Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04's Revierderby is a fierce regional rivalry
In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Uli Hesse attends the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04.
ESPN FC'S DERBY SERIES
- River Plate vs. Boca Juniors, by Sam Kelly
- Man City vs. Man United, by Iain Macintosh
- Celtic vs. Rangers, by Chris Jones
- Benfica vs. Sporting, by Lee Roden
- Everton vs. Liverpool, by Jeff Carlisle
- Olympiakos vs. Panathinaikos, by Michael Yokhin
- Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke, by Uli Hesse
- Red Star vs. Partizan, by Andy Mitten
- Steaua vs. Dinamo, by Nick Ames
- Roma vs. Lazio, by Paolo Bandini
DORTMUND, Germany -- As the people start jumping, the concrete starts to vibrate. At first it's only a quiver, but it becomes stronger with every impact made by 25,000 pairs of feet. After 10-15 seconds, the entire stand swings up and down like a gentle, giant coil.
If the concrete didn't yield, it would break instead, but -- even though this is the way it should be -- feeling such a seemingly solid ground vibrate like a bass guitar string is enough to turn the stomach.
"Wer nicht hüpft, der ist ein Schalker!," the crowd chants while jumping: "He who doesn't leap is a Schalke fan."
Why are we jumping? We have no choice. People are standing so close to each other that your neighbours will lift you up when they jump. In fact, it's more like a mass pogo, because there's just no room to use your arms.
Once it has stopped, there is enough room to shake your fists, and men, women, boys and girls do just that toward the away stand. "Tod und Hass dem S04!" they yell: "Death and hate to Schalke."
You may have heard about a rivalry between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Forget that. For any real Dortmund fan, this game, on Feb. 28, 2015, is the one that counts -- the Revierderby. Playing Bayern is about football. This is not.
THE RIVALRY BETWEEN Borussia Dortmund and Schalke is not one of the sport's oldest, but it is one of the fiercest. There have been a number of flashpoints down the years, but perhaps the most notorious involved dogs ... and lions.
If you're ever in Dortmund for a football game, walk past the modern stadium and have a look at the Rote Erde -- "red soil" -- the old ground right next to it. Then let your gaze wander around and imagine 50,000 people, many of them ticketless, crammed into this small place when Schalke came to town on Sep. 6, 1969.
The Rote Erde was so overcrowded that people were standing on the grass right next to the sidelines and the goal lines, while the two coaches were on the running track because their view from the benches was blocked. It was an accident waiting to happen and, after 37 minutes, it happened. With a shot from a tight angle, Hans Pirkner put Schalke ahead. When the ball hit the back of the net, dozens of ecstatic visiting fans ran from behind the goal onto the pitch.
Stewards with German Shepherds tried to drive them back. Unfortunately, those dogs were unmuzzled and two Schalke players were bitten: Gerd Neuser on the leg and Friedel Rausch on the backside. Both men were initially able to continue, but Rausch was given a tetanus shot while Neuser's leg eventually went numb and he hobbled off.
The events of that day led to the introduction of fences in German stadia and the strict separation of home and away support. It also resulted in the rapid deterioration in relations between the clubs.
When Dortmund's players walked onto the pitch for the next derby, at Schalke in January 1970, they were greeted by four young lions. Schalke's president had rented them from a local safari park to retaliate for the dog bites. Borussia's centre-forward Werner Weist later said he realised the spectacle was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but that he still felt "uneasy."
ON OUR WAY to the ground -- officially called Signal Iduna Park but more commonly known by its original name, Westfalenstadion -- a helicopter circled above our heads. The day's police reports would later show that about 600 Schalke ultras had not traveled on the special train that was reserved for them. The helicopter spotted them two miles south of the stadium.
The police have their work cut out for them on derby day. The vast majority of spectators approach the ground from the north, which houses the away stand. What's more, there is a lot of open space in this area, which adds to the challenge for the authorities.
The Sudtribune, by comparison, backs onto an enclosed area which features a large open-air swimming pool and can only be accessed by two relatively narrow passageways. It would surely be easier to escort the away support along those paths and thus greatly reduce the risk of clashes with the home fans.
But no, Dortmund fans stand in the south. The most plausible explanation for this comes from a seasoned fan by the name of Thomas, who runs a car-paint company in Dortmund's industrial harbour. He first went to see the team play when their home was the Rote Erde ground. At that time, Borussia's hardcore supporters were in the north curve.
