On the BBC’s iconic World Football Phone-in, the experts are often asked by British fans whether there’s an equivalent to their favourite team that they should root for in another country. Newcastle fans are given a list of big clubs that put a fervent fanbase through hell; Manchester City fans tend to be sent in the direction of Paris St. Germain; Shrewsbury fans get directed to clubs with serpents in their badges.
It seems to me that Schalke 04 are deliberately making a pitch to be the favourite European team of every Wrexham fan!
Their coup de grâce came after the signing of Welsh prodigy Rabbi Matondo from Manchester City. Their USA-based Twitter account immediately launched a #DailyWelsh campaign, teaching their fans a Welsh word a day.
It was a neat move which struck a chord with plenty of Wrexham fans, but hardly the only point of interest Schalke hold for us.
Schalke’s background lies in mining. Their nickname, “Die Knappen”, is an old German word for miners, and it stuck because in the early days of the club most of their members and players were drawn from the collieries of Gelsenkirchen.
Like North Wales, that tradition has sadly diminished. The excellent work of the North Wales Miners Association Trust keeps the memory of mining alive in the region, and the club’s commemoration of the Gresford disaster has a more meaningful feel to it than the civic memorial, scandalously erected nearly fifty years after the disaster occurred.
Mining in the Ruhr has been the engine behind Germany’s most important industrial region, but sadly the last mine closed in December. Schalke, like Wrexham, understood the need to speak to their community, and did so with a remarkable pre-match tribute to the mining industry and those who devoted their lives to it.
Schalke is a club rooted in its surroundings in a time when so many of their rivals are eagerly franchising themselves out around the world and turning themselves into multi-nationals. They’re not naïve – teaching a Welsh word a day is, of course, a cute outreach to fans from another country – but you could never accuse Schalke of forgetting that the essence of their identity lies in the fundamentals that define the region and shaped the club: mining; hard toil; and their rivalry with Borussia Dortmund.
Ah, that rivalry! Wrexham fans can surely associate with that too: just as we are tied in a bond of antagonism with Chester, the Revierderby is the spiciest duel in the Bundesliga, and a key defining element in the identities of two passionate clubs.
When Schalke unveiled their remarkable players’ tunnel a couple of seasons ago, it could have appeared to be a tacky stunt. A tunnel designed to look like the inside of a mineshaft is a remarkably bold idea, but it has been beautifully executed, and is a true reflection of the regional identity and unbreakable link with their past and their people that makes Schalke what they are. While Wrexham fans are angered by clubs like Salford City, who look to vault over the National League and claim a place in the Football League by spending beyond the division’s means, Schalke subscribe to the German ownership model which offers fans a voice when other Bundesliga clubs, owned by sugar-stacked drinks companies, car manufacturers and pharmaceutical giants, try to circumvent them.
We’ve a lot in common with Schalke. No need to call the World Football Phone-in for advice, then.