THE FRAGILITY OF HAPPINESS

Words: Ron Ulrich


FOR 4 MINUTES AND 38 SECONDS, FC SCHALKE WERE THE 2001 GERMAN CHAMPIONS. THEN ANDERSSON STRUCK AND HELL OPENED.


It had to be in this place. The Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen experienced its last act, and it was such a bang as had not been heard in the history of the Bundesliga. The round oval in the Berger Field had seen many crucial games, even relegation to the second league; dramas, scandals and even times “when we sometimes hadn’t the money for washing powder”, as Charly Neumann, the long-standing team official and soul of the club, once said. Times when the paper beer cups filled with rainwater, among the crumbling, never-ending steps, the croaking loudspeakers, and the high-rising floodlight masts. On one block the people wore T-shirts with the label “Nordkurve” as a statement, a wild part of the stadium. Only here could somebody have the idea to bring a trumpet, where the supporters hurled out the battle-cry “Attack!” Among them stood “Zaunkönig” (the Wren), a man with drums, a grey beard and long hair who was also known because of his appearance as “Catweasle” after the TV show. “I always stood there. Beside me children grew up and then stood sometimes with their own children”.


19 May, 2001, 15:25
The last game at the stadium. Schalke had battled with Bayern Munich for the title, three points behind but with a better goal difference. For 43 years the Miners had waited for the title, the inaccessible beauty which could now be realised on the final ball. The tabloids had labelled the week before, the “7 second death”. Schalke topped the table by winning in Stuttgart in the last minute. Seven seconds later Munich scored against Kaiserslautern to seal victory. The beauty had given them the brush-off. Today the Schalke fans nevertheless, hoped for one last dance. The sun beat down, and one didn’t know whether the faces were coloured because of the strain or the heat. On the back straight of the tartan track, a gigantic choreography was prepared by the Schalker fan club, while above an airplane circled with the banner “Thank you Parkstadion”. Officially there were 65,000 spectators in the ground, but whoever believes this number was never there. Every ten seconds, more people climbed the fences to be present. Others had already sat for hours in the construction site behind the arena. At 12 o’clock supply trucks trundled through with the wildly-determined hanging on or jumping on the roof. The dusty coliseum was full and something lay in the air. Manager Rudi Assauer, not wrongfully known as the “last macho of the national league” had become melancholic. He stood in the dugout, a cigar in one hand and with the other wiped tears from his cheeks. Radio reporter Manni Breuckmann sat down for the last time in the place where he had commentated from for so many years. “I felt a relaxed atmosphere”, he remembers. “It didn’t point to the fact that here such drama could still happen”.


A crazy first half ended. Opponents Unterhaching were 0-2 up after 27 minutes. However, two minutes before the break Nico van Kerckhoven fired the ball to the net to shorten the scoreline to 1-2. Only a minute later Gerald Asamoah with his heel made it 2-2. “What was wrong?” the fans asked themselves at the beer-stands. Some started to sing: “Sergei Barbarez! Schalalala!” The Hamburg forward had 21 goals for the season, and Schalker hopes now rested on another from him against Bayern Munich. However, in Hamburg it stood 0-0 at the break. Everything spoke to a title for the Bavarians. The TV station picked up an interview with Rudi Assauer and he was asked: “Do you want to congratulate Karl Heinz Rummenige already on the title?” Assauer answered: “No, anything can still happen in football”.


16:58
If thoughts pour lead in the legs, you want players who don’t think too much. It was the 73rd minute. The Parkstadion was quiet. Unterhaching led led 2-3 and the Championship seemed buried. 18 metres out, Jörg Böhme laid down the ball for a free kick. It was possible there was only one space above the 7-headed wall of Unterhaching. His strike slid beneath the jumping opponents: 3-3. Eighty seconds later, Ebbe Sand played in Böhme again, the one they called “the madman”. He stood alone before Unterhaching’s goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel, seven metres out. Böhme faked a shot, Tremmel went to his knees and Böhme lifted deftly into the far corner. The fans rejoiced and sang, rose on the fences, their chants overlapped. 4-3 up. Today the Parkstadion was not a pitch; it was a factory of emotions.


