Schalke 04 v Bayer Leverkusen
They looked massively uneasy with the 5-3-2 and Huntelaar was frequently isolated. When you have a centre forward like that, 50-yard crosses from left back are not getting the best out of him.
I had been looking forward to this game for weeks. This stadium was in my ‘top 5’ to visit. I remember feeling pretty upbeat about it just after I finished my previous article, on the Monday night. And then it started. Bit by bit, cell by cell, I became more unwell until on Thursday evening, I fell asleep on the couch about 1830 and that was me for the night. On Friday, I was too unwell to work. I felt guilty but nonetheless completely justified as I could barely move thanks to whatever unwelcome pathogen that had infected me. It was only later that day that it hit me. What if I’m too ill to go to the football? Surely not? Surely a well-timed recovery was around the corner?
Saturday morning came and a decision had to be made. The fact that I was able to get up and shower and have breakfast said to me that I was fit enough to go. The easy option would’ve been to watch the Six Nations Super Saturday from the comfort of my couch. But no, tired or not, the VELTINS-Arena (originally ‘Arena auf-Schalke until naming rights kicked in) it was for the football. I set the Sat Nav, dropped the kids off, and put the foot down. That’s right, driving. The evening kick off meant that taking trains would have involved staying over and I really didn’t feel up for that. Geoffrey, my gentrified guide for the journey, swirled the marbles around his molars and informed me that in 2hrs 24 minutes, I would reach my destination. I derive illogical enjoyment from arriving earlier than Geoffrey’s conservative prediction, so I battered down the motorway past Leuven, Genk, Venlo until I came to Duisburg where the Teutonic tarmac was being freshly applied, resulting in lane closure and massive queues. However, after much rage, the traffic dispersed until I approached the stadium, despite my relative lateness.
It doesn’t have the character of de Kuip, or the raw nature of Borussia Monchengladbach, and from the outside it is a prism of blandness. Yet, once inside, in view of the pitch, it has a weird wonderfulness that can’t quite be explained.
Having read that there are 14000 parking spaces at the stadium, I nonchalantly expected to have my pick of spaces 2 hrs before kick off. Having had to drive past 4 full car parks, my optimism gave way to incredulity. However, Parking C2 had space (as opposed to spaces) and I pulled up on a muddy patch where there once was grass. In winter, I expect that 4-wheel drive is essential to get back out. You can’t really see the stadium and it feels more like you’ve come to open your boot and offload some unwanted bric-a-brac. However, after traversing the field/car park, and navigating an unfeasibly narrow lane, the stadium appears. It looks more like an off-motorway office building constructed from glass and steel. Certainly, unlikely to be mistaken for a football stadium. However, the beer, bratwurst and endless sea of Schalke fans confirmed that I wasn’t here for a seminar on spreadsheets. There is no nearby ‘community’ or amenities other than those that relate directly to the stadium.
Anyway, after bratwursting up at a little stall (no beer today), I went to collect my home team scarf. Approaching the stall, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the German word for scarf. Bizarrely, and I put this down to illness, I thought it would be more acceptable to ask for the scarf in English but using a Dutch accent. So I asked for the ‘shecond shcarf from the right’, handed over my 12 euros, before disappearing in shame towards the turnstile.
There were people frisking beyond the turnstiles in addition to an airportesque metal detector that some people were asked to pass through. After it became clear that the only thing I could threaten was credibility, I was allowed to advance up to the entrance towards the stairs. There are loads of cafes, stalls, shops and even a casino that can be entered from the perimeter of the arena. I decided that it would be prudent to investigate the toilets and find my seat. The toilets themselves were more than adequate and had clearly been cleaned in the recent past. There were plenty of food and drink counters in the concourse around the toilets but I didn’t partake, partly because of the token system and also because I wasn’t really up for it. Anyway, I sauntered up to the door to entrance 29 and walked through. A genuine wow moment.
On first glance, it really is impressive. The whole thing is a marvel. The roof (partially opened), the stands, the terracing, the bizarre TV hanging from above and the floodlit pitch all come together phenomenally. I found my seat, but went for a nosey to see how many were in the lower section of the Nordkurve, just below me. The photos below really don’t do it justice. Except around the corners it was pretty rammed, 70 minutes before kick-off. The sound quality and the TV are incredible – you can see why AC/DC are playing here in July. The small things in the back of the chairs in the lower photos are words to some of the songs, and each song has its own QR code that you can scan.