"Then the new ground was built for the 1974 World Cup," Thomas says. "And the same happened in Schalke. Now, Schalke's new ground opened before our ground did. And the Schalke fans moved into the north curve of their new stadium. So when the Westfalenstadion opened, we said: 'We don't even want to share a cardinal point with these guys. If they stand in the north, we're going to stand in the south.'"
The level of animosity between the two sets of fans means this is not at all far-fetched. In fact, Thomas doesn't even use the word "Schalke" during his recollections. Dortmund supporters have various expressions to denote Schalke fans -- from "Smurfs" to "Blues" -- and also where they come from, usually "Herne-West."
(It's the equivalent of a Manchester United fan referring to Liverpool as East Birkenhead.) Needless to say, Schalke fans do the same, calling Dortmund Ludenscheid-Nord and Borussia supporters "Ticks" (as in the blood-sucking parasites).
As the two teams come out, 30 Dortmund ultras climb onto the fence behind the goal. They are dressed in black from head to toe. They all wear balaclavas.
"Oh, no! Not again!" the man behind me says. "Get those idiots off the fence!"
The "not again" refers to the October 2013 derby at Schalke, when masked Dortmund fans fired rockets onto the pitch and into parts of the ground where families were sitting. A smoke bomb almost hit Dortmund's goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, and the referee sent the two teams back into the dressing rooms until order was restored. The game fueled a simmering debate in Germany about the return of football violence. Now the vociferous but peaceful fans in the stand around us fear a repeat of those events.
But today the ultras on the fence don't carry flares or rockets. They carry garments. Some hold blue sweaters aloft, others replica shirts. I can make out two blow up dolls clad in blue and white kits. More and more items of royal blue clothing arrive in the area behind the goal; there are literally dozens of blue scarfs and also a few flags.
In the away stand opposite us, Schalke supporters surge forward in great numbers. Riot police position themselves in front of the fence to block their path to the pitch. The man who has just called the Dortmund ultras "idiots" now shakes his fist and screams, "Tod und Hass dem S04!" -- "Death and Hate to Schalke" -- at the top of his voice.
The away fans' outrage has to do with the items of clothing the Dortmund ultras are displaying. This is fan gear which has been forcefully pilfered from Schalke supporters. As is the case in many other comparable youth subcultures, losing regalia -- especially a flag -- constitutes the worst possible disgrace for an ultra, who would go to considerable lengths to win it back, and so the riot police are on alert while the Dortmund fans on the fence make derisive gestures.
THE SUDTRIBUNE IS the most famous part of Dortmund's stadium, a huge, iconic open terrace with a capacity of 25,000 famous for its orchestrated choreography on match days. It is widely known as the "Yellow Wall," an expression that goes back to May 2005 when Dortmund ultras hung a huge banner above the stand, declaring it the Gelbe Wand Südtribüne Dortmund.
In November 2006, Schalke ultras broke into the stadium and stole it under threat to life and limb. After all, it was attached to the roof some 160 feet above the ground.
During a derby at Schalke in February 2009, the banner was quite literally cut to shreds right before the Dortmund supporters' eyes while the home fans were triumphantly singing, "The yellow wall in Schalke's hands."
"Yellow Wall" is a term popular among out-of-towners or recent converts, while people in Dortmund rarely use it. Two days after the derby, I speak to a British reporter who is interested in Dortmund's fan culture and particularly the terrace.
I explain that, among older fans, "Yellow Wall' didn't really take hold because they consider it a term that was only fairly recently coined by ultras. Plus, the hardcore ultras themselves feel they have lost the right to use the term when they lost the banner (which has since been replaced).
As is the case on derby days all over the world, symbolism and rituals play a big role when Dortmund and Schalke meet. The police know this and, rather then "get those idiots off the fence," they just make sure that the aggression remains verbal and that nobody throws anything or steps onto the pitch.
It proves to be the right strategy. Soon, the ultras climb down the fences, either because they consider their point made or because the testosterone coursing through their teenage veins has been metabolised. Or maybe because there's quite a game to be watched.
DORTMUND HAVE BEEN very successful recently, winning the league two years running and reaching the 2013 Champions League final, but this is not their season. When the game kicks off, Borussia are in 12th place, only three points above the relegation zone.
Schalke, meanwhile, are fourth and have lost only one of their past seven league games. Under their new manager, former Chelsea coach Roberto Di Matteo, they have become very hard to break down.
Only you would never know this from watching this derby. An eighth-minute shot from Kevin-Prince Boateng narrowly misses and is the visitors' last meaningful attack for a long time as, instead, they get busy plugging holes at the back.