5-3 came in the 90th minute. Schalke had sealed second place for certain. Ebbe Sand lashed out on the drum of a fan. Emile Mpenza kissed the coat of arms. Now “HSV, HSV, HSV!” resounded through the stadium. Former player Andreas Müller ran around the main stand wearing a Hamburg shirt with the name “Kovac” on the back. He had once exchanged jerseys with the HSV player. “I had such a feeling”, he said, “that something could happen”. His superstition seemed to pay off. Suddenly an announcement filled the air. Something had happened in Hamburg.


17:16 Full Time
People writhed like fish on land. Heads stretched in all directions. Isolated cheering shouts were heard, people shook hands. Those with radios to their ears clamped on the handles, never releasing. A mass of 80,000 spectators surged back and forth, between those who knew something, and those who didn’t believe what spread around the ground. In the north curve somebody stood with a mobile phone in his ear. Fans asked him beseechingly: “What’s going on there?” Then he pressed his lips together, eyes glassy, and almost whispered “1-0 for Hamburg. It’s true”. The whispers became louder second by second, a brush fire in every block, and after a while the cheering of singles condensed to a huge scream. The Parkstadion knew it: Schalke 04 would be the German champions.


When hope turned to certainty, the scene imploded. The fences were pushed, cheering people were rolling down the steps in the south stand. Over and over again, people held themselves with shaky hands to the head. It was a mixture of trance and hysteria. They felt so close to the sun, it was the moment which the Old Greeks called Kairos. Thomas Spiegel, at that time an office employee, remarked: “People had the feeling that the stadium wobbled. It was like a gate to nirvana”. His friend Michael Knicker jumped on him with legs and arms in the air. Knicker remembered a conversation before the game. “I had said this morning to dear God: If we become champions, he can take me”. What sounded flippant, was much too serious now. Knicker had suffered a heart-attack the previous year “I hope God does not keep to the arrangement”, they both now thought. They stared in awe at the television in the press area which showed the game in Hamburg. “I was paralysed”, said Spiegel. “I incessantly stammered like an insane man only three words: Stop the game! Stop the game! Stop the game!” On Kurt Schumacher Street in the Schalker market, a taxi driver screeched to a halt and shouted: “Hamburg leads! Hamburg leads! Hamburg leads!” Here also people pounced on one another, and the traffic stopped.


17:18
In the Parkstadion, trainer Huub Stevens waved an admonishing hand in front of the players’ bench where Nico van Kerckhoven was performing chin-ups. Stevens sent the players to the changing rooms. Some remained on the pitch together with Rudi Assauer, Andreas Müller and board member Jürgen W. Möllemann. Now thousands in the stadium hung on the lips of two men, one sat directly amongst them. “The game in Schalke is over. We wait for release”, said the commentator Manni Breuckmann.


A false alarm surfaced that the Hamburg match had already ended. Over and over again Breuckmann got up to inform the people to calm, waving his arms. “Nevertheless, it brought nothing. Nobody got it. My colleague Mr. Alex Bleick still reported from Hamburg. The play ran and I was the only one in my vicinity who knew it. An absurd situation”. The false alarm had several stages. Shortly after the final whistle in Schalke it emerged for the first time that the game in Hamburg had also finished. Rudi Assauer shouted to Nico van Kerkhovwn: “It is not over yet!” Assauer had become the indicator for all onlookers. Quickly everything calmed down. Then came Assauer’s gesture. He was informed again that play in Hamburg had ended, and he made an uppercut like a boxer. Beside him Jiri Nemec smiled - for the Czech, an unbelievable emotional outburst. The fireworks on the occasion of the last game in the Parkstadion began - however, even the blasting of the rockets was swallowed by the background noise in the stadium. Fans stormed the place, the false alarm had burst and could not be detained any more. Exactly at this moment a flicker appeared on the video screen above the south curve which should have started directly after the final whistle in Gelsenkirchen, but there had been a technical fault. The last minutes from Hamburg were being aired in the stadium.


