On Nov. 25, 2017, I had a spring in my step while making the reassuringly familiar, brisk walk from the Westfalenhallen S-Bahn rail station past the numerous bratwurst vendors, to my favourite football stadium: the Signal Iduna Park, or the Westfalenstadion, as Borussia Dortmund fans still refer to it.
The German Football League (DFL) had, for a second year running, assigned me to commentate for the world TV feed on the fixture that really matters in Germany’s bustling industrial west, and my heart was aflutter. To me, there’s nothing in world club football that beats it. Quite simply, Dortmund vs. Schalke is die Mutter aller Derbys (the “mother of all derbies”) and carries a resonance that’s sometimes difficult to convey to fleeting observers of German football.
Germany, unlike England, is a country without a significant culture of city derbies. The big cities tend to have one major club that serves as a focal point for local fans. Other clubs exist, of course, but their reach tends to be smaller. So the best derbies involve rival communities in close proximity to each other — in this case the cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, which are separated by 20 miles of densely populated Westfalen territory.
A Revierderby refers generally to a neighbourly meeting of two clubs from the heavily industrialised Ruhr district, but this is THE Revierderby. The Dortmund-Schalke rivalry carries echoes of a hardworking past. It’s mined from coal and forged from steel, and every game serves as a poignant reminder of Bundesliga meetings past. Here are just some of the memories:
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In September 1969, Schalke defender Friedel Rausch was bitten on the backside by an Alsatian police dog called Rex as fans stormed the pitch at Dortmund’s old Rote Erde, which adjoins the modern-day stadium. It followed a goal for the Royal Blues, and Rausch carried on to complete the 90 minutes, but only after receiving a tetanus shot. He had to sleep on his stomach for two nights.
In December 1997, just six months after both clubs lifted European trophies, Schalke’s Jens Lehmann headed home an injury-time equaliser for 2-2, thus becoming the first goalkeeper to score from open play in Bundesliga history. Five years later, Lehmann would win his solitary Bundesliga title — albeit as a Dortmund player.
Schalke had a real chance of winning the Meisterschale in 2007. It would have been their first since the formation of the new league in 1963. But naturally, on the penultimate matchday they ran into their great Ruhr rivals, who, with little to play for other than spoiling the party, sent Schalke packing with a resounding and haunting 2-0 defeat.
Let’s go back to the November 2017 meeting I mentioned earlier. I was on air in Dortmund that day with Steffen Freund, a superb companion at the best of times, but especially valuable on Revierderby days given his considerable experience of playing for both clubs.
Steffen and I could hardly believe our eyes as Dortmund, in a rampant mood, reeled off four first-half goals without reply. But the second half saw Schalke produce the best comeback I’ve ever commentated on in a major fixture, coming back to level it at the death thanks to Brazilian defender Naldo’s injury time header. This week I revisited what I said from the commentary position in the heat of a remarkable that day. “Naldooooo … 4-4 … THIS is why they call it the mother of all derbies!” My eyes were just about popping out of my head as I incredulously barked out the words.
The fixture has a way of delivering excitement against the grain of expectations. The following season, Steffen and I were back in Dortmund for another derby, this time near the end of the campaign. BVB still entertained title hopes while having little margin for error. Schalke, off form, needed all their time to stave off relegation. Greeting us pitchside as we filmed our on camera stand-up, Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc had that derby look in his eye. He knew from experience that nothing could be taken for granted. Schalke, despite being 42 points behind the Schwarzgelben, prevailed 4-2, effectively saving themselves and consigning Dortmund to another season of near-misses.
It’s important to talk about the “Ruhrpott” fans, with their distinctive gruff but enchanting humour, because they are the ones who make this rivalry special. BVB and Schalke fans actually have much in common as fellow residents of what I see as the most vibrant football area in Germany — the country’s beating heart of passion. It’s often known as Luedenscheid-Nord (Dortmund) vs. Herne-West (Schalke), reflecting the desire by both sets of fans not to even acknowledge the existence of the other club. Dortmund is technically to the north of the former, while Gelsenkirchen lies to the west of the latter.
Only 300 fans will be allowed to attend the 97th edition of the rivalry on Saturday (LIVE at 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+), and that is right as new coronavirus infection numbers climb abruptly across Westfalen. But consider what a group of around 80 Schalke “Ultras” did outside the Veltins Arena after last week’s 1-1 draw with Union Berlin. It was Schalke’s first point of the season but the fact remains, they have now gone 20 Bundesliga matches without a win, stretching back to January.
It’s traditional for teams to face their fans postgame in good times as well as bad. These were the words that emanated from the Schalke fans’ spokesman out of a loudspeaker. It tells you everything about how much Saturday means.
“That was OK today, but for the derby you must put a few more percent into it. The derby is the most important game of the year. You go out and give it everything. You can lose the game, but it’s a matter of how. If you don’t show at least what you did today, we’ll see each other again. Then it won’t be quite as peaceful though. Got it? Two hundred percent from everyone! For Schalke! Let’s go!”
The statement was followed by loud applause.
Borussia Dortmund made heavy weather of their initial Champions League assignment on Tuesday in Rome against Lazio, losing 3-1. But they are huge favourites to beat Schalke, while knowing that actually doing it can present considerable challenges. In 96 previous Bundesliga encounters, BVB have 34 wins, Schalke 32, with a draw often a good pick given that there have been 30 of them down the years.
I’ve often said, if in the hopefully very distant future, I were given the chance to pick a commentary match to bow out on, it would be the Revierderby. For now, I long for the time when I can return to the glorious Ruhrpott, chat again about the state of BVB and Schalke with fans of both while munching on currywurst and sipping a Pilsener.
The realist in me knows, bearing in mind the pandemic, it could be a long time. But mentally this weekend, I will be transported back to Dortmund.
Long live the Revierderby.