‘F*** You!’ repeated several times, a somewhat ungrateful message aimed at their hosts.
As a nice extra touch, the fans who haven't been asked to hoist the banner high into the air make their feelings known by waving hundreds of pink plastic penises aloft - phalluses the size of those inflated bananas made popular on English terraces during the late 1980s. It’s hardly the most sophisticated piece of choreography, but the message is clear.
Turning to acknowledge the Schalke end, the message is a little more cerebral: a gigantic and elaborate picture of a brown leather football [think the 1960s] wearing a crown, beneath the caption: ‘Only he who honours his roots will achieve great things’. Around it, cartoon characters carry placards which read ‘Stop police despotism’, ‘Fans - not customers’ and ‘Lift the stadium bans’, more of which later.
The message from this end is clear: while it’s fine to wave your plastic cocks around, never lose sight of the real enemy; the police, FIFA, and the impending World Cup Finals.
"It's always been a defining mark of their life"
The game’s glitziest event is due in town any day now, but many of the locals would prefer it to stay well away. This wasn’t quite what FourFourTwo expected when we dropped in on derby day, but then for most German football fans, this is not a normal season and this is clearly not a run-of-the-mill rivalry.
Kasper Ryvig Johansson is a member of Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Unity’ ultras, a 23-year-old Dane who moved to the city two years ago after falling under BVB’s spell. He hadn’t much cared about football until he watched the Euro '92 semi-final between Denmark and Holland, and what followed defies logic. “I don't know why, but Fleming Povlsen became my favourite player," he says, “and he played for Dortmund in Germany.”
German football grounds were a dark and dangerous place to be, yet those garish, sensationalist lines tell only half the story"
So it made perfect sense for Kasper to drive seven hours each way to see Dortmund play, until eventually he gave up his well-paid job at a salmon factory and relocated to the city for good in 2004.
He had no means of income and nowhere to live, but he had Borussia Dortmund and a surrogate family on the terraces, where he soon learned all he needed to know about what football in Germany's Ruhr area really means: Schalke vs Dortmund.
“The people who grew up here have been raised on the derby,” he smiles. “It's always been a defining mark of their everyday life and it's difficult to grasp the scope of this rivalry when you're living in Denmark, but let’s just say that I was educated very well.” By that he means that he has quickly come to hate Schalke with a passion that would seem mildly bizarre even without his background.
Many of his friends are banned from league grounds because of their involvement in an incident that saw more than 100 Dortmund supporters encircled by armed police forces. It was a derby between Schalke and Borussia, naturally, but not the first teams, nor even the reserves. On this occasion, the under-18s were playing. Kasper shrugs: “But it was much more extreme in the old days.”
His claim holds particularly true for the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when the mono-cultural Ruhr area, fired on coal and built on steel, suffered economic meltdown. Alongside mass unemployment, the collapse left the Ruhr’s two most successful clubs with no way of competing with the rich clubs in the north and south of the country.
Football frustration and social despair soon blended with the sporting rivalry to yield frightening results. In 1979, Schalke hooligans formed what would quickly become one of the most notoriously violent firms in Germany - the ‘Gelsenszene’ (Schalke is a borough of Gelsenkirchen.)
To counter the threat, Dortmund thugs founded the fascist ‘Borussenfront’ in 1982 and the next decade was no fun at all as the two groups tore into each other.
In 1984/85, for example, 64,000 fans flocked to Schalke's ground to see them face Bayern Munich – only 41,000 had dare turn up for the derby. In Dortmund, 47,000 paid to see Bayern but only 34,000 for Schalke.
German football grounds were a dark and dangerous place to be, yet those garish, sensationalist lines tell only half the story, because the rivalries are more complicated than they may first appear. Contrary to popular opinion, German football fans are a confusingly complex bunch.
More than a region
The Ruhr area in Western Germany is home to Schalke and Dortmund, plus a number of lesser outfits such as Essen, Bochum, Duisburg and Oberhausen. In terms of size, the Ruhr is not unlike greater London, only the motorways don't circle this place as they do in England’s capital but run through it like arteries.
For the traveling football fan, nowhere is more than 30 minutes away on public transport. In recent years there have been attempts to combine the region’s countless independent municipalities to create Ruhr City, but that will never work – local pride overrides everything.
In terms of size, the Ruhr is not unlike greater London, only the motorways don't circle it"
In 1975, Wattenscheid was incorporated into Bochum and Wanne-Eickel was made a district of Herne, yet the people who live in these places have never accepted the change and will castigate you with the fervour of a Basque separatist if you refer to them as a "Bochumer" or "Herner".
Such parochialism is the lifeblood of the region, and it makes for some of Europe’s most intense football rivalries.
One book on the history of Ruhr football is entitled In the Land of a Thousand Derbies, and it’s only a slight exaggeration. Because of the number of teams crammed into the region, everybody hates everybody else here. But dig deeper and you discover that the hatred has been fuelled by the game’s development in Germany as a whole.
Until 1963, (West) Germany had neither professionalism, nor a nationwide league. For well over half a century the first stages of the national championships were contested in regional leagues among players who were part-timers or amateurs, players representing their own communities.
During the 1930s and 1940s, when Schalke replaced Nuremberg as the country's dominant team (winning six of the seven championships), the players all came from the Gelsenkirchen area and many had worked down the coal mines, or were still doing so, alongside the fans who cheered them on.
Subsequently, the Ruhr’s biggest clubs would generally not cross swords with the likes of Munich, Frankfurt or Hamburg, but with Herne, Bochum and the countless other small clubs representing little more than hamlets.
For decades, football fans attending a top-flight match in the Ruhr could always take the tram and be home in time for dinner. Bayern Munich and VfB Stuttgart didn't even exist to most supporters. It was a footballing microcosm in which a fan saw nothing but derbies.
Ironically, the fiercest of them all, the one that has come to define the region and dominate the whole of German football - Schalke 04 versus Dortmund - isn't even the most traditional of those rivalries, not by a long shot.
NEXT: The birth of a rivalry