End of the Line: Schalke 04

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

How can a professional soccer team go from being in the top 20 of the richest in the world to the one that is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy- all within one year’s time?  This is the question that the soccer team Schalke 04 is trying to answer.  Yet with each answer comes more questions, some of which include the roles of Covid-19, management, the main sponsor GasProm, the hangover after many seasons playing in the UEFA Champions League and lastly, the decline in the number of fans.

All of this came to a head on Tuesday, as the team lost to Arminia Bielefeld 1-0, thus securing their first exit out of the top tier of the German soccer Bundesliga for the first time in three decades. Thanks to FC Cologne’s 2-1 upset of RB Leipzig that same evening, Schalke, with only 13 points in the standings, will spend the remaining four games of the 2020-21 season in last place.  This was enough for fans to attack the players after the game, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The team, located in Gelsenkirchen, accross the River Rhine from Cologne, will definitely be in the top ten of the worst teams in the history of German professional soccer. It will definitely not top Tasmania Berlin, whose disasterous 1965/66 season and the all-time records are well out of reach (see the bottom ten compiled by NDR here), but it is right in range to overtake Wuppertal SV for its poorest showing in 1974/75 on all accounts, which would make them the second worst team in a season on record! . Given their performance this season, that is almost a sure lock.

What will be interesting is the future of Schalke 04 once this season is over. They will have half the revenue for the second league, yet their finances as a whole, especially in light of Covid-19 combined with substantial debt, could make them vulnerable to bankruptcy, which could ultimatively doom them from professional play. And the trend is not on their side, when looking at the Bottom 10 teams and their records, plus the current trends.  The average amount of time needed to return to the top tier has been five years if the finances and sponsors are available, and the team can recover.  Others, like Dynamo Dresden, TeBe Berlin and even though it has avoided any of these records, Hamburger SV, have yet to return to premier play.  There is the danger that if Schalke goes into receivership, it could end up reorganizing and starting from the very bottom of the German soccer chain or in the case of VfL Leipzig, dissolve and reincarnate as other teams. Should this happen, then the soccer team with its 117-year tradition would be the oldest to fall from grace and into Dante’s inferno, this shaking the soccer world beyond Germany’s borders.

Schalke 04’s fall from grace should force the soccer federation DFB and all its members in the top 3 leagues, plus the women’s division to take stock in their liquidity, their players and staff and lastly the fans and consider reforming the system from the bottom up to ensure that what Schalke 04 is facing will not be repeated by the other teams. How this is done should be discussed once the last second of the last game of the season is ticked. With German soccer on the decline, even when looking at the German national team under Joachim Löw, reforms are well past due to ensure that soccer remains part of the country’s culture.