FC Schalke 04 has one of the largest and most loyal fanbases of any of the German football teams. However, their name is not widely known outside of Europe.
The Bundesliga is just now starting to garner intercontinental recognition, and teams such as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund had the good fortune of being on top at the right time, becoming the teams that most Americans would be able to name if asked to name any of the teams from the Bundesliga.
It is not uncommon for American soccer fans to pledge their loyalties to a European team, as the game is simply much larger and developed in Europe than it is in America. Teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, FC Barcelona and Chelsea F.C. all have considerable recognition in the US, and it is a common sight to see people wearing the jerseys of those teams here in the states.
I too count a European team as my favorite soccer team. However, it is not a Chelsea, Barca or Man United jersey that I proudly wear. It is the königsblau (royal blue) jersey of FC Schalke that hangs in my closet.
The story of how a 20-something-year-old Californian came to be a member of the diehard fanbase of one of Germany's fabled teams highlights what it is that makes European football truly special, on a level that the average American soccer fan just doesn't experience.
My unlikely journey to Schalke fandom started in 2006, when I went to live in northwestern Germany for two years. I moved around several times during those two years, and at different times lived within one hour of six different teams that at the time were in the top division of the Bundesliga: Hamburg SV, Werder Bremen, Hannover 96, VfL Bochum, Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke.
I wasn't simply a tourist, as I became fluent in German and connected with the locals. A big part of local culture in Germany is an almost fanatic level of support for the city's football club, or for the club of wherever you or your parents grew up.
I had six different teams that I could have fallen for, so why Schalke?
I happened to be living in Gelsenkirchen, a city of about 250,000 people in Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley, for most of the 2006-2007 season. FC Schalke is located in Gelsenkirchen (the team is named after one of the boroughs of Gelsenkirchen) and the Veltins-Arena (Schalke's stadium) was located a mere three streetcar stops away from my apartment. I passed by it nearly every day.
Even by German standards, FC Schalke had a special connection with the city and its inhabitants. Gelsenkirchen was formerly one of Germany's top centers of industry, being home to numerous coal mines and oil refineries. During those glory years, FC Schalke also had its period of dominance. Between 1930 and 1945, Schalke won the national title six times.
In the postwar period, much of Gelsenkirchen's industry collapsed and the city had one of Germany's highest unemployment rates for years. Like Gelsenkirchen, Schalke would also fall from its position of glory, as its last national title came in the 1957-58 season.
Both the city and its team would bounce back eventually and today both are stable. There is a term used when referring to Schalke's fans—"leidenschaft"—which directly means "passion," but also contains the word "leiden," which means "to suffer."
The term perfectly captures Schalke's fanbase, as they have remained proud and loyal as their team and their city suffered. That forged a special bond between Schalke and its fans in a way that few American sports teams have. The Chicago Cubs are the closest equivalent that American sports have to Schalke and its fans.
During the 2006-2007 season, however, the city and Schalke fans had reason to cheer. They had just hosted several matches of the 2006 World Cup in the Veltins-Arena. The team spent much of the season on the top of the Bundesliga standings.
I happened to be living in Gelsenkirchen at just the right time, as I got to experience one of Germany's largest, most vocal and longest-suffering fanbases become even more passionate as their team looked to garner its first national title in 50 years.
I fell head-over-heals for the passion of Schalke fans. As I grew to love the city of Gelsenkirchen, I grew to love its team. I felt a special bond to Schalke that I didn't experience with any of the other teams that I lived near during my two years in Germany.
To this day, I can still remember the on-pitch exploits of Schalke's key players at the time such as Kevin Kuranyi, Marcelo Bordon, Rafinha, Fabian Ernst, Hamit and Halil Altintop, Mesut Özil, Levan Kobiashvili and many more.
I even got to experience a game at the Veltins-Arena, a league match between Schalke and Alemannia Aachen in January 2007. The game didn't start off as planned, as Aachen scored first. However, that only made the nearly 62,000 Schalke fans become even louder in support of their team, especially the ultra-supportive Nordkurve section of the stadium. Schalke would equalize just minutes later, before going on to win 2-1 off of an Aachen own-goal. It wasn't a perfect game by any means for the first-place team, but it was the most amazing sporting experience of my life.
I have been to numerous games at BYU's Lavell Edwards stadium, where 65,000 fans cheer on the football team. As a lifelong BYU fan, those games were always special for me. What I experienced on that January night in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, however, topped even those experiences.
Schalke would go on to barely lose the title that season, as VfB Stuttgart narrowly surpassed them for first in the final weeks of the season. By the time that happened, I was no longer living in Gelsenkirchen. However, it still hurt just as much, and that's when I realized that I was truly and irrevocably a Schalke fan.
There is a Schalke scarf that hangs above my bed, with the saying "Einmal Schalke - Immer Schalke." "Once Schalke, Always Schalke." And it describes my relationship with the team perfectly.
I have not been back to Germany since 2008, but I follow Schalke just as fervently as the various American sports teams I have been a lifelong fan of.
That's where part of the magic of European football lies—being able to make a diehard fan out of someone who lives thousands of miles away and who fell in love with a team for reasons they can't fully explain or understand.