Dortmund's Marco Reus almost scores with a left-footed volley, a Shinji Kagawa lob goes wide, Henrikh Mkhitaryan forces a good save from Schalke's goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's goal-bound shot is blocked by a defender before Reus hits the crossbar with another volley. The stadium clock shows only 34 minutes have been played.
This is the same Schalke team that recently came away from mighty Bayern Munich with a 1-1 draw and will soon defeat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League. On this day, though, they are getting played off the park by their biggest rivals.
THE NAME "SCHALKE" refers to a borough of Gelsenkirchen, an industrial city west of Dortmund. (Thanks to the ubiquitous German Autobahn, it can take only 20 minutes by car to go from Schalke to Dortmund.)
Both cities belong to the urban Ruhr area which Germans call Ruhrgebiet. It comprises almost a dozen larger cities plus many smaller ones. They are all independent municipalities, but it is possible to drive from one town into another without realising. More than five million people live in a 1,700 square mile area.
In this huge urban sprawl, people are commuting all the time. They might live in Gelsenkirchen but work in Dortmund and have family elsewhere, such as Witten or Bochum. This state of affairs -- somehow separate, somehow welded together -- goes a long way toward explaining why Schalke versus Dortmund is the most intense derby in the German game today. It's also one of the more unusual rivalries in football as a whole.
Most heated rivalries revolve around some sort of fundamental difference, often of a political, ethnic or religious nature, or perhaps to do with class affiliation and social hierarchy. If the rivalry involves clubs from different cities, it might also spring from a struggle for economic or sporting supremacy.
But none of this plays an important role when it comes to the Revierderby. Of course you must never, ever mention this in the company of a "Tick" or a "Smurf," but the clubs, their cities and their support are very similar. Dortmund may have been powered by steel and beer, whereas Gelsenkirchen was built on coal but, both are stoutly working-class and have been hit hard by recession.
Which leads us to another rather unusual thing about the Revierderby: Dortmund versus Schalke is not very old as a dyed-in-the-wool derby.
IN THE EARLY part of the 20th century, German football's biggest rivalry was between Nürnberg and Fürth, who combined to win eight championships between 1914 and 1929. However, five years later, a team of miners -- in a most literal sense: these men worked in the mines during the week -- from Germany's industrial heartland made it to the top.
Between 1934 and 1942, Schalke 04 won the national championship six times. In doing so, the club not only established football as the working man's game in Germany, but gave the entire Ruhr region what it needed most: an identity. In the words of Barcelona's famous motto, Schalke became "more than a club." It became a myth, the one thing an entire region agreed on.
In 1947, a still famous but rapidly ageing Schalke team failed to win the regional championship of Westphalia, which meant that -- for the first time in more than two decades -- someone else ruled the Ruhr area.
In a dramatic final, die Konigsblauen were beaten 3-2 by a young Borussia Dortmund side. It was the 24th meeting between the two clubs and only the second time die Schwarz-Gelben had come out on top. For the years that followed, this would become the rule rather than the exception.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND vs. SCHALKE 04
- First meeting: May 3, 1925 -- Schalke won 4-2
- Bundesliga H2H: BVB 31 wins, Schalke 30 wins, 25 draws.
- Record win: Dortmund (7-0, 1966); Schalke (6-1, 1985)
- Top scorers: BVB (L. Emmerich, 11) ; Schalke (E. Kuzorra, 16)
- Longest win streak: 8 by Dortmund (Jan. 1964-Nov. 1967)
Until the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963, Germany's first professional and nationwide league, the western part of the country -- and the Ruhr area especially -- was its hotbed and its powerhouse. Essen won the national championship in 1955 and Schalke -- their last championship to date -- in 1958.
But Borussia ruled the roost. The team reached no less than five finals for the national championship, winning three. Their main rivals during those years were not Schalke, but a team from the Rhineland: Cologne, who were everything Borussia was not -- bourgeois, rich, arrogant, ambitious and representing a well-known, famous city.
"Even as late as the 1960s, the rivalry between Schalke and Dortmund was fairly normal," says Gregor Schnittker, a Revierderby expert. "There were none of the things that would soon become the norm -- no hatred, no riots, no violence. Looking back, there was certainly some underlying tension that only needed some sparks to erupt. But at the time, the rivalry between Schalke and Essen on the one hand and Dortmund and Cologne on the other was more intensely felt."
The "sparks" might have been the coal crisis of the late 1950s, known as the "death of the pits," and the steel crisis of the 1960s. In 1963 alone, 13 coal mines closed in the Ruhr area and 10,000 miners lost their jobs. The decline was dramatic and continued until the mid-1970s.
