One of the most fascinating things about football is how some clubs manage to succeed in making an improbable failure probable. Every league has its own underachiever that has failure encoded in its DNA. Inter Milan in Serie A (despite their three consecutive Scudettos that might be just another blip, which has been the norm with Inter, in their normal curriculum of misfortune and disappointment as their biggest rivals Juventus and Milan reassemble their strength after the calciopoli scandal) have always been a club that is renowned for their ability to collapse in the sight of success. In La Liga Atletico Madrid has made failing such a prevailing feature in their nature that the identity of Atletico’s fans is largely based on the club’s legacy of failure and the numerous glorious defeats suffered against derby rivals Real Madrid (it is even said that the fans are more at ease when things are going badly and, funnily enough, are slightly distressed when they are succeeding). In the Premier League Tottenham and Newcastle are the obvious picks for the teams that always excel in stretching their muscles and heralding their greatness right up until the season begins. However, of all the teams that persistently continue to unimpress against the odds, Schalke in the Bundesliga is perhaps the one that manages to do this most consistently. Schalke have all the qualities of a great success story in being unsuccessful. It’s a big club with a fanatic fan base and has the financial muscle to be noticed. It is also almost always a pretender for the title but even at their very best, they only get close enough to see it, smell it but never get to touch it.
It is intriguing what makes these teams what they are. One would think that in the commercialised and market driven football of today, anyone with enough banknotes could just dump truckloads of bank notes around, bring in the big players and just take the title. However, as in life, also in football, money doesn’t bring you happiness, although it obviously helps. This is what still (even in the disgraceful and soulless Premiership of today) gives club football some of its charm (although, in a kind perverted way, but we have to take what we can). Inter Milan, for instance, has always been one of the big clubs in Italy, with probably the most money, but still has had only sporadic eras of real success.
So what is it then that makes these teams fail miserably as a rule? Players and managers, Directors and presidents come and go, even the fans change through the natural course of life, but still throughout the decades and structural changes they maintain their tradition of failure. One might argue that it’s the lack of patience and consistency that usually characterises the administration of these clubs that is the cause of their distress. Another would point the finger at bad transfers and the unbalance of the teams that try to drown their misery with money. Of course these things have an effect but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. How else can it be explained that fantastic players turn from demigods into mortals and successful managers crumble in an atmosphere that is soiled with the heavy weight of defeat? There has to be more. History and past matter. The tradition of failure is as if engraved in the clubs’ being, always reminding them of this flaw. To put this more plainly, this tradition passes from generation to generation among supporters. The history is echoed in the football press that does not fail to remind of it. The players know it, the managers know it and everyone working for the club knows it. All this then gathers to form a second nature for the club, a kind of a subconscious, that is dormant, even when things are going well, but ready to take control at the first sign of trouble. One only has to think of Inter and their 2002-2003 season when they lost the title in the last game of the season and also their 2007-2008 campaign when they were close to giving away another certain Serie A trophy, that had probably been engraved with the club’s name several weeks earlier, in the final match of the season after a bad spell of results. They were only rescued by the individual skills of Zlatan Ibrahimovic who scored two goals in the second half against Parma. If the season had continued for another week or two, they would most likely have bottled it again.
A week ago on Saturday Schalke again showed their talent in turning a certain victory into a horrible draw away to their most bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund in the Ruhr derby. The statistics in themselves tell an incomprehensible tale. With less than 25 minutes to go Schalke were cruising into an empathic 3-0 victory against a lacklustre Dortmund side that hadn’t shown any signs of drive during the whole match. Schalke, who had started the season surprisingly well, hadn’t dazzled either but with their monotonously efficient football they were showing the signs of a team ready for a proper title fight this time around. The derby was beginning to look like one of the most glorious victories for the team in blue and maybe the most humiliating for the home side. The Schalke striker, Kevin Kuranyi, who constantly continues to deceive of being more than an average player, could even fail to make it 4-0 from a chance from which it was easier to score than to miss. But what happened next. On the 67th minute Dortmund drew one back: 1-3. Surely, the fans must have thought, this would simply be an insignificant flaw in the score line which wouldn’t really matter in the face of Schalke’s domination. Well, they soon found out that they would have to think again. The, so far, imposing Schalke defence visibly started to loose their confidence as the all too familiar sensation of ‘what if it all happens again’ began to seep in the minds of the players. And until they knew what had happened, Alexander Frei, making his first appearance since his dramatic injury in the opening match of Euro 2008, struck a perfect shot from outside the area that curled into the far top corner of the net with an inevitability that served to emphasise the probable improbability of Schalke’s fall even further. The goal unleashed a full scale panic in the Schalke ranks. The started to loose possession and draw back towards their own goal. The team that had seemed so assured had disintegrated into pieces. Stupidity often goes hand in hand with failure in professional sports and Schalke were determined in trying to make stupidity into a virtue. First Christian Pander took two yellows in the space of five minutes. And then Fabian Ernst, who is known for his hard edge but also of his diehard professionalism, apparently didn’t want Pander to be the only one challenging Bayern’s Mark Van Bommel for the season’s idiocy award, by taking a red card for a foul that defies all forms of reason, not only because of its recklessness, but because it happened just three minutes after Pander’s dismissal. In the space of ten minutes Schalke had not only thrown away a 3-0 lead by conceding two goals but also had given the referee no choice but to throw out two of their players. With still almost fifteen minutes to go and Schalke desperately hanging on with two men down, it seemed Schalke were doomed. But after the second dismissal, Dortmund somehow lost their steam. They kept possession but didn’t seem to pose any threat. As the clock was almost drawing on the ninetieth minute, Schalke players must have though they would actually hang on. At this point, the only thing the players were waiting was to hear the referee blow the final whistle. The whistle was indeed blown but not to signal the end of the mach but to give a highly controversial penalty to Dortmund for a hand ball. Schalke couldn’t believe it. Frei planted to ball on the spot. Took a few steps back and coolly slotted the ball past the Schalke keeper, Ralf Fährmann. The referee blew the final whistle. Schalke had done it again. They have a strong case to complain about the penalty and Dortmund can count them fortunate but the fact remains that you have to earn your luck. And with another self-imposed comic failure, Schalke showed how much they have to do on that department. If Scahlke wasn’t so unsympathetic, I would actually like them.
Among the delirium of the Dortmund players, staff and their supporters there was a player who must have had a weight lifted off his heart. To play in a Ruhr derby is always an emotional occasion and to score two goals to pull your team away from the jaws of certain defeat will never be forgotten by the fans. Nevertheless, all this must have been secondary for the man of the hour, Alexander Frei. One of the most unforgettable and regrettable moments in last summer’s Euro finals was the image of Alex Frei in tears after getting injured in the first half of the opening match. To be the captain of your national team in a major tournament played in your home country would be the high point of a career for any player. For the unlucky Frei, who had returned from injury just in time for the finals, the climax was over before it had even properly begun. Frei not only suffered partially ruptured knee ligaments but left the pitch of St Jakob Park with a broken heart.
By scoring two goal on his return Frei made himself a legend with the Dortmund faithful, if he already wasn’t one. However, when it comes down to matters of the heart, something that is broken cannot be repaired but the Saturday must have exorcised some of the pain. This emotional subplot well matches the dramatic proportions of the epic failure of Schalke and made the match an unforgettable classic among the always interesting Ruhr derbies.