Many thought it was a replay. This could not stop the insanity. Pitch-side reporter Rolf Fuhrmann congratulated Andreas Müller on the championship, behind them the play ran in Hamburg on the screen. “I do not know how it stands”, said Müller. “It has ended in Hamburg, you are champions”, replied Fuhrmann. Müller was handed an oversized Pils glass. “Every time I have met Fuhrmann afterwards, he has apologised to me. He was very sorry”, Muller would later remark. Parts of the stadium celebrated the title, others looked to the screen, and soon realised that it was not a repeat. “It was as if one watched his own burial”, a fan described it. Goalkeeper Oliver Reck lay under the table in the dressing room where the players watched the last minutes in Hamburg on the television. “Something will still happen”, he said to Andreas Müller. “I know it, oh God”. When captain Tomasz Waldoch wanted to go to the media representatives, Reck held his arm. “Tommy, it is not over yet!”


17:20
From a free-kick inside the box Patrick Andersson thrashes home for the Bavarians to make it 1-1. Bayern were champions. The news went straight to the blood. In the south curve in Gelsenkirchen an old man slumped; “I just wanted to be champions - once”, Rudi Assauer reeled in the direction of the tunnel. On the pitch many fans broke down howling, others lacked the strength to cry. The plug had been pulled on the gigantic concert of elation. A scary silence descended on the stadium. The only sound was the unceasing blasting of the rockets like the orchestra that played on the sinking Titanic. The author Steffen Kopetzky, a Munich supporter, later wrote for Zeit: “As a Bayern fan, I never felt more lonely and desperate than at this moment. Schalke were not German champions anymore”.


17:25
On the pitch, fans were mourning, in the catacombs Ebbe Sand had collapsed into himself. He crouched down on the ground, as bottles and chairs flew through the changing room. “Benches, doors, televisions - nothing remained. Luckily nobody sent us the bill”, said Marco Van Hoogdalem. Youri Mulder laughed without wanting to. “I have spoken sometimes with a cyclist. He says other cyclists laugh when speeding downhill because they are so nervous and have no control of their emotions. That’s just how I felt at this moment”. Jörg Böhme lit himself a cigarette. Rudi Assauer and Huub Stevens tried unsuccessfully to comfort the players. Minutes later in the press conference Assauer remarked. “Do not not tell me any more that footballers are ice-cold.” Then followed his oft-quoted line; “I have lost faith in the god of football”.


“I have never experienced this quick transformation from the highest feeling to this infinite grief”, said Manni Breuckmann as he looked out on the playing field from the press area. Trainer Huub Stevens’ face went hard as he called the team together congratulating them on the achievement of the season and reminding that the following Saturday they still had a title to play for, the German cup final. Then he sent them out to the stand to the fans who remained below on the pitch. One supporter shouted in the silence. It was the most simple call: “Schaaaaaalke!” He repeated before more and more joined in. The team stood as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was played, and Huub Stevens finally lost his fight with tears. Later, around 200 fans were there still mulling around the Parkstadion; they simply couldn’t go home. Rudi Assauer stepped out from his office onto the balcony and delivered a blazing speech. On the Monday morning 15,000 fans showed up to the last training session before the cup final. A few days later Schalke defeated Union Berlin to claim the “Pott”. And in the Schalke section of the Berlin Olympic stadium, a banner read “Everything will be fine”.


EPILOGUE
From that day, the Schalke fans always refer to “19 Mai”. The dream of the championship is forever discussed by supporters on away journeys; their own biographies intersect at this point. Everybody knows how they experienced those four minutes and 38 seconds. Lifetime club stalwart Charly Neumann later said: “I hope the dear God lets me take the championship trophy to our stadium one more time”. In 2007, as Schalke lost the championship to arch-rival Borussia Dortmund, Neumann who was seriously ill, insisted he be taken to the Schalke fans’ section. First quietly, then louder the chant built around the stand. The fans cheered for several minutes “Charly Charly.” Neumann died on November 11 2008, his final prayer still unfulfilled.


Ron Ulrich writes for cult German football magazine 11freunde, where this article was first published.


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