The seats are comfortable enough, and not a cushion cover in sight. Despite the bar encroaching slightly on your line of vision to the TV for the very back rows, you’d be hard pushed to ever kick a football anywhere near high enough for it to really matter. I got my ticket for 31€ through the ticket-borse (website below) the club run – it arrived at my house in Belgium 3-4 days after it was ordered. Again, you need to register as a user, but it is minimal hassle, especially if you set your browser to auto-translate. I always try to be as high as possible for a vantage point of the fans and the game, yet as close as possible to the noise.
The pre-match warm up ritual was entertaining. The cameras focus on the amazing ‘mine shaft’ tunnel and, as the players come out, music blasts over the PA. ‘Ballroom Blitz’ for the goalkeepers and ‘Rockin all over the World’ for the rest of the squad with the team line-up set alongside ‘Back in Black’. This set off the wavers of oversized flags pitchside and was a cue for the Nordkurve to start singing. The majority of fans arrived in their seats 15 minutes or so before kick-off and everybody seemed to know everybody else, in spite of the size of the stadium (61,988 capacity). Warm-up and pre-match photos are just below. The game was a sell-out, as most of the home Schalke games are.
The fans were in good voice but it did feel fairly contained and pessimistic, in spite of winning at Real Madrid just 10 days earlier. Most of the fans songs are pretty easy to pick up – they all contain the words ‘Schalke’, ‘null’ and ‘vier’. The official club ‘marches’ can be heard on the video links at the end of the article.
The fans were very excited to see Jefferson Farfan back in the matchday squad after a long layoff due to injury. Schalke were missing Howedes, their captain and centre-half, and it’s fair to say they missed him. Julian Draxler was not in the squad as he had a long-term injury. Otherwise, Huntelaar was fit – as was Football Manager (and real life) wonderkid Max Meyer, as well as Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta, who is a descendant of the Native American ‘Peaceful Hairstyle’. I had seen Leverkusen a year previously, at home, under Sami Hyppia, so I was interested to see how different they would be under current manager Roger Schmidt. They had just been eliminated from the last 16 of the champions league after 120 minutes against Atletico Madrid, so would they be tired?
Schalke started off very brightly and proceeded to spurn a glorious chance after 3 minutes. And that was as good as they got. They looked massively uneasy with the 5-3-2 and Huntelaar was frequently isolated. When you have a centre forward like that, 50-yard crosses from left back are not getting the best out of him. On the other hand, Leverkusen as a team were far greater than the sum of their parts and, to be honest, should have won by more. They played disciplined, drilled and effective counter-attacking football. In Kiessling and Rolfes, they had the game’s dominant players and were well worth their victory. Karim Bellarbi’s goal after 35 minutes was the least they deserved. Schalke only looked dangerous once Farfan came on in the last 15 minutes and played as an out-and-out winger. Di Matteo will need to find a better formula. However, with Draxler and Farfan coming back, the discovery of Meyer and a potent goalscorer like Huntelaar, they have plenty of firepower. That said, the aptly named descendant of Peaceful Hairstyle ought to look a little less Tranquilized if he is to make an impact.
At the end of the game, there were no complaints from the Schalke fans. They were handed their cushion-less backsides, and most of them toddled off quietly. Some fans however decided to stay and finish their beers. And why not? I can’t imagine there are too many watering holes nearby that can rival the setting or the comfort. Leaving the stadium itself was very easy but the path to the car parks is mobbed and is essentially a human queue. All in all, I would say that this is probably the finest stadium I have ever visited. It doesn’t have the character of de Kuip, or the raw nature of Borussia Monchengladbach, and from the outside it is a prism of blandness. Yet, once inside, in view of the pitch, it has a weird wonderfulness that can’t quite be explained.
Next time I come to Schalke, and there will be a next time, I will probably take the train, check out Gelsenkirchen, and have a few beers. If you are planning on making a night of it, staying in the city itself might be better than one of the hotels surrounding the stadium as it isn’t much to look at from the outside and there’s not much else around. But come nevertheless, and enjoy beer and ‘null vier’.
Overall Ratings: (out of 5)
- Quality of match: ****
- Stadium character: ***** (inside) ** (outside)
- Stadium atmosphere: ****
- Hospitality: *****
- Ease of access: *****
- Things to do around the stadium: **
- Overall: ****
http://www.s04-ticketboerse.de/fansale/ – where to get your tickets from if you are not a Schalke member.
http://www.schalke04.de/en/stadium-and-tickets/veltins-arena/getting-there/page/69–66–.html – Useful info for getting there and parking