GELSENKIRCHEN — Schalke is coming back to the Bundesliga after a year of transformation on and off the field.
A humiliating relegation from the top division forced one of Germany’s traditional giants to rebuild its team. Then came the war in Ukraine and Schalke cut ties with the Russian state gas company Gazprom, the financial fuel for some of its greatest successes, leaving the club facing an uncertain future.
Schalke’s late surge for promotion this season was mirrored in the game Saturday which secured its return to the Bundesliga. Schalke was down 2-0 at halftime against promotion rival St. Pauli but recovered to win 3-2.
“I have huge respect for this group, how they stepped up. Incredible,” said coach Mike Buskens, himself a Schalke great for winning the UEFA Cup as a player in 1997. “You’re dumped unceremoniously out of the division, you have no team. And then a group develops where everyone is prepared to believe in the others, to give it their all, and I have to say, the guys earned it.”
A shadow was cast over the festivities when fans were injured in crushes and falls as thousands pushed forward onto the field. Police said Monday 18 people were hurt, nine of them seriously.
“This pitch invasion could have ended in disaster,” said Peter Both, the senior officer on duty.
In January 2021, Schalke ended a 12-month losing streak one game shy of the all-time Bundesliga record of 31. When relegation was confirmed three months later, fans confronted players and staff, attacking some of them as they left the team bus.
The lack of ticket sales during the coronavirus pandemic caused the club to warn of possible insolvency. Even with a reported 20 million euros ($21 million USD) a year from Gazprom in the top flight, Schalke had been spending beyond its means as it chased glory in the Bundesliga and Champions League, where it last played in 2018-19.
Gazprom sells gas in vast quantities to industrial buyers and countries, not German households, so one of the longest-running and most lucrative sponsorship deals in world soccer was a paradox — what was the advertising really for?
The sponsorship started in 2006 and made locals used to seeing the Russian state company’s logo in Germany’s industrial heartland, which is also an electoral stronghold for the Social Democratic Party, one of the country’s two major political forces. Sideline advertising boards featured the logo of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany which would have extended Gazprom’s control of European markets. That project was suspended shortly before the invasion.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Schalke ended the sponsorship deal with Gazprom and Matthias Warnig, an old friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the board. The new sponsor is a local real estate firm. The new deal isn’t public but is likely worth much less than the Gazprom agreement, which was to run through 2025.
Fans made stickers to cover the Russian company’s logo on their replica shirts, or scrambled 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 arranged game tickets for 100 refugees.
Getting promoted at the first attempt was vital for Schalke in a division packed with teams like Hamburg, Nuremberg and Hannover, which all were once top-flight stalwarts and are now battling against a slow decline after relegation.
Schalke may be on a high for now but the transition back 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 repeatedly struggled in the top league. Leading defender Ko Itakura is a loanee from Manchester City.
First, though, Schalke fans will get to continue the celebrations at Sunday’s last game of the season at Nuremberg.