It had to be there, at the Parkstadion. Schalke’s old ground had always been a place of drama and scandal. Its final act was no different.
For 38 years it was home. It had seen many crucial games, it had seen relegation to the second tier. There were times when “there wasn’t enough money for washing powder”, as Charly Neumann, long-standing team official and soul of the club, once said. There were times when paper beer cups filled with rainwater on the crumbling, never-ending steps below the high-rise floodlight masts.
On one block, the ‘Nordkurve’, a wild part of the stadium, stood ‘the Wren’, a man with a grey beard and long hair. “I always stood there,” he said. “Beside me children grew up. Then they stood with their own children.”
The final match played at the old Parkstadion was one of the most dramatic in German football history.
For Schalke fans, that afternoon will be discussed forever; their life stories intersect at this point. Everyone remembers the four minutes and 38 seconds when they were champions.
19 May, 2001, 15:25
It was the stadium’s very last game before closing. A brand new modern arena awaited for Schalke, who were battling with Bayern Munich to be crowned German champions.
Schalke had never won the Bundesliga – not once since the league’s formation in 1963. But the beauty of that title could now at last be theirs on the season’s final day. They were three points behind their rivals, but with a better goal difference.
The tabloids had labelled the week before the “seven-second death”. Schalke had topped the table by winning in Stuttgart in the last minute. Seven seconds later Munich scored against Kaiserslautern to seal their own victory.
Beauty had given them the brush-off. On the final day, though, the Schalke fans still hoped. The sun was beating down, and you couldn’t tell whether faces were red with the strain or the heat. Officially there were 65,000 spectators, but anyone who believes that figure can’t have been there. The dusty coliseum was more than full and something was in the air.
General manager Rudi Assauer – not for nothing known as the ‘German league’s last macho man’ – had become melancholic. He stood in the dugout, a cigar in one hand, wiping tears from his cheeks with the other. Radio reporter Manni Breuckmann sat down for the last time in the place where he had commentated for so many years. “I felt a relaxed atmosphere,” he remembers. “There was no indication of the drama still to happen.”
A crazy first half ended. Opponents Unterhaching went 2-0 up after 27 minutes, but Schalke dragged it back to 2-2.
“What was wrong?” fans asked themselves at the beer stands during the break. Some started to sing: “Sergej Barbarez! Schalalala!” The Hamburg forward had 21 goals for the season and Schalke hopes now rested on another from him against Munich. But in Hamburg it was 0-0 at half-time. Everything pointed to another title for the Bavarians.
On TV, an interviewer asked Assauer: “Do you want to congratulate Bayern on the title already?”
He answered: “No. Anything can still happen in football.”
By the 73rd minute the Parkstadion was quiet. Unterhaching were now in front again, 3-2, and the title seemed to be gone.
From 20 yards out, Jorg Bohme placed the ball down for a Schalke free-kick, faced by a seven-man wall. His strike slid beneath the jumping defenders: 3-3.
Eighty seconds later, the player known as ‘the madman’ was in on goal again. Clear through, he feinted to shoot, the keeper went to his knees and Bohme lifted the ball deftly into the corner. The fans rejoiced, climbing on the fences, their chants ringing out again. They were 4-3 up.
Then, in the 90th minute, it was 5-3. Striker Ebbe Sand beat on a fan’s drum. Fellow forward Emile Mpenza kissed the club crest. Now “HSV, HSV, HSV!” resounded around the ground. Former player Andreas Muller ran through the main stand wearing a Hamburg shirt.
“I had a feeling it would happen,” he said. His premonition seemed to be right. Suddenly a stadium announcement boomed out.
Something was going on in Hamburg.
People writhed like landed fish. Heads turned in every direction. Isolated cheers were heard. Those with radios held them close and didn’t let go. A mass of at least 80,000 spectators surged back and forth, a mix of those who knew something and those who didn’t believe what was spreading around the ground.
In the north stand somebody stood with a mobile phone to his ear. Fans beseeched him: “What’s going on there?” He pressed his lips together, eyes glassy, and almost whispered: “1-0 to Hamburg. It’s true.”
Sergej Barbarez had put the home side ahead in the 90th minute. The whispers became louder by the second, a spreading wildfire. After a while the isolated cheers became one huge collective scream. The Parkstadion knew it: Schalke 04 would be the German champions.
As hope turned to certainty, the scene imploded. Cheering fans rolled down the steps in the south stand and pressed against the fences. People held their heads with shaking hands. It was a mixture of trance and hysteria. They felt so close to the sun; it was the moment the Ancient Greeks called kairos.
Thomas Spiegel, an office employee, said: “People felt like the the stadium wobbled. It was like a gateway to nirvana.”
Spiegel’s friend Michael Knicker jumped on him, legs and arms in the air, and Knicker remembered a conversation they had had before the game.
“I had said this morning to God: If we become champions, he can take me.” But what had sounded flippant felt much too serious now for a man who had suffered a heart attack the previous year.
“I hope God does not stick to the arrangement,” the friends now thought as they stared at the television in the press area showing the game in Hamburg.
“I was paralysed,” said Spiegel. “I stammered three words over and over like an insane man: Stop the game! Stop the game! Stop the game!”