During the Ruhr area's heyday, more than 400,000 miners worked in 148 pits, but by November 1976, fewer than 150,000 held down jobs in only 35 mines. Within one generation, the region had become poor and there was an unemployment epidemic.
The economic disaster had a massive impact on football. Dortmund held out a bit longer than their neighbours -- in 1966, the club won the European Cup Winners' Cup and only very narrowly missed out on the Bundesliga title -- but eventually Borussia fell by the wayside, just like Schalke, Essen, Duisburg, Oberhausen. Suddenly, there were no trophies and titles to which any Ruhr club could aspire. There was just fear. The teams feared relegation, their fans feared the sack.
Within this atmosphere of despair and desperation, doom and gloom, the good-natured sporting rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke might have turned into something much more important, but also more dangerous.
FROM THEN ON, Dortmund-Schalke derbies were never a laughing matter, always intensely fought and usually close affairs. Dortmund spent four years in the second division between 1972-76, Schalke five during the 1980s. Apart from those nine seasons, the two clubs have been at the same level of the league pyramid and there was rarely a really dramatic gulf in quality. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, they were clubs for whom a relegation fight was more likely than a shot at the European places.
Then something unexpected happened: Borussia recaptured their former glory. In the mid-1990s, Dortmund rose to the top again, winning the Bundesliga in 1994-95 and 1995-96 and then, the following season, the Champions League. A fiendishly expensive team suddenly had new rivals -- teams like Bayern and Juventus -- so the derby became almost an afterthought to them, a game like any other.
Schalke, of course, viewed things differently, and the Royal Blues relished spoiling the party as they went into every derby as if there was no tomorrow. This created the bizarre situation that, the better and the richer Dortmund became, the more disastrous were their meetings with Schalke.
Between May 1999 and May 2005, Borussia went winless in 15 consecutive derbies. The highlight for Schalke was a devastating 4-0 triumph in Dortmund in September 2000, a game for which some Borussia fans still haven't forgiven then-coach Matthias Sammer, even though he would win the league 20 months later.
Then came Borussia's fall from grace -- the club's near-bankruptcy in 2005, which was followed by drastic cost-cutting measures and the building of a new team.
Paradoxically, amid turmoil off the pitch, Dortmund's derby form began to improve. Now it was Schalke that aimed for bigger things and couldn't quite understand what the Black and Yellows got all worked up about.
Thus the greatest modern derby for Borussia's fans was the May 2007 match in Dortmund. The hosts, who had been in a battle against relegation until a few weeks earlier, defeated league-leaders Schalke 2-0, a setback from which they never recovered as their hopes of finally winning the Bundesliga were dashed.
AND SO MAYBE history shows it should have been expected that the 146th competitive Revierderby would be dominated by the team in the relegation zone rather than by the Champions League contenders.
Still, the ease with which Dortmund create one great opportunity after the other remains stupefying, almost as much as the fact that they all go begging. With 15 minutes left and still, incredibly, no score, Reus tries another volley which Wellenreuther punches clear.
"This is the story of our season," the man behind me says, his voice now hoarse. "I bet you a fiver we lose 1-0 when they hit us on the break. Or score from a set piece." Seconds later, Aubameyang wraps himself around a defender and pokes the ball past Wellenreuther. Everybody expects the ball to hit the inside of the post and bounce out.
The ball hits the inside of the post and bounces in.
I honestly can't remember the last time I heard such a roar at a football ground. Much had been made in the press of the fact that an unexploded bomb from the Second World War was found next to the ground two days before the game. (Not an unusual occurrence in Dortmund. When the ground was built, no less than 34 British bombs had to be defused.)
It can't have been much more explosive than the reaction to Aubameyang's goal. Plastic glasses filled with beer fly through the air before the heaving, jumping mass of bodies shoves me left and right, while the man behind me keeps pounding my back. It's the sort of madness and mayhem that's become very rare in the modern game, where such packed terraces are all but extinct. Sixty seconds later, Mkhitaryan makes it 2-0 and pandemonium starts all over again.
Dortmund eventually win the game 3-0. Schalke's performance has been so strangely listless that the away fans give their own players a mouthful when the team sheepishly trods over to the north stand to thank them for their support. As I exit, the video screens that are mounted everywhere catch my attention. They all display the same image -- the vulcan salute hand gesture.
It's Feb. 28, the day after Leonard Nimoy's death. The text below the image loosely translates as "party long and peacefully." Everyone heeds the call.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.