Schalke coach Huub Stevens waved an admonishing hand in front of the dugout where full-back Nico van Kerckhoven was performing chin-ups. He sent the players to the changing rooms, but some stayed on the pitch together with Assauer, Muller and board member Jurgen W Mollemann.
Now thousands in the stadium hung on the words of two men, one seated right among them. “The game in Schalke is over. We wait for release,” said commentator Breuckmann.
A false rumour began that the Hamburg match had already ended. Over and over again Breuckmann got up to tell people to calm down. “It did no good,” he said. “Nobody got it. In Hamburg they were still playing and I was the only one around me who knew. It was an absurd situation.”
Word of the match finishing in Hamburg came several times. Shortly after the final whistle in Schalke some were already saying the game in Hamburg had finished. But Assauer shouted to Van Kerckhoven: “It’s not over yet!”
The general manager had become the barometer for most onlookers. Quickly everything calmed down. Then came his next gesture. Assauer was informed again that play in Hamburg had now in fact ended, and he thrashed out an arm, like a boxer throwing an uppercut.
Beside him midfielder Jiri Nemec smiled. For the Czech, this amounted to an unbelievable emotional outburst. Fireworks began, planned in celebration of the stadium’s final match, but even their blast was overwhelmed by the noise of the fans. They stormed the place. The rumour could not be contained any more.
At exactly this moment, a flicker appeared on the giant video screen above the south stand. It should have started directly after the final whistle in Gelsenkirchen, but there had been a technical fault. Now the last minutes from Hamburg were being broadcast live in the stadium.
It could not stop the insanity. Many assumed it was a replay. Pitchside reporter Rolf Fuhrmann congratulated Muller on the championship, as behind them the play in Hamburg continued on screen.
“I don’t know how it stands,” said Muller. “It’s ended in Hamburg, you are champions!” replied Fuhrmann. Muller was handed an oversized beer glass.
“Every time I have met Fuhrmann afterwards, he has apologised to me, he was very sorry,” Muller would later remark. Parts of the stadium celebrated the title, others looked to the screen – and realised it was not a replay.
One fan said it was “like watching your own burial”. Goalkeeper Oliver Reck lay under the table in the dressing room where the players were following the end of the game.
“Something will still happen,” he said to Muller. “I know it. Oh God.”
When captain Tomasz Waldoch made to go and speak to the media, Reck held his arm. “Tommy, it is not over yet.”
It was from an indirect free-kick, inside the box. The ball was laid off and Patrick Andersson thrashed it home to make it 1-1, in the 94th minute. Bayern were champions.
In the south stand in Gelsenkirchen an old man slumped: “I just wanted to be champions – once.”
Assauer reeled in the direction of the tunnel. On the pitch, many fans broke down, howling, others lacked the strength to cry. The plug had been pulled. Silence descended on the stadium. The only sound was the continued blasts of the fireworks, like the orchestra playing as the Titanic sank.
The author Steffen Kopetzky, himself a Bayern Munich supporter, later wrote for Die Zeit: “As a Bayern fan, I never felt more lonely and desperate than at this moment.”
On the pitch, fans were in mourning. In the changing rooms, Sand had collapsed into himself. He slumped on the floor as bottles and chairs flew past him. “Benches, doors, televisions – nothing remained. Luckily nobody sent us the bill,” said defender Marco van Hoogdalem.
Forward Youri Mulder laughed without meaning to. “Sometimes cyclists laugh when speeding downhill because they are so nervous and have no control of their emotions. That’s just how I felt at this moment.”
Bohme lit a cigarette. Assauer and Stevens tried unsuccessfully to comfort the players. Minutes later in the press conference, Assauer said: “Do not tell me any more that footballers are ice-cold.” Then came his oft-quoted line: “I have lost faith in the god of football.”
Stevens’ face went hard as he called the team together, congratulating them on what they had achieved that season and reminding them that the following Saturday they still had a trophy to play for, in the German Cup final.
Then he sent them out, to the fans who remained on the pitch. One supporter shouted in the silence, a simple cry: “Schaaaaaalke!” As he repeated it again and again, more and more joined in. The team stood as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was played, and Stevens finally lost the fight to hold back his tears.
Later, around 200 fans were still there milling around; they simply couldn’t go home. Assauer stepped out from his office on to the balcony and delivered a blazing speech. On the Monday morning 15,000 supporters showed up to the last training session before the cup final.
The next Saturday, Schalke beat Union Berlin 2-0 to claim the German Cup. And in the Schalke section of Berlin’s Olympic stadium, a banner read: “Everything will be fine.”
Schalke remain without a Bundesliga title – and this season finished bottom. They were last crowned national champions in 1958.
Following the events of 2001, club stalwart Neumann said: “I hope God lets me take the championship trophy to our stadium one more time.”
In 2007, as Schalke missed out on the title again, this time by losing a decisive match with arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, Neumann, who was then aged 85 and seriously ill, insisted he be taken to the Schalke fans’ section.
First quietly, then louder, the chant grew around the stand. The fans sang for several minutes: “Charly, Charly.” Neumann died on 11 November 2008, his final prayer unfulfilled.